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April 7, 2005

Crossing cultures in song and poetry

Baltimore Sun

Charming Hostess sounds like somebody who might be catering a tea at the Roland Park Woman's Club. But, no, it's a singing group, three women, engaged in what they call "eerie harmony, hot rhythm and radical smarts." They say their genre is "best described as nerdy, sexy, commie, girlie." Charming Hostess appears tonight at Red Emma's, "Baltimore's only combined radical bookstore and fair-trade coffee house," a workers collective that one might say is the polar opposite of a high society tea party.

Charming Hostess is essentially an a cappella trio - sometimes with lots of instruments - that sounds a bit like an eccentric Sweet Honey in the Rock, exploring the frontiers of sound from North Africa to Bulgaria to Bosnia and beyond. They are Jewlia Eisenberg, the founding Hostess, Marika Hughes and Cynthia Taylor. They all live in San Francisco. "We're drawn from the amazing African-American tradition, pop culture traditions, doo-wop, work songs, spirituals," Eisenberg says during a phone interview from San Francisco. "We're also drawn from the Jewish and East European tradition, and also from avant-garde stuff. I mean, our stuff is weird.

"We're big giant fans of Baltimore," she says. The group sang here in August at the True Vine record shop on 36th Street in Hampden. "Like everybody else, we're constantly looking for John Waters." The singers went to the Club Charles to look for him. "We didn't find him," she says. "We think he would really love us." Why? "Because he really likes weird [stuff]," she says. "We're not that weird. But three voluptuous ladies singing Bosnian poetry about nationalism and genocide and war resistance - I think he'd be amused. Many people are, you know."

Charming Hostess' latest recording is Sarajevo Blues, with two Jewish songs from Tunisia and Bulgaria, a Balkan revolutionary tune, an "Open Dialogue" and 12 poems by Bosnian poet Semezdin Mehmedinovic set to music by Eisenberg. Mehmedinovic lives in Alexandria, Va., now, and he may appear with the Hostesses at Red Emma's. He read his poems at their last appearance here. But he's been ill. "It kind of depends on him," Eisenberg says. She met him in a bar in Berkeley, Calif. His translator, Ammiel Alcalay, brought them together. Alcalay is a Bosnian Jew. "He's a very interesting writer about a shared culture between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East." Eisenberg and Mehmedinovic liked each other right away. Mehmedinovic had lived thorough the most intense shelling of Sarajevo during the war in Bosnia in the early 1990s. His poems speak of that time. "I read his poetry," she says. "I thought it was amazing. It really spoke to a lot of issues I was interested in. ... All sorts of big issues - like freedom and fear and nationalism and how artists live in hard times."

The Hostesses sing the songs in Bosnian, as well as English. "Supposedly our Bosnian is OK," Eisenberg says. "Sem says it's all good. He sent her a tape of himself reading the poems in Bosnian. "So I like to think I captured the cadence of [his] voice," she says. "His poetic voice." His poetic voice, she says, is cool and detached. "He was there. But our voices - the women's voices - they're kind of drenched with emotion, sexuality, sensuality, spirituality. It's not at all like the poetic voice. Because of that we sound more like Sarajevo than he does." You've infused it with humanity, so to speak? "I'd say we infused it with femininity," she says.

They haven't been to Sarajevo yet, but they'll sing at the Sarajevo Jazz Festival in the fall. Eisenberg has spent a lot of time in Eastern Europe, finding and learning the music. She wanted to draw on the musical traditions of Sarajevo for the CD. "There's some good ones," she says. "They have a long Sufi tradition there, from Sufi Muslims. It's a big center for Sephardic Jews. And then Franciscan monks. So they have really interesting musical traditions. When I was writing, I tried to keep those things in mind."

And finally, she says, Charming Hostess is by no means an ironic name. "It's mostly that we really want people to feel engaged and welcome when they come to see us sing. We get a lot of refugees that come to the shows as a rule, different kinds of refugees. People are there. They witness, they yell out, they laugh, they make comments, they discuss things. It's a very engaged crowd. We love it. We court it. We want people to feel at home. And they do." Why not? They're charming hostesses.

Posted by acapnews at April 7, 2005 12:36 AM