by Rebecca Honig Friedman
“One of the most talented Jewish music makers of her generation,” writes arts critic George Robinson of Basya Shechter, in the Westchester Jewish Week.
It’s no small accolade, what with the bevy of talented young musicians making waves in the contemporary Jewish music scene. Yet, considering the overwhelmingly positive reviews Shechter and her band Pharaoh’s Daughter (PD) have gotten for their latest album, Haran, in publications Jewish and secular alike, it seems a bit of an understatement.
Articles about Schechter inevitably mention her Hasidic upbringing, because that is what makes her exotic. But they just as inevitably go on to mention what makes her truly impressive: her ability to bring together vastly different musical influences and sounds — archaic tongues and contemporary beats, zemirot and psychedelic rock, “the spiritual and the terrestrial” (Boston Phoenix) — and blend them seamlessly, in perfect balance, to create a sound that is “cutting edge … original, raw and sophisticated” (Montreal Gazette), “wild stuff that plays with abandon and is sure to grab your ears” (Midwest Records).
Beyond her compositional prowess and gorgeous vocals, however, there is something about Shechter personally that makes her compelling — “beguiling,” says one reviewer — as PD’s front woman. It’s as if that same ability to hold competing musical influences in balance also applies to the way she holds the competing influences of her fascinating life in balance within herself.
No doubt, finding that balance has not been as easy as she makes it look.
See and hear for yourself what the critics are raving about at one of PD’s many upcoming shows. There are too many to list here in full (Schechter is one busy woman), but some highlights include a paired down (and inexpensive) set this Thursday at Banjo Jim’s, a show at the world’s fanciest mikvah (Mayyim Hayyim) on Sunday, and a performance at the Womens World Music Vocal Series at Flushing Town Hall on April 10th. Buy tickets now for big shows at Joe’s Pub, on April 24th, and at the NYU Skirball Center on May 15th, where PD is performing with Israeli sensation Noa as part of Israel 60 at 60.
Click here for a full list of upcoming performances, and click here to buy Haran.
But before you do, keep reading. Below, Schechter tells Jewess about the teenage rebellion in Israel that first exposed her to boys and rock music, the Jewish community’s lack of support for the arts, and why mushroom crepes make her want to sell out.
JEWESS: Growing up in Boro Park and going to all girls yeshivas, did you have any formal musical training? If not, how did you become such an accomplished musician?
BASYA SHECHTER: I had no formal training growing up in Boro Park, and wasn’t formally interested in music, and even if I was there was no precedent of girls leaning music in school or through lessons, though there were always a few girls who learned classical piano, but I wasn’t one. However, the experience of girls singing together in harmonies was integral to daily life. In school during recess, we would often gather around and just sing Jewish songs for fun, and find unique harmonies and counterhamronies. It was part of our instinct. On shabbos, our family would sing Zmiros, and my father and I harmonized well together. He was also a bit of a songwriter/musician. After my parents’ divorce my father revisited that part of himself and would troubador in the Jewish singles scenes at Y’s and [Jewish] centers. I tagged along as his backup singer, singing in 3rds and 5ths, which somehow helped him with meeting new potential wives.
I was also “head of dance,” at my high school, in charge of choreographing, with my friend Nilii about 5-7 dances a year, on various Jewish themes, that were part of an all girls mega production. We were so successful that my high school gave me a lot of freedom and time off during 3 months of the year to explore and choreograph. I spent hours and days in Lincoln Center Public library listening to scores of instrumental pieces, and new age records. After finding music that would move me, I would imagine full dances on the trains to and from Boro Park. I’d say my early training was in harmony and choosing music that needed to spark my imagination to move. In our choreography we had limits. We were never allowed to use music with words (unless in Hebrew or Yiddish,) and our more suggestive movements were edited out of our choreography.
In terms of playing an instrument, I only picked up the guitar in college. I was obsessed, and it was a way to find relief from the hours in the library. I supplemented my obsession with traveling to countries with cultures and musics that moved me, in Africa, Middle East, Eastern Europe and South America, and picked up basic approaches to local instruments, some melody, harmony, folk songs, rhythm. In everything else I’m not very accomplished.
