Now celebrating its 40th season (read full ensemble history here), Kitka is an American women’s vocal arts ensemble inspired by traditional songs and vocal techniques from Eastern Europe. Dedicated to developing new audiences for music rooted in Balkan, Slavic, and Caucasian women’s vocal traditions, Kitka also strives to expand ...
The current members of Kitka, the Bay Area’s own globally acclaimed women’s vocal ensemble, create a potent sound when they raise their nine voices in song. More than three dozen women who have contributed to the trailblazing ensemble’s epic journey will combine the power of their voices at Harmony & Dissonance: Kitka’s 40th Anniversary Celebration and Reunion Concert. The multimedia performance will take place on Sunday, March 10, at 7:30 p.m. at First...
The current members of Kitka, the Bay Area’s own globally acclaimed women’s vocal ensemble, create a potent sound when they raise their nine voices in song. More than three dozen women who have contributed to the trailblazing ensemble’s epic journey will combine the power of their voices at Harmony & Dissonance: Kitka’s 40th Anniversary Celebration and Reunion Concert. The multimedia performance will take place on Sunday, March 10, at 7:30 p.m. at First Congregational Church, 2501 Harrison Street in Oakland, CA. Tickets are available at www.kitka.org.
Timed to coincide with International Women’s Day weekend, the celebration will be an uplifting evening of soulful songs, stories, and recollections gathered over Kitka’s decades of exploring the communal singing traditions of Eastern Europe and beyond. The Kitka Reunion Choir will be led by special guest Tzvetanka Varimezova, the acclaimed Bulgarian vocalist and choirmaster who is also longtime collaborator, mentor, and friend of the ensemble.
“Harmony and Dissonance is an opportunity for Kitka to celebrate 40 years of musical research, innovation, and cross-cultural bridge-building,” enthuses Shira Cion, Kitka singer and the group’s Executive/Artistic director. “As our anniversary weekend approaches, we’ve been plowing through Kitka’s archives. Capturing and communicating all the group has achieved over four decades in a single evening is a daunting task, but also a humbling and joyful challenge. We envision this event as a tribute to the cultures, the music, the singers, and the global community who have inspired, shaped, and supported Kitka’s journey.”
Founded in 1979 as an offshoot of the Westwind International Folk Ensemble, Kitka began as a grassroots group of amateur singers from diverse ethnic and musical backgrounds who shared a passion for the stunning dissonances, asymmetric rhythms, intricate ornamentation, and resonant strength of traditional Eastern European women’s vocal music. A frequently occuring symbolic word in Balkan folk songs, Kitka means bouquet in Bulgarian and Macedonian. Since its informal beginnings, the group has evolved into an award-winning professional touring ensemble known for its artistry, versatility, and mastery of the demanding techniques of regional vocal styling, as well as for its innovative explorations in new music for female voices. Their overarching mission is to create global community through song and amplify the voices of women.
“Our current ensemble is beautifully multigenerational,” Shira says. “Two of us (myself and Janet Kutulas) have been singing together consistently for more than 30 years; others have taken breaks for other projects and then returned to the ensemble’s ranks, and our newest, youngest members joined us less than a year ago. As an ensemble, we carry a deep awareness and appreciation of the lineage of voices that came before us and through whom these songs have made their way to us. We are part of a continuum not only of Kitka vocalists, but of countless generations of traditional singers from Eastern Europe, Eurasia, and beyond.”
Kitka’s sound, described by one critic as “Mother Earth herself opening up her vocal chords,” reflects the individuality of the women who have made up the ensemble over the years. Rather than polishing their sound to conform to classical choral ideals, the group preserves the rougher, naturalistic edges of “village singing” traditions. They have employed all the sounds and colors the human throat is capable of, from guttural howls to angelic tones, giving voice to the full spectrum of women’s emotions and experiences, from joy to sorrow, naivete to wisdom, dissonance to harmony.
