New York City, USA – Tzadik announced recently the release of Sarajevo Blues (Tzadik), from “vocal rebels
Jewlia Eisenberg and Charming Hostess. It draws on Bosnian poetry to tell a story
of love and resistance, the nature of evil, and laughter by any means necessary.
A tour de force of vocal brains and brawn, Sarajevo Blues updates the sexy,
soulful sounds of 60s girl groups with the adventurous energy of the avant-garde
and the rhythmic propulsion of hip-hop beatbox. Self-described as a
“Nerdy-Sexy-Commie-Girlie band,” Bosnian National Radio has taken to calling
Charming Hostess, “The Sarajevo Supremes.”Composer/singer Eisenberg explains: “Charming Hostess pushes vocal boundaries
to tell complex stories in a visceral way. We use every aspect of the human body
to get sound: Voices and vocal percussion, hand claps and heart beats,
sex-breath and silence. I love writing for voices, because they provide the
entire palette of the human experience.”
Working with text by Bosnian poet Sem Mehmedinovic, Sarajevo Blues explores day
to day life under siege, slipping between humor and horror. Some songs speak
explicitly of war, and others of the joys of long underwear, café culture, and
underground sexuality. Along the way, Blues touches on nationalism, genocide,
freedom, and the life of an artist in times of constraint.
“When you describe Sarajevo Blues it sounds heavy, but the poems contain the
ups and downs of everyday life—sometimes, ironically, within the same moment.
There’s emotional intensity hand-in-hand with dark humor, erotic action playing
off politics, fear mixed with glee. It’s an exciting challenge to express a
skein of feelings,” Eisenberg notes.
The song “Death is a Job” rises to that challenge, juxtaposing doo-wop
jauntiness and choreography with what it feels like to confront a war
photographer waiting for a worthwhile shot. “War” is actually a love song, about
a birthday celebration with a single coffee bean, surrounded by flies in a
bombed-out apartment. “Grbavica” sings of the shelling of Sarajevo from the
graveyards above the city, from the perspective of a child picking violets from
the same cemetery.
As for why she chose to set the journalistic poetry of Sarajevo Blues, Eisenberg
says: “I wanted to explore three questions: Is an understanding of historical
parallels useful for changing the present and future? Is it possible, or even
desirable, to create emotional connections to brutal events that most Americans
will never experience? Can creating connections make change?”
San Francisco’s art-diva sweethearts, the ladies of Charming Hostess sing with a
pan-Diaspora sensibility, inspired by doo-wop, Pygmy counterpoint, Torah
chanting, Balkan harmony and Sufi melody. Concerts sometimes feel like intimate
revivals–people laugh, cry and witness, even faint. Perhaps it is the music’s
empathy that explains the diverse crowds, peppered with refugees from around the
world. They come for the snappy, soulful sound that celebrates survival and joy
in dark times.
The story of the Sarajevo Supremes begins in Brooklyn. Eisenberg grew up in a
Black and Jewish commune in East New York, where her large set of parents were
labor and community organizers. Her upbringing continues to inform her work
today, as she comments: “My folks exposed me to what they called ‘people’s
music’ from around the world, especially from African and Jewish sources. It was
a musical culture– I was expected to lead songs on picket lines,
demonstrations, and meetings, to teach and preach. A lot of my preoccupation
with Diaspora consciousness and multiple voices in dialogue comes from my
oddball childhood. If you don’t mind hard-core Marxist indoctrination, it’s a
really nice way to grow up.”
Though leaving New York for San Francisco in a break from her own communist
regime, Eisenberg maintained her interest in “people’s music” by heading to
Eastern Europe to document women’s folk music in Bulgaria and Romania. “That’s
when I realized I didn’t want to be an ethnomusicologist; I wanted to be a rock
star,” she says. Upon her return to the States, Eisenberg founded Charming
Hostess, she says, “to make lovely noise, play with text, articulate ideas,
and explore the emotional, erotic, and spiritual terrains that the voice can
Sarajevo Blues is Eisenberg and Charming Hostess’s second album on Tzadik.
Her critically acclaimed first album, Trilectic, explored the
political/erotic world of philosopher Walter Benjamin with wit and sensuality.
Charming Hostess has performed live with such luminaries as David Krakauer and
Fred Frith and has graced the stage internationally from Lillith Fair to
Sarajevo Blues now].