Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Interview: Basya Shechter, Pharaoh’s Daughter/ Musical-Genius

Pharaoh's Daughter Live at Joe's Pub 11/29/06 Ladino

“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 that first exposed her to boys and rock music, her feelings of betrayal at first singing the Israeli national anthem, 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. Even if I were, there was no precedent of girls learning music in school or through lessons. Though there were always a few girls who learned classical piano, I wasn’t one. But the experience of 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 counter-harmonies. It was part of our instinct.
On Shabbos, our family would sing zmiros, and my father and I harmonized well. My father was also a bit of a songwriter/musician, which came out for a while after my parents’ divorce, and he would troubador in the Jewish singles scenes at Y’s and [Jewish] centers. I tagged along as the backup singer, singing in 3rds and 5ths.
I was also “head of dance,” at my high school, in charge of choreographing, with my friend Nilli about 5-7 dances a year, on various Jewish themes, as 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, buying New Age records, imagining full dances on the trains to and from Boro Park.
I only picked up the guitar in college, but for the first few years, I was truly obsessed, playing little songs I would write for about 4-7 hours a day. I’m pretty self-taught, and only play what’s natural to me. I supplemented my obsession by traveling to countries with cultures and music that moved me — Africa, the 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 the co-ed trip, my father had been newly remarried to an amazingly strong woman, with 8 children from their previous marriages (we moved into her house), plus my two brothers on alternate weekends. They were already having more children, and very distracted. I was 15. Before high school, when I lived alone with my father, I was left alone most of the time, and had enormous amounts of free time to imagine and follow through on crazy ideas. I found jazz dance classes and acting classes on Church and Flatbush Avenues, and was taking a bus by myself for 45 minutes each way, reading signs posted on their walls about the High School of Performing Arts, and crying to my father how much I wanted to go there. He was insistent on Sarah Shnirer, another Bais Yaakov-style high school. We compromised on Shulamis, an all girls school, with half of the girls from very “Bais Yaakov” type families, and half from more modern families. They pronounced “suf” as “tuf,” and were Zionist where my previous schools were anti-Zionist. I had never heard the Israeli national anthem, and I felt betrayal singing it in the beginning. Some girls wore pants outside of school and went to co-ed camps.
It was there that I learned about the Morasha summer tour. I had told my father that it wasn’t really co-ed. 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 own clothing and activities. I had a secret wardrobe 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 come crawling to you. They fund things that will give them clout, rather than 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. 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.

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 a later Aramaic Midrash. It means Daughter of G-d. She was an Egyptian, she was a 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 to 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. I think, personally that something pretty amazing is going to come out of this journey. I think the ex-Orthodox, including the ex-yeshivish, Lubavitcher, Satmar, etc., have the kind of broken experiences that can truly fix things, and a perspective and knowledge of different worlds that will create new worlds and words. The hard thing is that the pulse is in this movement. 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 (they are doing many things right but in many things they miss the point). The secular Jewish world needs to hear this community, because they have a mystical perspective that can bring the spiritual essence and deep feeling of Judaism without the dogma – I think they can really show Judaism’s 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?
Hard question. Batsheva would play tablas; I would play oud and sing; Miriam would be the turntables and drum machines, looping and weaving in her tambourine at times, of course; Yael would play the drones, Tamboborahs, shrooti boxes; I would have a Russian Israeli string orchestra; and I would see if Omou Sangare was on a conversion path and have her sing with me.

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