If you were a fan of the Bulgarian ladies (or even that Georgian men's choir with the basso profundis) back in circa 1990, then you'll find yourself in familiar territory on the first couple of tracks of Charming Hostess's album Sarajevo Blues, a pretty recent release in the Tzadik label's Radical Jewish Culture series. There are three women in Charming Hostess, and their harmonies have that Byzantine quality that got me so charged up back then.
But if you think that the traditional-looking costumes on the cover, and the first couple of numbers put you in the "safe world music" realm (i.e., lyrics you don't understand and therefore don't have to think about), you're wrong.
After the first couple of tracks, you're back into and out of English, in songs that take up something of the day-in day-out living during wartime. (Charming Hostess provides translations for those songs not in English, so you have no excuse.) And even though the songs make direct reference to the civil wars and genocide in former Yugoslavia, their implications are more far-reaching than that. These are songs about how the local communist party might interfere in a love affair, about a familiar man blown away by a grenade, about a (presumably western) photographer taking a picture of a woman trying to dodge sniper fire. They are also about race and religion and identity, but without suggesting that a listener take a side. Things can be bad all around.
It's also about here that Charming Hostess mixes those traditional sounding harmonies with a myriad of other sounds, including a much rougher something that comes from punk. Amazing.
(And may I note how much fun it is to have bought this CD in an actual store?)
I can't wait to check out the Charming Hostess Big Band's release Punch, which their website describes this way: "more bodacious babes belt the blues in Bulgarian while a punk-klezmer band rocks out in accompaniment--BUT EVEN BETTER!"
How much better could it get?