Though her upbringing was steeped in tradition, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Basya Schechter came to identify with her Jewish heritage by relatively nontraditional means. As soon as she was old enough, the founder of the American Jewish World Music ensemble Pharaoh’s Daughter got far away from the Brooklyn-based Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in which she grew up. Hitchhiking to the far reaches of the Middle East, Africa, Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Kurdistan and Greece, her wanderlust grew her love for each region’s traditional music.
Pharaoh’s Daughter is a blend of the sounds Schechter connected with while traveling abroad, creating a multifarious soundscape which combines American folk, Hasidic chants and Mizrachi and Sephardi folk rock, as well as psychedelic and electronic elements.
Drawing from a couple of folk-leaning albums in English, as well several more avant-garde compilations, the band has played all over the world, from Central Park’s Summer Stage to Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park to London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. The group has released albums on John Zorn’s Tzadik label and consistently draws its members from the ranks of accomplished musicians featured on the New York experimental icon’s many projects.
Avant Arts—a locally run nonprofit founded by noted jack-of-all-trades cultural and arts activist, and longtime Folio Weekly contributor, Keith Marks—is bringing the seven-piece ensemble to the Jacksonville Jewish Center on April 2. An added bonus: Avant, which promotes itself as a “community of adventurous listeners, curious for new sounds,” is presenting Schechter and her band for free.
Folio Weekly spoke with Schechter—who was trapped inside her New York apartment during the late March blizzard that blew through the Northeast—about her upbringing, her eclectic musical tastes and the formation of Pharaoh’s Daughter.
Folio Weekly: Obviously, you grew up in a very multicultural area [Brooklyn]. But was the Ultra Orthodox Jewish community particularly insular? I wonder how your proximity to those two worlds shaped your musical upbringing.
Basya Schechter: The Ultra Orthodox community was quite insular. In that community, they don’t really encourage girls to play instruments or sing. Some learn classical piano, but that’s it. [The religious leaders] aren’t in the business of encouraging young girls to pursue artistic careers. They’re much more interested in promoting the insularity and creating good mothers.
How did you first start exploring your creative side?
When you squash kids’ ambitions like that, they end up rebelling, strongly, in their later years. Nowadays, I think that community has more outlets for encouraging creativity. But when I was growing up, it really backfired on them. I took advantage of opportunities to explore [New York City]. I was just doing my own thing. I found dance classes and acting classes. I didn’t really get interested in music until later.
When did music become your focus?
Although I didn’t learn an instrument until later, I did a lot of singing growing up. We would sing spiritual songs and there was a strong tradition in our community of singing harmonies. I was naturally drawn to harmonies. Singing with other girls and finding harmonies was part of my informal training. Finding your own voice in a sea of voices felt very natural. Also, my father would do a lot of table-drumming during the Sabbath song cycles. He would play weird rhythms and my brothers and I would copy. We got a sense of rhythm and complexity from that. Then when I left to go to college, my brother was playing guitar. I took his chord book and my father’s guitar and just started playing in my dorm. Within two weeks, I was writing songs. It was very singer-songwriter-y stuff—love songs of the forlorn, a lot of angst.
Speaking of your guitar playing—you use a lot of interesting tunings. When did you start experimenting with your guitar sound and how did that transition come about?
While I was trying to teach myself guitar in New York, I was also spending a lot of time out of the country—I went to Israel, spent time in Egypt, Morocco and Turkey. I was getting exposed to different cultures. I started hearing these different sounds and figuring out how these cultures expressed their different traditions through different sounds. I would listen to the Saz, for example, in Turkey, and think, “That’s really cool. I wonder how they’re getting that sound?” So I’d try and tune my guitar to get that same sound. I saw that if you double the strings, and put them in octaves, it gives you that kind of resonant, drone-y sound. So I started experimenting with those sounds and went to different places, learning different Middle Eastern instruments.
Were you intentionally seeking out music in the different places, or was it something on the periphery of your experience that kept drawing you in?
I was definitely drawn to the music. I would hear these different sounds and they would get me, just, very inspired. I’d be in Morocco in the desert, listening to music, and I’d feel so inspired—so connected to nature and so connected to the world. It felt like a part of me. I felt like I was hearing styles of music that were much more connected to my heritage than, say, American music.
Would you say you eventually came kind of full-circle then in your music—embracing your heritage through the songs you were writing?
I had this seismic shift inside of me when I was traveling. I was writing these melodies that were in different time signatures, influenced by different cultures. So when I wanted to write lyrics to my new melodic sensibilities, the singer-songwriter-y stuff didn’t really fit. I started looking to old spiritual and biblical texts that I grew up with. Those texts fit beautifully to the new melodies I was writing. Most of it was in Hebrew, but I also started writing to incorporate Yiddish. There’s a lot of cathartic music in those texts.
How’d you get hooked up with John Zorn?
That’s an interesting story. I gave him my first album, Daddy’s Pockets. He said it was “too pretty.” It’s definitely true that it wasn’t avant-garde enough. A few years later, Anthony Coleman—the avant-garde jazz piano player who produced my album —was living in the same building as Zorn. He gave that album to him. [Zorn] liked it and said he wanted to put it out on his label. Well, it already had a label, so when Knitting Factory [the label on which Out of the Reeds was originally released] went out of business in 2003 or 2004, Zorn said he would take it and put it out on his label. He took my next couple of projects, as well.
Can you talk about this group you’re bringing here? There are some heavy-hitters in Pharaoh’s Daughter.
It’s not like a band of side-musicians. It’s more of a band of stars. Each has his or her own group. They all have their own projects. They’re all stars and they do a lot of soloing during the shows. You’ll see each one being featured at different times in the show.