Wrapped in Politics

Allow Charming Hostess to welcome you to their nerdy sexy commie girly music

Straight outta Oakland, the three brainy, sexy and musically adventurous women who comprise the band Charming Hostess want us to feel welcome in their universe. Chilling harmonies, sensual rhythms and radical politics orbit the group's center, which emanates from the human voice and the rhythms inherent of the body: vocal beat-box percussion, handclaps, heartbeats, contraction and release, breath and silence.

On Sarajevo Blues, the group's latest album, these artists draw from the music and culture of the Jewish and African diasporas, incorporating doo-wop, pygmy vocals, hip-hop, Balkan harmonies, soul, folk-rock, '60s girl groups and Sufi melodies.

The Wire, a British magazine about avant-garde music, places Charming Hostess somewhere between Meredith Monk and Sweet Honey in the Rock on the musical continuum. The band's members define their sounds as "nerdy sexy commie girly" music.

The group will introduce Tucson audiences to its music on Tuesday, March 15, at Solar Culture Gallery. The group will share a bill with the bands Erase Errata, Two Ton Boa and The Starvations.

Bandleader and composer Jewlia Eisenberg grew up in the state of New York, listening to music from all over the world.

"My parents are communists, and they thought that was one of the ways to learn more about the world. And we lived in a commune that was for black and Jewish people, with a lot of different kinds of music being played. It's spoken to me my whole life," she said last weekend on the phone from Oakland, her home for the last 12 years.

Politics, global and personal, as well as a sense of artistic context, are important aspects in the music of Charming Hostess, the other members of which are Marika Hughes and Cynthia Taylor.

Sarajevo Blues is based on the writing of Bosnian poet Semezdin Mehmedinovic, whom Eisenberg met in a Bay Area bar. His moving poems and stories--which Eisenberg sets to music--focus on the gray area where world news and personal lives intersect.

Topics that bridge the realms of the heart and head, intellectual and instinctual, mark the work of Charming Hostess. For instance, Eisenberg said, the next album will take its subject matter either from sixth-century, pre-Islamic Babylonian texts or the work of 20th-century Italian poet Natalia Ginzburg.

"Well, whatever it is, everything really gets wrapped in the music. It's really important to me to be able to explore everything about radical Jewish culture and diaspora, both black and Jewish, that all gets wrapped up in the music. And, of course, anything to do with the process of reading and interpreting texts, especially interactive texts, interests me."

She continued: "I think it's valid to explore the different ways that communication is possible within the constraints of different cultures and the differences between literature and music."

Eisenberg chose to use texts by Mehmedinovic that juxtapose the mundane with the extreme realities of living in a war zone.

In the song "Death Is a Job," the protagonist sings, "I'm running across an intersection to avoid the bullet of a sniper from the hill when I walk straight into some photographers: they're doing their job, in deep cover. If a bullet hit me they'd get a shot worth so much more than my life that I'm not even sure whom to hate: the Chetnik sniper or these monkeys with Nikons."

Sarajevo Blues--which was released as part of the Radical Jewish Culture series on John Zorn's Tzadik Records--deals in part with the ways in which "news" of such events as genocide, fascism, refugees and concentration camps is distinguished from actual human experience.

"Aside from being aware, what are you going to do with it?" asked Eisenberg. She also spoke of the value of shared responsibility that accompanies the process of learning. "Witnessing is very important, but so is being part of something you didn't actually witness."

The latest album by Charming Hostess features extensive liner notes by Eisenberg, which she considers essential to an audience's appreciation of the work. "Liner notes are very important, I think, so that you might understand the context of this record, what with it being inspired by Sem's book and his poetry."

Indeed, the notes help elucidate for listeners the intellectual space from which Eisenberg's music comes.

She writes: "We all know that simply watching news is not doing anything about what you see. We want to know what's going on, but human experience in a place where 'news' is happening is reduced to the most sensationalistic elements --pain, terror, despair. Watching or even reading the news, one can become complicit in a kind of war--profiteering --the experience of suffering people is appropriated and used to sell cars. Orphans and refugees become icons, divorced from the people they represent, metaphors for other things. Tied to the marketing of misery is the problem of how real loss and horror is co-opted by various ideologies to make people frightened and malleable. My thinking about this became especially acute after Sept. 11."

The recording engineer on Sarajevo Blues was Dan Rathbun, bassist for the band Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, which played Solar Culture last month. He and Sleepytime partners Carla Kihlstedt and Nils Frykdahl appear on the album and play in an expanded version of the band from time to time.

The core trio, though, is the one that will head through Tucson this week, on their way to a gig at the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, Texas.

Although Sarajevo Blues features a few tunes with stringed instruments, keyboards and electronics, the bulk of Charming Hostess' repertoire is derived from the human voice and body.

"Most of our material is really simple percussion and vocal percussion. That's how it is on the records, so there won't be that many different arrangements."