The New Sounds Of ‘Silence’


There’s a lively contradiction at work in Basya Schechter’s music. On the one hand, as the singer-songwriter and leader of Pharaoh’s Daughter says, “I love the pentatonic scales; they’re sweet and mournful and yearning.” On the other hand, as her excellent new album, “Dumiyah” (Magenta), reminds a listener, one of the great strengths of her music is the clarity, poise and above all, the simplicity with which she sings, a vocal sound that is stripped of ornamentation and the fake emotion that mars much contemporary music.

It is a warm day in late summer, and Schechter is sitting in a café in Lincoln Center, nursing an iced drink and pensively considering the new CD, which features a generous helping of, among other things, songs for the Jewish festivals.

It isn’t supposed to be an album married to the ritual calendar despite two Chanukah songs and several musical nods to the Days of Awe and Shabbat. Of course, the elements of Jewish spirituality are always up front in her work.

And the emotions of sacred texts. That’s something else she brings to the fore in those pentatonic scales. “They’re very emotional,” she says. “You feel close to the elements and the emotions.”

For example, “Avrohum,” the third track on the new set, draws from a Malian lullaby Schechter learned from Yacouba Sissoko (who guests on kora), and takes its text from a Talmudic discussion between Sarah and Isaac. You’d expect something a bit detached, cerebral, but the result throbs with the feelings of love and loss that the matriarch feels for her endangered only son.

In one respect, “Dumiyah” (which means “silence”) differs from the four previous albums by Pharaoh’s Daughter. Although the core of musicians are all long-time members of the band, the production by Jamshied Sharifi gives the group a bigger sound, utilizing a four-man horn section and strings.

“The sound takes a lot of its direction from [Jamshied],” Schechter explains. “We weren’t on a deadline, so he created these densely interwoven arrangements. He scores films and he wrote these lush landscapes.”

The result, she adds, was a process of accretion.

“We would let the music sit until it’s finished,” Schechter says. “We would hear it and think that a piece of the necessary sound was missing, so we kept adding. We would keep asking the song, ‘What are we not hearing?’”

One thing that Schechter’s fans haven’t been hearing — yet — is a huge body of unrecorded music that she has written.

“There’s an album of Itzik Manger songs, Bible songs that he wrote, a setting of Shir Ha-Shirim, an album inspired by Rebbe Nachman and one drawn from the Zohar,” she counts them off.

In the end, though, it always comes back to her own strong Jewish identity and “the relationship between a home culture and the outside culture.”

She pauses, then concludes, “I’m showing my own trajectory, all these texts and prayers that I grew up with. All my work is memoir.”