Jewlia Eisenberg's posthumous album is called “The Ginzburg Geography.” (Photo/Robin Hultgren)
Jewlia Eisenberg's posthumous album is called “The Ginzburg Geography.” (Photo/Robin Hultgren)

Jewlia Eisenberg channels anti-fascist Italian lovers on posthumous album

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A year after Jewlia Eisenberg’s death, she’s still on the front lines, mixing it up with the bullies and authoritarians and raising her voice for lovers and liberation. A thrilling new album by her longtime band Charming Hostess, “The Ginzburg Geography,” details the anti-fascist struggles of the titular Italian intellectuals Leone and Natalia Ginzburg by setting the couple’s letters and writings to a gloriously diverse array of musical styles and idioms.

The fact that Eisenberg recorded the vocals in her final months after emerging from a four-week coma and relearning how to walk adds a degree of urgency to a project that she felt compelled to complete.

Slated for release on May 20 on John Zorn’s radical Jewish music label Tzadik, “The Ginzburg Geography” features many of Eisenberg’s closest musical collaborators. They include cellist and vocalist Marika Hughes, who stepped in with guitarist Max Baloian to produce the album after Eisenberg’s death at the age of 50 on March 11, 2021 after a prolonged fight against a rare autoimmune disease. At times her extraordinary voice reveals traces of her travails, but her protean power and expressive range remain mostly intact.

She was so determined to finish the project that she delayed a Hail Mary transplant operation so she could record the primary vocals as the pandemic raged, according to Kugelplex clarinetist Jason Ditzian. “The reality is she was singing these tracks assuming there was a good chance she wouldn’t survive the bone-marrow transplant,” said Ditzian, a member of Charming Hostess for the past 15 years.

“She was very blunt about what she thought was going to happen,” he continued. “Musically, it’s a documentation of something that’s very unique. Her music is extraordinary, of course, but I don’t know many examples of a recording like this. Maybe John Coltrane, on his last few albums. You can’t listen to that music without knowing he didn’t live to see it released.”

On May 20, Eisenberg’s spouse, AnMarie Rodgers, will be hosting a listening party at Berkeley congregation Chochmat HaLev. She will press play on tracks from the new album, along with excerpts recorded live in Brooklyn and at the S.F. performance space Red Poppy Art House. Rodgers said she wants to share “the songs and everything that goes into Jewlia’s music, her research and the sources.” Ditzian, vocalist Cynthia Taylor and percussionist Laura Inserra will also perform.

Intended as a forum to celebrate Eisenberg’s life and music, the event offers the opportunity “for her collaborators and scholars to talk about their experiences working with Jewlia, and to use some of the recorded materials she was workshopping,” Rodgers said. A similar event will also be held on May 22 at Barbès in Brooklyn, and both can be watched via livestream.

Eisenberg was browsing in a San Francisco library, she wrote in the album’s liner notes, when “the font on the spines” of Natalia Ginzburg’s books caught her eye. Delving into the Ginzburgs’ writings, she discovered a fraught story of love and resistance to Mussolini’s fascist government. Married in 1938, Natalia and Leone were exiled by the government to a rural central Italian outpost, where they lived in poverty for three years in the early 1940s.

Leone and Natalia Ginzburg in 1938
Leone and Natalia Ginzburg in 1938

Undaunted, Leone continued to run a publishing house and in 1942 co-founded the clandestine liberal-socialist Action Party. After the Allies invaded Italy in 1943 and Mussolini was deposed, the Ginzburgs and their three children made their way to Rome, which was occupied by the Nazis. She and the kids survived the war, but he was captured and tortured to death by the Germans. A celebrated novelist and essayist, Natalia was elected to represent Rome in parliament as an independent in the years before her death in 1991.

“The Ginzburg Geography” toggles between their points of view, as Eisenberg draws on Natalia’s writing about family life and friendships and Leone’s fight against an increasingly brutal government. Not surprisingly, she borrows from Italian folk songs and anti-fascist anthems (including Woody Guthrie’s “All You Fascists Bound to Lose”). But her musical palette was always expansive, and the album’s influences encompass Balkan grooves and klezmer modes, jazz improvisation and punk rock exhilaration.

“Musically, Jewlia always had a scope that was pretty remarkable,” Hughes said. “She’d quote a Baroque text, a chorale, a jazz standard and some deep punk thing I’d never heard of in the course of a song. The scope you hear, stylistically, the vibration you hear, is very true to who she was.”

In many ways, “The Ginzburg Geography” builds on her fascination with the power of love and friendship in resistance to oppression. She explored a similar dynamic in her 2004 release “Sarajevo Blues,” which was set amidst the breakup of Yugoslavia. And in “The Bowls Project,” she delved into ancient history by setting texts from Babylonian incantation bowls to mesmerizing music.

While Charming Hostess was her primary vehicle for some three decades, Eisenberg contained multitudes. “Jewlia had so many different projects,” Rodgers said. “Every person and idea she touched might spin into a different project. After ‘Bowls,’ she loved the idea of interactive work. [Blues guitarist] Jeremiah Lockwood moved out here and they created ‘Book of J,’ a whole separate body of music.”

“The Ginzburg Geography” is not the only posthumous work of Eisenberg’s that will surface this year. In October, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco will be presenting “Fierce as Death: Queering the Song of Songs,” the next chapter in her Queer Piyutim project commissioned by the Creative Work Fund.

“She’s got all these really cute sketch songs that she was working on, too,” Rodgers said. “I’m really grateful she created so much. She’s a very present person, even after she’s not been here for a year. I feel very much I’m in conversation with her.”

“The Ginzburg Geography” album release and listening party. 7 p.m. Friday, May 20 at Chochmat HaLev, 2215 Prince Street, Berkeley. $10 suggested donation, $18 includes copy of CD. Masks required.

Andrew Gilbert
Andrew Gilbert

Los Angeles native Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelance writer who covers jazz, roots and international music for publications including the Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, San Francisco Classical Voice and Berkeleyside.