Kitka's wide-ranging performance, teaching, and recording activities have exposed millions to the haunting beauty of the ensemble’s exquisite and unusual repertoire. Kitka has performed, taught, and conducted cultural exchange activities throughout the USA, Canada, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, and beyond. The ensemble has produced 14 critically acclaimed recordings (most recently, Evening Star on the group’s independent Diaphonica label), two popular songbooks, and a PBS television special.
An important aspect of Kitka’s work has also been the creation of multidisciplinary vocal theater works that tell stories of unconventional women in Eastern European folklore, myth, and history. Projects of note include ACT’s productions of Hecuba with Olympia Dukakis and Viola Davis, directed by Carey Perloff with original music by David Lang; Songs from Mama’s Table with Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir; Cantigas de Amigo with Ensemble Alcatraz; The Rusalka Cycle: Songs between the Worlds, directed by Ellen Sebastian Chang with original music by Mariana Sadovska; Meredith Monk’s Vocal Alchemy; and, most recently, a critically acclaimed run of Iron Shoes, a contemporary folk opera created by Janet Kutulas (composer), Michelle Carter (playwright), and Erika Chong Shuch (director and choreographer), co-produced by Shotgun Players. Kitka was recently honored by a coveted Hewlett50 Arts Award, with which they will commission Slovenian composer and stage director Karmina Šilec to create BABA, a new dramatic work inspired by the lives of transgender “sworn virgins” of the Balkan highlands.
Kitka’s 40 year anniversary celebration will be a time for memory and reflection, but also a springboard for the ensemble’s future trajectory.. “Kitka has become much more than just a performing group.” Shira explains. “As we enter our 5th decade, our identity is developing as an institution dedicated to disseminating the transformative powers of harmonic practice. This practice requires deep listening and collaborative creation between people of diverse backgrounds and experiences. Learning how to navigate the dissonance and difference that is intrinsic to so much of the music that Kitka is known for offers an exciting model for how we can function as individuals collectively struggling to manifest a more harmonious world.”
Harmony and Dissonance is supported, in part, by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, the City of Oakland Cultural Funding Program, the Kurz Family Foundation, and the East Bay Fund for Artists, a program of the East Bay Community Foundation.
“Even God stops to listen when KITKA—unamplified, without sets, props, instruments, or even lyrics most people can understand—opens its collective mouth. The sound is so chillingly beautiful, by anyone's standards, that the entire audience sits enraptured, most of them with eyes shut. My own eyes flooded with tears.”
— Summer Burke, THE GUARDIAN
Celebrating its 40th season!
Wintersongs is Kitka's critically-acclaimed and wildly popular winter program showcasing music from a wide variety of Eastern European ethnic and spiritual traditions. For countless centuries, people around the world have utilized the power or community singing to infuse warmth, cheer, spirituality, wishes for peace, health, and good fortune into the long, dark, cold and difficult winter season. Eastern Europe's geographic position as a crossroads between Europe and the Orient has produced an astonishingly rich and varied array of seasonal musical rituals.
Kitka's program features songs ranging from rousing Slavic folk carols; to lush meditative Eastern Orthodox sacred choral works; to Baltic pagan incantations for the return of the Sun Goddess, to Caucasus Georgian Alilos (hallelujahs); to Yiddish, Sephardic, and Hebrew songs for Chanukah; to Bosnian-Muslim sevdahlinke (songs to the beloved).
Traditional pieces will be woven together with new folk song arrangements and original compositions by Kitka members and contemporary American and Eastern European composers, all inspired by the customs, beauty, and mystery of wintertime.
