Female voices X 3
Balkan civil wars and romantically frustrated Jewish intellectuals might not seem like promising subjects for an a cappella ensemble, but Charming Hostess is in the business of serving up heady texts set to irresistibly earthy musical textures.
[Listen/Download Mp3s: “Death Is a Job” | “Dame La Mano”]
The brainchild of Jewlia Eisenberg, Charming Hostess has evolved from an art-rock big band into an all-female vocal trio with a dazzlingly diverse palette of influences drawn from the Jewish and African diasporas, with Andalusian cadences and Pygmy polyphony thrown in.
The politically engaged Bay Area group headlines Friday night at Mills College’s annual Rock and a Hard Place concert, taking the stage after the French turntable master eRikm and the combustible duo of veteran guitar explorer (and Mills professor) Fred Frith and Yuka Honda, Cibo Matto multi- instrumentalist and provocateur on the downtown Manhattan music scene. Charming Hostess also holds forth at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley on Sept. 14.
“The root of Charming Hostess is about voices and the different sounds you can get out of the female body: voice, beatboxing, heart beats, hand claps, sex sounds, eating and burping,” says Eisenberg from her home in the Castro. “The music ends up being about how bodies interpret texts, but we’re not just looking to words for meaning. We’re looking for these other ways people relate to each other, through humor or sexuality or spirituality.”
For the Mills concert, Eisenberg will be joined by longtime bandmate Cynthia Taylor and part-timer Jess Ivry. They’ll be focusing on music from the band’s second CD, “Sarajevo Blues,” which was released in late 2004 on John Zorn’s Tzadik label.
Most of the album features Eisenberg’s arrangements of pieces by Bosnia poet Semezdin Mehmedinovic, which dispassionately describe life during the siege of Sarajevo. While that might sound dismal, the music pulses with so much life and soul that it breaks through the claustrophobia and horror.
The group performed the song cycle at Jazz Fest Sarajevo last year and will return to the region in the fall for performances and collaborations with poets and writers from former Yugoslav republics.
“The album is about a poet and his family and friends, and the siege of Sarajevo,” Eisenberg says. “But it’s also about how ordinary people resist war through humor, spirituality and love, about different ways of understanding the news, ways that focus on particular human experience. In other words, this guy, his family, his city, not this general idea of war, but something quite specific.”
Charming Hostess might include songs from the 2001 Tzadik album “Trilectic,” which turned diary entries by Marxist theorist Walter Benjamin and his radical love interest Asja Lacis into a funny and often poignant musical suite.
“You’ve got these two people and their pillow talk consists of ‘What’s wrong with Zionism?’ ” Eisenberg says, “and whether Benjamin should join the Communist Party.”
Friday. Mills College Concert Hall, 5000 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland, 8 p.m., $12, all ages, (510) 430-2296.