(photo credit: Courtesy)
With all the fuss over the latest international Jewish cultural initiatives, it's easy to forget that the Semitic identity's journey toward cool started over a decade ago at the Knitting Factory. Founded with money that producer Michael Dorf had saved from his bar mitzva gifts, the Greenwich Village live-music club became the nerve center of a flowering scene that included acts such as John Zorn, Piamenta, the Klezmatics and Pharaoh's Daughter.
When Dorf sold most of his Knitting Factory shares and stepped down from the club's leadership in 2001, many thought it was the end of a renaissance. With hindsight, however, it's clear that this was only the beginning.
Today, Zorn's Tzadik label is a bastion of avant-garde Jewish music, the Klezmatics are Grammy winners, and Pharaoh's Daughter has gone international and will be coming to Israel this week for a series of performances.
The band is the brainchild of Basya Schechter, who grew up in a strict Boro Park home and eventually widened her horizons on a teen tour to Israel, where she met her first boyfriend and first heard Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog." After high school, when a rebellious Schechter was politely asked to leave her Jerusalem seminary, she took off to Egypt, where she was turned on to Middle Eastern sounds. After college, she backpacked across Africa, the Aegean and Kurdistan, ultimately bringing all these influences - from hassidic Sabbath table chants to Arab folk textures to classic psychedelic rock motifs - together under the moniker Pharaoh's Daughter in the mid-Nineties.
With the release of Haran (the fifth Pharaoh's Daughter album) this past summer, the band has been picking up steam. The initial pressing of Haran sold out, and the band performed at Central Park's Summer Stage series, at Lincoln Center, and even at London's prestigious Queen Elizabeth Hall. The mini-tour of Israel caps off an extremely busy December, which included a gig at the Sephardic Music Festival, a shared bill with Y-Love and Shotei Hanevuah spinoff project Pshutei Haam.
Pharaoh's Daughter features an evolving lineup, but aside from Schechter, exotic wind instrumentalist Daphna Mor remains a relative constant. Mor, herself Israeli, is the only official band member joining Schechter here.
"The two of us together create the feminine front energy of the band," explains Schechter, who has arranged a slightly different lineup for each upcoming appearance. "Tel Aviv will be more of a rock band and Jerusalem more unplugged."
While the band has never officially made an appearance in Israel, one can argue that it was born here, from Schechter's formative experiences to subsequent trips that involved Haifa as her travel hub.
For Schechter, to bring Pharaoh's Daughter to Israel is to come full circle. "Strangely, I feel [equally] nervous about playing in your hometown as I would if I had a concert in Boro Park." Ultimately, "I feel my music really combines the elements of being a Diaspora baby," she notes, "which means that you live out of Israelâ€¦ but have a deep historical and spiritual connection to the Land which comes out in everything you do."
On returning to North America, Pharaoh's Daughter already has a busy January booked, with mini-tours of Florida, Texas, the Midwest and Canada - all while developing several new writing projects, composing new melodies to texts from the prayer book, the Yiddish poems of Abraham Joshua Heschel and excerpts from The Song of Songs.
Pharaoh's Daughter performs this Tuesday at Binyamina's Milestone Club, with doors opening at 8 p.m. and tickets available at (04) 638-8760; Wednesday at Tel Aviv's Levontin 7, with doors opening at 8 p.m. and tickets available at (03) 560-5084; and Saturday, January 5, at Jerusalem's Beit Avi Chai, with doors opening at 8:45 p.m. and tickets costing NIS 40/20 available at (02) 621-5900.