Basya Schechter’s musical reinterpretations of ancient Jewish texts combining prayers or psalms with old and new melodies and world-beat textures are often considered to be at the cutting edge of contemporary Jewish music.
But as Schechter is quick to point out, she functions within an ancient, longstanding tradition of putting liturgical texts to music, dating all the way back to the Levites in the Jerusalem Temple. “All Jewish music is traditional texts and new music of its time,” said Schechter, who brings her Jewish/world-beat fusion ensemble, Pharaoh’s Daughter, to the Smith Opera House in Geneva on Saturday, March 1. Tickets to Pharaoh’s Daughter are $10 general admission and $7 for students and senior citizens. They are available at the Smith box office, Area Records and Music and the Hobart and William Smith Colleges Bookstore in Geneva and at all branches of the Lyons National Bank. The show starts at 8 p.m., doors open at 7 p.m. The Smith Opera House is located at 82 Seneca Street in Geneva. Call 315-781-LIVE or toll-free 1-866-355-LIVE for details.
The music of Pharaoh’s Daughter is a fusion in which Malian melodies meet Hasidic chant, Indian tabla music dances with klezmer, and West African percussion propels King Solomon’s Song of Songs. It’s a natural fit, taking the Jewish texts back to their Middle Eastern origins, and Schechter is a compelling, insinuating vocalist who navigates the snakelike melodies with the acrobatic lure of a belly dancer.
Pharaoh’s Daughter is also a groove band of sorts, and the sextet of musicians all contribute background vocals as well as tabla, guitar, cello, Arabic oud, Turkish saz, woodwinds and percussion.
Schechter formed Pharaoh’s Daughter in 1995 after returning from a trip to the Middle East and Africa which included Morocco, Turkey, Central Africa, Egypt, Kurdistan and Israel where she spent the proverbial 40 wandering in the desert, soaking up the sounds of the great Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum and learning to play traditional music at the feet of musicians in Morocco and Turkey. While heavily informed by her Jewish background, Schechter’s music also shows the influence of her travels. And her bandmates bring a menu full of world-beat influences to the table, including Indian, Brazilian and Afro-Cuban styles. The New York-based group has built a following in New York, where it performs frequently in clubs including the Knitting Factory, Makor and the Living Room.
Pharaoh’s Daughter’s two recordings, “Daddy’s Pockets” and “Out of the Reeds,” reflect Schechter’s background and experiences. Schechter is unusual in that she comes from an extended family that includes both Ashkenazic, or Eastern European, and Sephardic, or Spanish, descent. Typically the two remain separate, but in Schechter’s case she literally embodies the Ashkenazic/Sephardic duality.
After high school in Brooklyn, Schechter attended yeshiva in Israel for a short time, but returned to New York to study at Barnard College. While at Barnard she began slowly loosening her attachment to the strict observance of Jewish law in which she had been raised. By the time graduation rolled around, Schechter had decided that Orthodoxy was not for her, certainly not if she was going to live the life of a musician.
Schechter didn’t set out to make new Jewish music. Rather, she moved downtown and tried to make her mark as a singer-songwriter, albeit one with a penchant for Oriental minor melodies that probably betrayed her background.
Ironically, it was while struggling to make it on the folk scene writing songs about “emotional, spiritual and relationship problems,” some of which are found on “Daddy’s Pockets,” that Schechter was hired by a religious group to perform. Out of the necessity of having to come up with material for that program, and then in getting a job playing percussion at a synagogue, Schechter found herself embraced by the very community which she had half-heartedly tried to escape.
From Yiddish standards with Middle Eastern arrangements to new melodies of liturgical staples, Pharaoh's Daughter will bring you to your feet with their high energy and spontaneous and spiritual jams.
This concert is part of The Smith’s Wild Women of the World Music Series is supported, in part, by the New York State Council on the Arts, the HWS Office of Intercultural Affairs and by WEOS 89.7.
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