Yes, there is a cutting edge in Jewish liturgical music, and her name is Basya Schechter. A free spirit who grew up in the Orthodox community of Brooklyn's legendary Boro Park, where elders with conservative religious views constantly monitored how freely one moved or dressed, Schechter was first drawn not to rock and roll or folk music or jazz. "I grew up on real Jewish music," she says. "That's what I liked as a kid. My music comes out of that melodic structure and sentimentality. There's a foundation of melancholy in Jewish music, a wistfulness."
Much later, after years of hitchhiking through Africa and the Middle East, bombarded by the mingling of dozens of ancient rhythms and instruments and amalgams thereof, Schechter devised a fusion of her own: a unique combination of singer-songwriter lyrics, classic Jewish melodies and themes and worldbeat that, well, positively jams. Together with her band, Pharaoh's Daughter, an eclectic ensemble blending guitar, cello, flute and reeds, percussion and vocals, she'll perform Thursday at the Jewish Community Center in conjunction with the center's summer Jewish-music series.
"In the beginning, we put all these stupid titles together to describe the band -- Middle-Eastern singer-songwriter, Jewish ethno-something, you know?" Schechter says. But now she's easier about describing the music: "As someone who's traveled all over the world, I can't help but allow what I've been exposed to to sift through me in a clear synthesis."
Apply unusual instrumentation and a large pinch of creativity, and you begin to get the picture. "I guess it's odd to have so many different instruments. It doesn't make sense, but it sounds cool," Schechter adds. "The people in my band all have a deep relationship with whatever genre they know. They're all very creative. They don't just play changes -- everyone approaches each song's arrangement like a fabric or a puzzle to which they contribute pieces." Drawing from a deep melting pot -- Schechter's bandmates range from a flutist she found busking in a train station to an Israeli drummer -- her freely woven music is ultimately shot through with the intrinsic Jewishness at its foundation.
Schechter, too, is still intrinsically Jewish, though she's admittedly "left the fold." She's not specific about a time and place, but she picked up the guitar in college, and that could be where her rift with orthodoxy began. "I had an inherent nature that was very wild," she recalls. "My nature wanted to do things I couldn't do. I wanted to hitchhike around the world. I wanted to dance and sing and write, to do all those things that had limits placed on them." So, over time, she drifted away. "It kind of clicks in your head when you actually had your first cheeseburger," Schechter notes. Now she observes in her own personal way: "I like to explore Judaism. For me, it's about tolerance. It's nice that Judaism has so many different ways for people of different outlooks to find some sort of thread or connection."
Has Schechter been pigeonholed by her religious background? It's almost inevitable, but she's not willing to hang comfortably in that niche. After two or three years of answering questions about it in every interview, she's ready to move on to new queries. "I'd like to have my material written about, not only in Jewish papers. It would be nice to have some more recognition in some of the acoustic magazines." And in that respect, she's forging ahead: A recent mini-tour in England landed the band a promising date at a community center. "It was one of our first gigs in a secular community. There were almost no Jews in the audience at all, and they loved us," she says. "It was our best gig ever."