I’ve read that you discovered rock music on a co-ed teen tour of Israel. How on earth did you convince your ultra-Orthodox parents to send you on a co-ed trip to Israel when you were a teenager?
At the time I went on that trip, my father, who I lived with, was married only a few years to to an amazingly strong woman with (kenayne hara) many children from previous marriages. They were already having more children, and very distracted. I was 15. I had maneuvered myself already into a slightly more modern Yeshiva high school where I learned about the Morasha summer tour. I had told my father that it wasn’t really co-ed. The boys started at the north, and the girls started in the south, we’d meet in Jerusalem for a few days for some excursions, and then trade routes. I don’t think he registered anything I was telling him and I was at that point because of some financial limitation, beginning to pay for my clothing and recreation. I had already worked very hard the previous summer and year, most of it I paid for by myself. I also had a secret wardrdobe for the trip, which my father never saw. He also never saw the pictures I took on the trip with me wearing shorts, and standing in the same frame as boys.
How has it been learning with so many other Jewish women artists at as an arts fellow at Drisha?
I love learning at Drisha. I go every Thursday morning and afternoon. It’s a relief. The rest of my week is full of either writing, composing, doing business, phone calls, internet, or teaching kids.
The first semester we learned the stories of the golden calf and the Luchot [Ten Commandments tablets], in the context of artistry. In the second half we are studying different ways of reading the creation story. Our group of women poets, artisans, writers, jewelry makers, musicians, calligraphists, is multi denominational, multi-generational, multi-level incredibly feminine, deep, sensitive and enlightening.
How much actual text study goes into the writing of your music?
Some of the texts, prayers, and phrases that I write for music are texts that I’ve been reciting or have known since childhood. For other texts, like the Song of Songs work [one of Pharaoh’s Daughter’s new projects], I need a lot of textual study to get inside the words, and the context. Song of Songs still baffles me. Devorah Zlochower, one of the teachers at Drisha, pointed me to a book with a unique reading of it, as one of the only Jewish texts where there is absolutely zero hierarchy between the male and female. They almost feel interchangeable. Song of Songs is metaphor according to the more Orthodox reading, and contemporary love poetry according to others. I find it baffling and fascinating, and when I was challenged to write songs based on it, by Zev Feldman, the curator of “Jewish Love Songs,” last year at the 92nd street Y, I was drawn to it, and angered by it. It’s still a process.
Do you feel supported as an artist by the larger Jewish community?
Many Jewish communal institutions, like synagogues and JCC’s and festivals, warmly embrace the work I do by bringing my band in to perform, and having me teach for smaller programs. New schools and new artist programs ask me to be part of their visions. I am supported by the Artist fellowship at Drisha, which is interested in developing my work. In terms of big Jewish organizations funding individuals, there is very little support. They want to mostly support “organized” Jewish art that mostly undermines Judaism in some way, or that is so loosely connected to Judaism that all that remains are the “cool” threads, so then these organizations can be associated with being hip. They are interested in funding well-written proposals rather than art, or artists who are filthy rich already and don’t need their support. Artists have to be successful outside the Jewish world before they will take notice and ask to support you. They fund things that reflect well on them or that they have a hand in modeling, rather than art and projects that deeply enrich Jewish culture.
Do you see any difference between how male and female artists are treated?
I think there is a difference between how women artists and male artists are treated. I just haven’t figured out how.
Maybe women are seen as artists who will eventually have to take a break to have children and family, or sacrifice that part of themselves entirely to sustain their work, whereas men are rarely seen in that stream.
When you perform for non-Jewish audiences, you do a lot of explaining about your music. Do you think of yourself as an educator, of your music as educational?
Sometimes I frame questions differently to non-Jewish audiences. One of our most non-Jewish audiences was on the Amazonian frontier between Brazil and Colombia on a makeshift stage on a dirt road, an audience of village locals and a band of motorcyclists. We played 5-6 songs, with minimal introductions in Spanish, and just grooved. The audience loved it, they were hanging on the stage, and dancing and moving. … [On stage] I sometimes refer to my musical influences, or tell a little bit about my background. It is a story that everyone can relate to. We all come from somewhere and have gone somewhere else.
