July 26, 2010

Diasporic Diva Invokes Ancient-Babylonian Demons

Jewlia Eisenberg and her music ensemble Charming Hostess

Brainy, bombastic, and busty, San Francisco-based Jewlia Eisenberg is a modern-day chanteuse. Her latest musical venture–an immersive sound installation called The Bowls Project–draws upon inscriptions from ancient-Babylonian demon amulets, allowing her to invoke the “apocalyptic intimate.”

A reverent practitioner of iconoclastic Jewry, Jewlia was “grooving the library of a radical Talmudist and Berkeley professor,” where she stumbled upon a published dissertation called A Corpus of Aramaic Incantation Bowls, by Charles Isbell. The incantation bowls–also called prayer bowls or demon amulets–originated in 1,500-year-old Babylon, located in roughly the same region as modern-day Iraq.

Inhabitants of this region sought the services of Aramaic scribes, to whom they dictated prayers that the scribes etched in a spiraling fashion in clay bowls. People ritualistically buried the bowls under their doorways for protection.

Jewlia trained her focus on bowls dictated by Jewish women, as these represented perhaps the only existing record documenting this population. However, the bowls came before the reification of Judaism. Fluid interchangeability marked the spirit worlds of pagans, Zororastrians, proto-Muslims, Jews, and Gnostics. A pantheon of demons and angels comprised everyday ancient-Babylonian existence–spirits were as much a part of life as family, friends, and foes.

“It was clear right away that women were front and center in incantation bowls,” Jewlia says. “The mother’s lineage is listed in the bowl, many of the clients were women with their own particular concerns, and many of the spiritual entities in the bowls were female.”

Their preoccupations related to the home: loyalty from a philandering husband, an illicit sexual partner, renewed health for an ailing child, an evil eye on a gossipy neighbor, and even divorce. (During this time, it wasn’t uncommon for a demon to non-consensually marry a woman, a misfortune that required a formal divorce.)

Jewlia Eisenberg and cohorts inscribed in Aramaic

As much a world-class singer as a scholar, Jewlia transformed her research into a sonic investigation of the domestic and the divine, as recorded in the bowls. Using these texts as the basis for her lyrics, she composed a body of music that she calls The Bowls Project.

She performs the works with her ensemble, Charming Hostess, a group that fuses multilingualism, experimental hard rock, African- and Jewish-diasporic traditions, and folk-American spirituals.

In 2006, as an MIT artist-in-residence, Jewlia forged a collaborative relationship with then-Ph.D. candidate Michael Ramage. Now a professor at Cambridge in Britain, Michael has become a rising star in the world of architecture and design, celebrated for his use of modern-day building materials to reproduce indigenous dome architecture. In 2009, at the International Architecture Festival, Ramage received the prestigious “Best Building of the Year” award for a dome structure (now home to a national-history museum) that he designed and constructed in South Africa.

Mutually inspired by one another’s creative visions, Jewlia and Michael joined brains and brawn to develop what is now The Bowls Project, in its ultimate physical manifestation. A double-vaulted dome.

Working with a team of architects, engineers, city planners, union masons, and countless volunteer laborers, Jewlia and Michael this summer erected a 24-foot-diameter main dome interconnected with a smaller 18-foot-diameter dome in the sculpture garden of San Francisco’s premier cultural center, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

The dome is a mass-scale, inverted, demon-amulet prayer bowl; an immersive, contemplative space in which one discovers ecstatic transcendence; and also–and much more practically–a discrete container for the jubilee of the ancient-Babylonian bowls.

Ancient-Babylonian incantation bowl

Twice-weekly music and performance programming runs through November, not only featuring Jewlia’s The Bowls Project, but also Korean shaman Dohee Lee, Japanese butoh dancer Shinichi Iova-Koga, fairy-punk folk music by Faun Fables, a visit from the city’s own gender-queer Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and even a workshop about the Sacred Orgasm.

In ancient Babylon, they called upon a multi-cultural pantheon of demons and angels. In Jewlia’s own, contemporary way, she is cultivating a similar historic moment, with a feminist-revisionist twist.


You can read more about Jewlia Eisenberg and Charming Hostess here: Read

You can listen to some of her genre-bending tunes here: Listen

You can watch a video-blog series about the construction of the dome here: Watch

You can share your secrets of the apocalyptic intimate here: Share Your Secrets

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