Monday, March 14, 2022

On the first yortsayt of Jewlia Eisenberg, a reflection on Sarajevo Blues

We’re coming up on the 30thanniversary of the opening of the Bosnian war, which began, more or less, at the beginning of April 1992, and ended three years later, with heavy intervention from NATO forces.  

Despite an estimated 100,000 casualties (though that number could be much higher), the war seems to have faded from public memory. Last week, during a visit to the Ukrainian Cultural Centre in London, Prince William appeared to give voice to this perception. During his public remarks at the event, the Duke of Cambridge observed that “it’s very alien to see this in Europe…”  The “this” presumably being war, now being waged with genocidal fervor by Vladimir Putin against the people of Ukraine. 


Prince William was ten years old --not to mention a European monarch in waiting-- when the Bosnian war began. That he apparently has no historical consciousness of what has been called the most devastating conflict in Europe since the end of World War II," and which happened in his living memory, made him the rightful target of media criticism.

In addition to the human casualties, the Bosnian war was marked by systematic rape, ethnic cleansing, and the resulting displacement of 2.2 million people. And yet, as William’s remarks show, those of us not directly touched by it have mostly allowed it to slip from memory. Certainly, World War Two is far further from us in time, and yet remains much, much more present in public memory.


Today, accessibility of digital video and ubiquity of social media combine to make the war in Ukraine uniquely consumable in all its angles, across every platform. Even if there is (god willing) a quick and peaceful resolution, it’s unlikely that Putin’s war against Ukraine could be forgotten in the same way as the Bosnian war. Think about the little girl singing “Let it Go” from a bomb shelter or the plucky babushka downing a Russian drone with a jar of pickled tomatoes. They have both become characters in the global war discourse- images easily adaptable to hopeful Facebook posts and late-night comedy monologues; eagerly consumed by a pandemic-weary world looking for distraction.


And it’s true, the emergence of such wartime “characters” has been a powerful way to elicit material support for those under siege. But our attention comes at a steep cost: their human peril reframed as our entertainment. And as important as it is to rally global support for Ukraine’s government in its fight against Russian aggression, it feels almost impossible to do so without also turning the war into just another piece of content, a kind of spectator sport, with attention grabbing characters, and clearly delineated teams to cheer (or boo) from the safety of thousands of miles of distance. 


It seems to me that the ethical implications of our present-day war-media synergy have gone mostly uninterrogated. Perhaps it is too soon to reflect productively on events still unfolding. But that doesn’t mean no one is speaking to our current moment. Since the war began, my thoughts have turned again and again to my friend, the forever unclassifiable Jewlia Eisenberg. From the “forgotten” Bosnian war to Ukraine, her 2004 album Sarajevo Blues feels more relevant than ever.   

March 11 was Jewlia’s first yortsayt. You can read the tribute I wrote right after her passing last year. For a beautifully detailed examination of her multifarious oeuvre, especially her scholarship, you can read this recent piece, by her close collaborator, Jeremiah Lockwood. 

With her band Charming Hostess, Jewlia put out Sarajevo Blues in 2004, based on the book of the same name by Bosnian journalist-poet, Semezdin Mehmedinovic. The texts collected in Sarajevo Blues reflect his experience living through the years long siege of Sarajevo.  

Like all of Jewlia's work, her musical adaptation of Sarajevo Blues sits at the intersection of music and translation. With Sarajevo Blues, she adds another, very simple question to her musical methodology: what is my relationship to the news? In the liner notes to Sarajevo Blues she says: 

“We all know that simply watching news is not doing anything about what you see. We want to know what’s going on, but human experience in a place where “news” is happening is reduced to the most sensationalistic elements—pain, terror, despair. Watching or even reading the news, one can become complicit in a kind of war-profiteering—the experience of suffering people is appropriated and used to sell cars. Orphans and refugees become icons, divorced from the people they represent, metaphors for other things.”


Going further, she declares her intent to explore “other ways of being with the news, ways that focus on real human experience, on particularity and wholeness.”  


Take the song “Death is a Job.” The lyrics describe the dark irony of life under siege, where a person can find themselves dodging both sniper bullets and war photographers. Jewlia puts the text to a disarmingly upbeat a capella setting, propelling us across that intersection, along with the narrator, who has come to see war photographers as just another enemy faction:   


They’re doing their job, in deep cover

If a bullet hit me they got a shot worth so much more than my life

That I’m not sure who to hate

The sniper or the monkey with a Nikon

For the chetniks, I’m just a simple target

But those others only confirm my utter helplessness

And even take advantage of it…  


War time journalism has the potential to bring our attention to the atrocious human cost of war. But as a practice, war journalism necessarily obscures its own complicity in the events which give it purpose.       


Here Jewlia raises the very questions which seem to me so urgent, and so unaskable, in these heated days of war. In the liner notes, she says that Sarajevo Blues was an extension of her previous work, now “morphed into questions about the possibility of encountering another person’s experience without trivialization or appropriation. What comes of delving into events characterized by vicious nationalism, opportunistic fascists, fleeing refugees, concentration camps, mass slaughter and do-nothing bystanders? … Is it possible, or even desirable, to create emotional connections to brutal events that most Americans (b’ezrat ha-Shem) will never experience?”


Sarajevo Blues doesn’t pretend to retrospectively educate Americans on the complex of identities which powered both the Bosnian and Kosovo wars. Nor does it prospectively presume to teach us any grand lesson about the meaning of war. Today, it speaks to us from a place of humanizing paradox. It is both an act of resistance against the historical erasure of a specific war, and at the same time, an assertion of the dignity of human frailty; a song sung against totalizing ideologies and political statements; a testimony to the capacity of music(s) to translate the human experience in ways so compelling that we cannot help but pay attention. In other words, it is alive with everything that made Jewlia the extraordinary artist she was, and always will be.

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