Charming Hostess / Sarajevo Blues

the band in bosnian drag?'

Charming Hostess / Sarajevo Blues
Tzadik, TZ7197, 2004


If Zap Mama included Jewish and Balkan musical influences in their repertoire they'd probably sound almost as good as Charming Hostess. But that would just be the sound. Try to imagine Zap Mama's material if their song selection criteria included a desire to match voice to unconventional songtexts to convey poetry and prose to the ear. Sounds intellectual and intimidating, especially when you consider that bandleader Eisenberg's last outing set to music the diaries of Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis. But this, this CD? It swings. The joy of three amazing strong women's voices entwining, weaving ... it's the most wonderful vocal pick-me-up I've heard in ages.

Eisenberg met Sarajevo poet Semezdin Mehmedinovic at a bar in Berkeley. Where else? (Although I, myself, happened to have been in Sarajevo before the war, and then soon after. I met typographers and teachers but no poets. So it goes. But it also means that I see a physical city, before and after the war, as I read the poems.)

Sem's poems about being in Sarajevo during the siege are piercing and personal. Reading them quietly, in the sunlight by our living room window is revealing. Listening to them set to music, set to Bosnian, Jewish, African, American melodies makes them real and personal. It's as thought the band has discovered the ultimate art of typography—the ability to convey words such that one doesn't notice that one is reading—and used music to translate from writing to the ear directly.

The album opens with a couple of traditional Bosnian Jewish songs that are welcome and beautiful. Think of Flory Jagoda (another Sarajevo poet) with three voices weaving in and out with perfect balkan-style harmonies. The CD closes with a couple of covers, unfamiliar to me, but which clearly belong.

The poetry is the main thing. In five minutes, Sem's prose, "The Tunnel" becomes a universe of despair, then meditation in a way that I missed entirely on my own reading of the full piece. It is about the narrow tunnel through which the city was supplied during the siege: "... I was ready to lay down and die right where I was 'till I found a spot that was a little wider, made to put aside the dead, so the living could pass. I just stayed right there, for hours, underground, and thought of Radovan." Similarly, the solo mixing of pure Serbo-Croatian voice (oops, sorry, it's called "Bosnian" now, as though a separate language) alternating with English solo voice on "What will you remember" is sublime and beautiful, accompanied only by spare instrumentation and background hums. In the priginal prose piece, the poet ruminates on memory and harks back and forth to 10 years ago and the movie "BladeRunner. Here, the group takes the last paragraph and captures a moment outside the scope of war, of children sledding: "those who are in love with their sleds and those who just love sledding", and holds on to that memory. "I know that, when everything passes, I'll remember this too...."

My favorite piece, however, is "Death is a Job". It could be on top 10 radio but for it's unsentimental look at a photographer waiting for someone to be shot so that he can sell the photograph to a news journal. Still, the voices just SOAR. Doowop for the nineties in Sarajevo. Even in recording despair and utter helplessness, Charming Hostess find the life in the words and turn them into a defiant celebration. On the other hand, my next favorite is the spoken, short piece, "Open Dialogue" in which they manage to skewer people's expectations and stereotypes of ethnicity and the blue/red states of the former Yugoslavia. It reminds me of Laurie Anderson's piece about Walter Benajamin in its mix of spoken voice and music, and the much to think about embodied by the dialogue. Also of note is the following piece, Adam, by Celia Dropkin, which seems to be Hebrew? (or maybe it's all Serbo-Croatian, some sung with a conspicuous modern Hebrew accent!). The album's concluding song, "Aish Ye K'dish" is definitely Serbo-Croatian with a wonderful mix of harder instrumental accompaniment and singing, all to wonderful Balkan melodies.

This is my favorite album since the first Charming Hostess album, now out of print, Eat. The only thing better than hearing ChoHo on disk is hearing them live. As I type these words, they are singing their way across the country. For those who catch them live, this review will be a pale confirmation of the wonderful, and, like the memory of children sledding on a cold January day, an affirmation of the power of voice to convey word and thought to heal and to sustain. In summary, this is a wonderful album, and possibly unlike any other that you've heard. Buy it. Then bring the band to your town to sing live.

Reviewed by Ari Davidow, 29 Mar 2005.

Personnel this recording:
Jewlia Eisenberg: voice, harmonium
Marika Hughes: voice, cello
Cynthia Taylor: voice

Special Guests:
Wesley Anderson, Juliet Lee: drums
Tim Barsky: beatbox
Devin Hoff: double bass
Carla Kihlstedt: violin
Dan Rathbun: bass
Nils Frykdahl: nylon oud, voice
Ishay Sommer: guitars, electronics
Roy Yarkoni: keyboards
Yoav Klein: bassoons


  1. Viva Orduenya (trad., arr. Jewlia Eisenberg) 4:35
  2. Si veriash la rana (trad., arr. Jewlia Eisenberg) 1:52
  3. War (words: Semezdin Mehmedinovic, trans. Ammiel Alcalay; music: JE) 2:39
  4. The Tunnel (words: Semezdin Mehmedinovic, trans. Ammiel Alcalay; music: JE) 4:55
  5. Imam Bey's Mosque (words: Semezdin Mehmedinovic, trans. Ammiel Alcalay; music: trad., arr. JE) 2:53
  6. Exodus (words: Semezdin Mehmedinovic, trans. Ammiel Alcalay; music: JE) 2:58
  7. Expulsion (words: Semezdin Mehmedinovic, trans. Ammiel Alcalay; music: JE) 0:50
  8. What will you remember (words: Semezdin Mehmedinovic, trans. Ammiel Alcalay; music: trad., arr. JE) 3:54
  9. Grbavica (words: Semezdin Mehmedinovic, trans. Ammiel Alcalay; music: JE) 1:42
  10. Death is a job (words: Semezdin Mehmedinovic, trans. Ammiel Alcalay; music: JE) 3:12
  11. A relatively calm day (words: Semezdin Mehmedinovic, trans. Ammiel Alcalay; music: JE) 2:45
  12. Zenica blues (words: Semezdin Mehmedinovic, trans. Ammiel Alcalay; music: JE) 4:10
  13. Open dialogue (words: Semezdin Mehmedinovic, trans. Ammiel Alcalay; music: JE) 0:44
  14. Adam (words: Celia Dropkin; music: Roy Yarkoni) 3:08
  15. Aish ye k'dish (Sabreen; arr. w/Charming Hostess)) 3:18

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