Pharaoh’s Daughter: Haran
by Matthue Roth
When vocalist/oudist Basya Schechter released her first album as Pharaoh’s Daughter in 2000, she took both sides of the Jewish music world by storm—both the traditional Ashkenazic world, who loved her fresh takes on traditional songs they’d been hearing for centuries, and the less traditional, liberal and world music-loving demographic, who heard her Middle Eastern rhythms, seductively percussion-laced backing tracks, and unorthodox takes on, well, Orthodox songs.
So where does she go from here?
The first song on her new album, “By Way of Haran,” opens with a dreamy, slide-guitar-ish (because it’s probably not actually a slide guitar), world beat (for lack of a better term) soundscape—because it’s more a soundscape than a song. Even the lyrics: instead of verses, the track glides from movement to movement, a sturmmed, gilded introduction; lines sung in indelible, incomprehensible and yet strangely compelling syllables. The song fades into a pastiche of drums and dreamy, spacey guitars, something you’d imagine showing up in a rave in a desert tent thousands of years in the past. A trippy, almost caustically catchy keyboard/accordion/something drifts in, bringing the piece to a totally different place….and, by the track’s end, they’re all swirling together in a massive, laid-back, trip-hop climax.
You can tell she’s just getting started.
“Samai” plays its slow, churning rhythm not on drums but on oud, guitar, and what sounds like other string instruments. Midway, the song fades entirely to a vocal niggun, “ai yai”s and “ba da de dum”s taking off where the unusual percussion drops off. The female harmonies in “Kah Ribon” are similarly back-tempo, slow and drifting. In fact, a lot of this album drifts. But, far from the meandering style of much music made in America and labeled “world,” Schechter reigns her orchestrations in, careful and tight, directing each nuanced instrument and verse with a precise, foreshadowed direction. The mood changes, tempo changes, and instrument changes are always unexpected, never jarring. Like Steve Reich and Dead Can Dance (whose song “Ulysses” owes a lot to “Kah Ribon,” or vice versa, both Scottish- and trip hop-influenced ballads written thousands of years ago and reimagined as stargazing, old-instruments-imitating-technology songs), Pharaoh’s Daughter plays with the past while refusing to close herself off to contemporary influence, resulting in songs that feel both futuristic and primal, etched with the past and wholly, startlingly original.