Pharaoh’s Daughter brings ancient texts to life with music

 Photo by Di Guo ’21  Jewish folk music group Pharoah’s Daughter performs their versions traditional religious texts in the McCulloch Auditorium on Feb. 9, 2018.

Photo by Di Guo ’21

Jewish folk music group Pharoah’s Daughter performs their versions traditional religious texts in the McCulloch Auditorium on Feb. 9, 2018.

BY EMMA MARTIN ’20

Mara Benjamin, professor and chair of the Jewish studies department, could be seen warmly greeting the steady stream of guests filing in to see Jewish folk music group, Pharaoh’s Daughter, on Friday evening in the McCulloch Auditorium. The space was packed as the group played music that incorporated sounds and languages from around the globe with percussion, flute, strings and electronica.  

Benjamin was instrumental in bringing Pharaoh’s Daughter to Mount Holyoke and welcomed the group onstage. The focus of the night’s performance was the “Song of Songs,” which Benjamin described as an “ancient collection of erotic poems” that has “inspired lovers throughout the ages, but, even more so, has been understood within both Jewish and Christian traditions as an expression of the relationship between the human soul and the divine, or between God and the beloved and the community.”

According to the group’s website, lead vocalist and oud player Basya Schechter has a background in Hasidic music. She leads the band through swirling, spiritual Hasidic chants and lively Mizrachi and Sephardi folk-rock. 

Throughout the evening, the theme of love and desire were explored in each song. The program offered translations to lyrical, romantic metaphors such as “My beloved is like a gazelle” and “My destined one is beautiful, my love is beautiful.” Schechter crooned in Hebrew, “Come with me my love, come away” in the springtime song “Kumi Lach” and called to the north wind in “Oori,” asking that it “Blow upon my garden, That its perfume may spread.” But even without an understanding of the words, one could enjoy and experience their meaning through the stirring rhythms created by a spread of ancient and modern instruments. Audience members were invited by Schechter to sing, dance and even kiss each other in the spirit of love to match the love between she and her six other band members. The audience responded instantly with tapping feet, bobbing heads and eventually rising to their feet during the final song to dance in the aisles. 

“I wanted to bring Pharaoh’s Daughter’s music, which is as luscious as the words of this text, to an audience that is interested in and sensitive to the complex workings of bodies, of gender, of eros,” Benjamin said. “I thought this project in particular — music influenced by global traditions, with words sung in Hebrew, Arabic, French, Spanish, Yiddish and English — would reach people across every kind of social divide,” said Benjamin.  “I think the concert did that, while also showing the guiding vision for Mount Holyoke’s program in Jewish studies: to explore the riches of Jewish history, culture and traditions in all their diversity and creativity.” 

During an upbeat ballad between a shepherd and shepherdess, Schechter invited Five College visiting Arabic instructor, Syonara Tomoum, to the stage. Schechter and Tomoum sang the flirtatious duet in Hebrew and Arabic. This guest performance reflected the importance of the groups’ international heritage. Schechter introduced the six other talented musicians onstage, all hailing from diverse places such as Japan, Israel, Switzerland and France. The group met in New York and has been playing together for 15 years, their collective energy and ease onstage reflecting their friendship.

Religion and gender studies double major Sara Therrien ’18 worked the event and enjoyed the performance. She expressed her delight that so many community members and students had attended. “[Tonight showed] that religion is not just some backwards kind of thing, something that happens to other people, but that religion can be a really big part of people’s MHC experiences,” she said. Therrien added that the performance “showed that religion, and especially something as old as the Song of Songs, can be incorporated using modern music and modern music techniques and can still resonate for people today.”

Mollie Grubman ’20 attended the concert for her Intro to Judaism class. “I am not going to lie, I wasn’t really looking forward to the concert because it was required and on a weekend and I thought there were things I would rather be doing,” said Grubman. “However, the concert was incredibly magical. For class we read the Song of Songs and Pharaoh’s Daughter really brought the text to life.” 

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