I do often see myself as an educator, but I don’t want to be bound by that, and am happy to leave the educator home a lot of the time. I love teaching elements of my music to an audience so that they can participate. It’s one of the things I really enjoy, breaching the gap between stage and audience, and bringing it back to creating a temporary community through song, story and history. Again, though, not all the time.
Are you making Jewish music?
On some level I think it’s up to the listener to to decide. Sometimes I’m making world music, singer-songwriter, instrumental music, and often Jewish music, but it’s not the only thing I do, and I like to see the Jewish music I do write as world/universal.
What does the name Pharoah’s Daughter mean to you?
Basya (originally “bithya) was the name given to Pharaoh’s Daughter (the one who saved Moses) according to the Aramaic Midrash Rabba. It means Daughter of G-d. She was an Egyptian, she was a post-nomenclated Jew, she was a rebel, and a savior. She recognized a G-d beyond the G-d of her father, and fathers. A G-d that gave her a unique spirit. I feel like I have a unique spirit that if I didn’t honor it, I would be transgressing. Maybe there was a way to stay fully in the community while still doing what I do, but I don’t’ think so.
I’m drawn the Middle East, to Judaism. I’m a mixture of all the things that are embedded in my name. It’s interesting to read meaning, create meaning, to envision yourself as a reincarnation in some way and as a new creation.
You mentioned in an NPR interview that you’re involved with communities of people who have left, or are on the fringes of, the ultra-Orthodox world. This phenomenon of the ultra-Orthodox rebel has become a hot topic lately (the book Unchosen and an article in the New York Times about the Chulent group come to mind). Is this a phenomenon that should concern the larger Jewish community?
I think there is something within the cracks between leaving and going somewhere that is incredibly exciting. Personally, I think that out of this journey, and the reverse one, something pretty amazing can emerge. I think the ex-Orthodox, including the ex- yeshivish, Lubavicher, Satmar etc., have the kind of broken experiences that can truly fix things, and a perspective, knowledge of worlds that will create new worlds and words. The hard thing is that the pulse is in this movement … and passing over this energy to others. It’s a kind of critical feeling, thinking, learning that is very important right now. …
I think it should concern the larger community. The Orthodox need to hear why so many are leaving (which I don’t think is such a bad thing) -– they are doing many things right and on many things they miss the point. The secular Jewish world needs to hear this community, cause they have a mystical perspective that can bring the essence and deep feeling of Judaism without the dogma –- I think they can really show its beauty without its distortions and with a knowledge so intricate and complex.
How would you describe your religious observance these days?
I can’t observe in the way I grew up observing. I will never be able to dress the same way, or abandon the perspectives I have been exposed to, or live a proscribed life. It’s not how I was made. The thing about living within boundaries — and gates to boundaries, and rituals, ritual objects and symbols, and mythologies – is that the energy of iconoclasm is addictive, and impossible to break. Conversely, I am always relating to those regulations — in my disregard of them. I love shabbos — I am not prone to resting, but try at times to rest, and do it in my own way. I am so deeply imprinted with Judaism, the history and texts, and the purpose of bettering yourself and the world. I have been mostly struggling for basic survival for most of my life — keeping my head above water and not drowning. I feel like I’ve been coming up for air lately and can keep trying to improve personally. Otherwise I’m a rat in a maze, scrambling and looking for the way in and way out.
I do hope that if I can get beyond that, that I will be able to give something to the world through my music, or through finding what I can do well for others.
Why did you choose “Song of Songs” as the subject for your next project?
I’m drawn to the obscure but seductive words of “Song of Songs,” as a template for an archetypal language of love. But I am not sure that this is the next project, though. I am also working on a prayer project, a project of new music to Heschel’s early poetry, and some other stuff — Biblical women, midrash in music… I am now also in a Montreal café eating mushroom crèpes, and thinking about selling out and doing pop music so I can have a little more security.
Before you do that, last question. If you could create a fantasy band comprised of Jewish women, dead or alive, Biblical or modern, who would be in it and what would they play?
I would have Chava Alberstein sing and play guitar with me, Pharaoh’s Daughter would take over the oud so I could be freed up to perform, Miriam by now would be playing a full drumkit and have looping potential, a Russian/jewish orchestra would do the string arrangements…
*Corrections have been made to this post since its initial posting.
Posted on March 26th, 2008 Filed under: Interviews |