Pharaoh's Daughter mixes Jewish world-beat stew

Pharaoh's Daughter


Pharaoh’s Daughter’s Jewish world-beat fusion (Club Helsinki, November 15, 2001)

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., November 16, 2001) – Thursday night was the eve of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and also Rosh Chodesh Kislev, the first night of the new Jewish month. This conjunction of holy days of religions that are seemingly inexorably at odds was an apt background against which to hear the music of Pharaoh’s Daughter, which so seamlessly unites the musical traditions of Jew and Muslim, using the musical vocabulary of both to create a new language which speaks so eloquently and beautifully of their common heritage.

Returning to Club Helsinki almost a year to the day after its first appearance at the nightspot, the group, with a slightly revised lineup, evidenced growth in musical sophistication and focus. Complex polyrhythms percolated with an enhanced snap and pop, sinuous melodies wrapped around themselves with acrobatic finesse, and the six musicians interlocked their grooves with telepathic sizzle.

Basya Schechter remains the group’s leader, gathering and arranging the material for the songs, much of it based on traditional sources, both textually and musically. She is also the lead singer and frontwoman, boasting a deep, soulful voice with an expansive range suited to the demands of the material, which veers from dark, moody, world-beat influenced singer-songwriter folk-rock to Hasidic- and Arabic-influenced chant. The control and dynamism she displays is hypnotic; at another time and place and in another format she might have been the Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick.

But Pharaoh’s Daughter is an ensemble, and Schechter has found a way to balance her delivery of the songs with extensive group interplay. She shared the front of the stage with Israeli native and Boston Conservatory graduate Daphna Mor, who played a variety of wooden flutes and recorders and whose vocal harmonies on “Afilu” suggested a kind of Middle Eastern high, lonesome sound.

Electric guitarist Benoir was a catalog of sounds and styles, dropping chunky bits of reggae-laced chords into one tune and evoking the sound of steel drums on another. Hand percussionist Kemal Arsan brought a panoply of sounds and styles from his background as a Turkish-American growing up in Southeast Asia, and was featured on one number looping progressive layers of percussion into a symphony of color and rhythms.

Israeli native Tomer Tzur peppered his drum rhythms with bits of jazz and the occasional suggestion of jerky, electronic rhythms like drum ‘n’ bass, giving the group’s timeless material a contemporary taste. And Juilliard graduate Noah Hoffeld found a way to make his cello soar plaintively when he wasn’t using it to provide bass lines that propelled the polyrhythms and provided a harmonic anchor to the tunes.

In addition to singing, Schechter handled instrumental chores on guitar and oud. Her song selection balanced familiar and revised arrangements of numbers from the group’s terrific album, “Out of the Reeds” with new material that shows her moving in various directions, including exploring more of the innate grooves she has picked up in her extensive sojourns throughout Northern Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East.

As well, Schechter is experimenting with a diversity of other sounds and forms, including an expanded cultural palette that incorporates Celtic sounds for a Middle East-meets-Jethro Tull effect, and spoken word narratives that recall early works by Patti Smith, including one extended midrash, or retelling, of the Genesis creation story that one could easily imagine Schechter expanding into a full-length performance piece.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 17, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]

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