Review by Lee Blackstone
Darshan is a project whose intention is to bring Jewish mysticism to the people. At the core of the Darshan project is Basya Schechter, a terrific vocalist and oud player, who has been a part of the downtown New York City 'Jewish Radical Culture' musical scene. Schechter may also be recognizable to listeners from her group, Pharaoh’s Daughter. She is joined in Darshan by MC ePRHYME (Eden Pearlstein), who has been invested in hip-hop for over a decade. In his rap lyrics, MC ePRHYME explores Jewish identity and mysticism.
For Raza (‘secret’ in Aramaic), Darshan is rounded out by several musical guests, such as Tamer Pinarbasi (kanun), Shanir Blumenkranz (bass, oud), and Aaron Johnston (from the Brazilian Girls, on drums and programming). There are other musical additions, such as cello, electric guitar, and human beatboxing – and even the Fire Island Synagogue Choir, where Schechter serves as a cantor. The entire album, however, is crisply produced with plenty of space so that the instrumentation is never cluttered; further, the contemporary beats move Raza into a space where electronica and Middle Eastern sounds seamlessly merge.
Together, Schechter and ePRHYME revisited and reconceived the Kabbalistic lyrics that comprise the Kabbalat Shabbat: the opening portion of prayerful texts for the Friday night service, or “Welcoming the Sabbath.” In Orthodox communities, there are six psalms that comprise most of the Kabbalat Shabbat – one psalm for each day of creation. “L’chah Dodi” is one of the most important, and it translates to “come, my beloved.” The reference here could be to God, or to anyone seeking to celebrate the Sabbath. Most important, though, is the idea of welcoming “the Sabbath Bride” – the divine feminine, or Queen Shabbat. When singing the last verse of “L’chah Dodi,” the congregation turns itself west to the setting sun for the arrival of the Bride. The order of the songs from the Kabbalat Shabbat are moved around on the album, and “L’chah Dodi” is found within the fourth track, “Arrives The Bride.” “Arrives The Bride” is a six-minute exploration of the tune that draws on a heavy gnawa influence and grimy basslines. It’s a stunning version that moves towards ecstatic trance territory by moving from a slow burn, to an intense finish.
On most of the songs, Schechter primarily sings in Hebrew, or intones a choral idea in English. MC ePRHYME raps in response to the mystical texts; in some ways, one could think of MC ePRHYME’s work as hip-hop Talmudic commentary on the prayers. Schechter has a beautiful voice, and when arrayed against the electronics and the acoustic instruments, she just shines. At first, I found ePRHYME’s rapping to be interesting, but that his voice lacked a commanding presence: he’s no deep-voiced Chuck D. However, ePRHYME’s work grew on me, and I found him to be a fine foil to Schechter’s singing – almost like a b-boy davener. His poetry fits the project admirably, bringing to the table spiritual musings that are sometimes profound, sometimes humorous, and always engaged with the profane while wondering what is to come. The snaking “These Are The Journeys,” which spotlights Pinarbasi’s Turkish kanun (from the zither family) playing, is a good example of ePRHYME’s questing lyricism.
"These Are The Journeys"
"Let There Be Light"
"Sing a New Song"
Schechter points out that the songs “have a lot of entry points.” One could dwell on the Hebrew and Aramaic texts of the esoteric poetry; the rapping; or the dance beats. “Animate My Anatomy,” “Let There Be Light,” and “Sing A New Song,” are all exuberant. “Sing A New Song” even incorporates a reggae bounce to Schechter’s tossing off phrases which even find time to include ‘Trump’s toupee.’
Perhaps one of the more adventurous tracks is “Hapax Legomenon,” which refers to a word that occurs only once in a text. The track begins with animal sounds, such as that of a wild goat – an animal mentioned just one time in the Bible. Ashley ‘Asyut’ Moyer provides human beatboxing, and Schechter’s voice coos and plays behind ePRHYME’s rapping. MC ePRHYME concludes with a note of individualistic strength, that “In every single language/I’m a hapax legomenon.”
Raza reveals more secrets with each listen, much as liturgy flowers through participation. It is rare to hear a concept album that is so spiritual and attuned to modern sensibilities, yet also designed to get you both thinking and dancing. Darshan captures the joy of ceremony and community, fulfilling ritual both in minds and on the dance floor. – Lee Blackstone