Even within the insular Jewish community Hassidic Jews are considered isolated. They live in their own communities, have their own schools, and rarely marry outside of the sect. Hassidim is a relatively new sect of Judaism having only come about in the 1700s, and is still only practiced by a minority of the world's Jews.
The Hassidic faith had its beginnings in Eastern Europe during a time of intense persecution and was a reaction against the staid, almost academic nature, of the accepted practice of the time. They created a means of worship emphasizing an emotional base for prayer involving music and song to help express the passion felt by the supplicant.
Basya Schechter, founder of the band Pharaoh's Daughter, grew up in an Hassidic household and community. On the Sabbath night she would join her father and brothers at the table and learn the rhythms that were beat out on the table and songs that accompanied them in worship of the day of rest. Perhaps it was this love of music that gave her the courage to break away from the community and go out into the world.
Judging by the music contained on Pharaoh's Daughter's new CD Haran, she may have left the community physically but she ended up remaining tied to it musically. According to the liner notes of the disc the title is an indication of the types of music represented on the disc. Haran was the name of an ancient city in Western Asia at the head of a caravan route that joined the East and the West while the music on its namesake is a similar type of conjunction.
Even more importantly, as far as Jews and Muslims are concerned, the name has also been used metaphorically as the starting place for Abraham's (Both religions consider Abraham the father of their faith) spiritual journey. Basya says, that for the band, the name is an expression of their own musical journey drawing upon the influence of ancient Eastern and Western cultures while incorporating contemporary sound.
You only need to read the track listing to see that this is not an idle boast when it comes to the drawing upon of both Muslim (east) and Hebrew (west) traditions for this disc. Not only are the song titles give a ways, "Ka Ribon", "Samai", "Lev Tehro", and "Yona" to site a few, but the brief note accompanying each track listing the original composer, the language it is sung in, and its cultural background serve as final confirmation of their heritage.
Of course the real proof comes in the listening. Anybody can claim a heritage and how much a culture influences them, and have impressive liner notes and still produce crap for music. But that's not the case with Pharaoh's Daughter and their disc Haran. The sounds and the rhythms that are created by the combination of musical instruments woven together into a beautiful texture captures what must have been the emotion behind the original song.
Basya's upbringing may have inspired her to search for music of her own heritage, and assisted her in the singing and adapting of songs like "Hashomer", "The one who observes", a 13th century Talmudic text about the rewards of keeping the Sabbath. (The Talmud is the codification of Jewish law). But she would have been equally out of her depth when it came to songs in Ladino (the language spoken by Jews who lived in Spain and Portugal prior to being expelled in the 1400s) ancient Aramaic, and Arabic as the rest of her band mates.
What they have done is take the traditional songs, use instruments appropriate to the culture or the physical region, and incorporated some modern elements into each. From the infectious joy and fun of "By Way Of Haran," the opening song of the disc, one knows this is not only a labour of love, but something they are all taking a great deal of pleasure in.
Taking her lead from the wordless songs of Hassidic schoolgirls, Basya's voice on "By Way Of" emphasises the enthusiasm of the song's tune and rhythm without the restraining influence of lyrics. "Ka Ribbon", the second song, takes her back to her Sabbath table singing songs for the Sabbath, but in Aramaic, the old common tongue of the Jews. But then they bounce across one of the biggest cultural gaps in our world to sing "Samai", an Arabic song complete with accompaniment by instruments appropriate to the music. Both the oud, a Turkish style of Lute and the ney, a Turkish bamboo flute often used in sacred music, are incorporated and performed with the same amount of ease as all the other instruments used on the disc.
Each song is given equal care and presentation and becomes a celebration of not just that song but of life. It is as if Pharaoh's Daughter has followed the Hassidic idea of music being a means of expressing praise for life and creation and expanded upon it. Perhaps thinking of their music in terms of how some of the best Black gospel music sounds will give you the right idea of the spirit behind this music.
Obviously the two styles of music sound nothing alike, but what's important is that you understand the motivation for singing is the same. Maybe Pharaoh's Daughter aren't necessarily singing in praise of God, although only one song on Haran is not specifically religious, but their fervency for the music is such, they might as well be.
Haran by Pharaoh's Daughter is one of those rare discs where the combination of ancient music and traditions have not suffered being carried out of their time and into ours. Perhaps it's because their shepherd Basya Schechter (she did the majority of the adaptations) was raised in an environment where similar music still lives on as it has for centuries. You might be able to take the woman out of the Hassidim, but you can't take the Hassidic out of the woman completely. And for that we should be counting our blessings.
If you want to hear music from the cradle of civilization, the birthplace of Western and Arabic cultures alike, played as you've never heard it before, perhaps as it is meant to be heard today, pick up a copy of Haran by Pharaoh's Daughter. You will be moved like you have rarely been moved by music.