Writhing sea monsters and demon divorces. Magical amulets and secret sexual desires. Black metal and Blind Willie Johnson. The Bowls Project (Tzadik; CD release July 27, 2010) evokes the cosmopolitanism of ancient Babylon with an eerily contemporary weave of war, sex, and supernatural wonder.
This embrace of sophisticated ideas and visceral sounds comes naturally to Jewlia Eisenberg, composer, vocalist and mistress-mind behind the wryly subversive, musically mischievous group Charming Hostess. Their latest endeavor takes inscriptions from earthenware “demon bowls” once buried beneath Babylonian houses, and transforms them into songs that draw on everything from Iraqi pop to American roots music.
As Eisenberg noticed from the first moment she idly opened a seemingly fusty dissertation filled with translations of these Aramaic texts from the time and place of the Talmud, these bowls speak-and loudly. They tell of demons, angels, and gods from a half dozen ancient cultures, all entwined with the secret passions and household heartbreaks of women living 1,500 years ago.
“I was instantly mesmerized by the voices in these bowls. In the entire Talmud, you never hear women talk about themselves in the “we” form; in demon bowls you hear it all the time. I chose to set Jewish bowls, but the form is cosmopolitan and deeply porous-a Jewish bowl might define the Divine as a Bird of Rivers, call out to Dlibat, the Babylonian goddess of love, or cast a spell from a sea monster. Demon bowls contain the greatest supernatural powers right next to small domestic scenes; normal household concerns interact with fiery angels and demons,” Eisenberg recounts. “If you read one bowl text, you see this dynamic; the apocalyptic intimate. You don’t have to be a scholar or read Aramaic.”
Over four years, Eisenberg began putting these texts to music, building on her fascination with the sounds of the female body-breaths, claps, sighs, stomps, and silence. With her fellow members of Charming Hostess, she incorporated elements from the drive and clamor of black metal (the martial exorcism of “Bound and Turned Aside”) to American roots music (“Hangman”) and the devotional songs embraced by Babylonian (Iraqi) Jews (“Yedidi”).
Yet the touchstone remains the bowls. They record a world full of supernatural activity, haunting even the most ho-hum daily grind. Disguised demons afflicted families, and might even trick the unwary into marriage, forcing their unwitting spouses to seek divorces. The Leviathan shakes the earth. Angels march with swords, blocking gossipy neighbors and insuring sexual arousal.
“Demons and angels may seem remote to many of us, but in the world of the bowls, they were experienced as frequent house-guests with supernatural powers. They had rights, too, as members of the community,” notes Eisenberg. “You could try to appease them, cajole them, or bully them with bowl incantations, but whatever you do, they are around, participating in everyday life. This is very clear in the bowls, and in the traditional music I chose for the album.”
The thought of spirits swarming through the home may sound frightening, but their presence can also bring protection, as Eisenberg suggests in her haunting and unexpected transformation of the American religious song “Dying Bed (Khevra Kadisha).” With a nod to both Blind Willie Johnson and the Jewish rituals of keeping watch over the dead, Eisenberg invokes the intimate connection and peace that flows from encounters with forces beyond.
The bowl texts-written down at women’s request by professional scribes-are filled with hybrid deities and syncretic spells, spiraled incantations for health, fidelity, protection, and love.
Christians and Zoroastrians, Animists and Jews all shared gods, demons, and images as they recorded the secrets of their households-and then hid them, silently, in the earth, to protect their homes.
These women’s voices were forgotten as other texts and teachings from the time moved from the margins to the center. “The great canon of Jewish law, the Babylonian Talmud, is from the same era as these demon bowls,” Eisenberg comments, “The Talmud became the shape of post-exilic Judaism. But at the time of its compilation in 200-600 CE, the bowls were the mainstream and the rabbis were at the fringe!”
This absorption of female power into male authority is stated explicitly in some of the texts themselves. “‘Smamit‘”, Eisenberg explains, “tells how three angels became empowered to protect babies in crib and women in labor. The story unfolds on the body of a woman with her own supernatural powers, which she loses along with her children, but these angels get the power. You rarely get to see the move away from female magic explored so deeply.”
Eisenberg began to break the silence, as war raged in Iraq and a new crop of these artifacts turned up on the world market, due to looting, shelling, and theft. The bowls provided an unexpected entry, a chance for connection not only to women living millennia ago, but also to contemporary Iraqis and the ordinary lives of people often lost behind the civilizational myth of Sumer or the tortures of Falujah.
Eisenberg’s arrangements honor the often broken and fragmented nature of the bowls and their voices. Many of the bowls were found in pieces. And to confuse demons, the incantations would often include unpronounceable names or repeated letters. Eisenberg felt the unpronounceability had to stay: “Some of the text will just have a letter over and over again, a kind of a hissing sound to block a demon. Or it will have the letter ‘H’, a name for the Divine. I wanted to take the text and play with the parts that can’t be pronounced and the fragments,” as she does in “Malakha.”
The heart of the Bowls Project is connection, with a past, with people distant and different, and with a deep aspect of our shared experience. “These bowls are so personal that you can’t not relate to them,” Eisenberg muses. “They are similar to our own experience even though they are phrased in their own apocalyptic intimate way. And if you can relate to woman living 1,500 years ago in what’s today Iraq, you can relate to someone living there now. That’s really central.”
The Bowls Project CD release party will be held July 18 at Yerba Buena Cultural Center for the Arts in San Francisco, as part of programming for The Bowls Project: Secrets of the Apocalyptic Intimate, July 6-August 22.
This interactive sound sculpture/immersive performance installation is an international collaboration created by Jewlia Eisenberg and Charming Hostess with celebrated architect Michael Ramage and videographer Shezad Dawood. Performances will take place within a stunning masterwork of ancient-meets-modern design: a soaring double vaulted dome. The dome is a place to share a secret and listen to the anonymous secrets of others, listen to live music on Thursdays, participate in rituals on Fridays, encounter embodied text on Sundays, and dig on the apocalyptic intimate whenever Yerba Buena Cultural Center is open.
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