"A refreshing spin on traditional seasonal choral music…thoroughly marvelous!" - NPR
"The stellar Eastern European women's vocal ensemble brings a contemporary sensibility to centuries-old vocal traditions. With occasional dissonance, the group's lush chorales can be hauntingly exotic one moment, sublimely beautiful the next." - Washington Post
"Holiness that is earthy, exotic. This is the vocal power of the women of Kitka, a mesmerizing ensemble. Kitka taps into something primal and dramatic. Ancient ritual songs, Bulgarian hymns sung in Old Church Slavic, and Romanian folk songs are voiced in dynamic tension and release-rising from delicate stillness to riveting chordal explosions of the human voice." - Sacramento News and Review
The annual World Music Festival explores the rich and diverse musical traditions of various countries and cultures. Members of our Neighborhood Choirs, DiMension and Voice of Chicago present a showcase of international repertoire. This event is a key component in our curriculum to create global citizens through music.
This year, Kitka, the American women’s vocal arts ensemble inspired by traditional songs and vocal techniques from Eastern Europe will be making a special appearance.
Free tickets are available at the information table an hour before the concert on a first come, first served basis.
In honor and awe of the Women's March 2019, Vajra Voices & Kitka with the Grace Cathedral Ghiberti Center for Culture present The Eve of the March: a concert in the sacred space of Grace Cathedral where we will celebrate womens voices and the power of community.
On Friday, January 18, 2019 at 7:30pm Vajra Voices & Kitka with Shira Kammen and Theresa Wong come together in San Francisco in a special event to perform medieval and modern songs on the divine feminine.
Each and all of us involved in this project are inspired by the strength and wisdom inherent in mysticism, and by womens music and vocal traditions distilled over centuries.
The womens vocal ensemble Vajra Voices sings medieval to modern music. Since 2010, their rhapsodic performances of music of Hildegard von Bingen have been heard on outstanding Bay area concert series to include the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music Presidio Concerts, the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive FULL series, San Francisco Music Day, and the San Francisco Early Music Society concert series.In 2016, with grants from the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music Musical Grant Program and the California Arts Council, Vajra Voices recorded their first CD O Eterne Deus: Music of Hildegard von Bingen with instrumentalist, Shira Kammen (on Music & Arts). The U.K.s Choir & Organ calls it "the most convincing Hildegard disc yet from the USA. Performance highlights for the ensemble also include singing for the Garrett Moulton Dance Production, Speak, Angels in San Franciscos Yerba Buena Theater; and, in Divining with the Oakland Ballet. In 2016, Vajra Voices had the honor of singing in Grace Cathedral for the 40th Anniversary of the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church.
Now celebrating its 39th season, Kitka is an American womens vocal arts ensemble inspired by traditional songs and vocal techniques from Eastern Europe. Each of Kitkas singers blend a contemporary sensibility with specialized vocal techniques that have been distilled over centuries. Dedicated to developing new audiences for music rooted in Balkan, Slavic, and Caucasian womens vocal traditions, Kitka also strives to expand the boundaries of folk song as a living and evolving expressive art form. Kitkas activities include an Oakland-based home series of concerts and vocal workshops, regional, national, and international touring, programs in the schools, recording, publication, and broadcast projects, master artist residencies, commissioning, original works, community service, and adventuresome collaborations. A frequently occurring symbolic word in Balkan women's folk song lyrics, Kitka means "bouquet" in Bulgarian and Macedonian.
Cellist, composer and vocalist Theresa Wong is active at the intersection of music, experimentation, improvisation and the synergy of multiple disciplines. Bridging sound, movement, theater and visual art, her primary interest lies in finding the potential for transformation for both the artist and receiver alike. Her works include The Unlearning (Tzadik), 21 songs for violin, cello and 2 voices inspired by Goya's Disasters of War etchings, O Sleep, an improvised opera for an 8-piece ensemble exploring the conundrum of sleep and dream life and Venice Is A Fish, a collection of solo songs. She has presented her work internationally and
collaborates with many singular artists, including compositions of commissioned works for Splinter Reeds, Vajra Voices and Del Sol string quartet. At the heart of her work is a desire to expand the sonic possibilities of materials and to explore their potential in many modes of performance.
Multi-instrumentalist and occasional vocalist Shira Kammen has spent well over half her life exploring the worlds of early and traditional music. A member for many years of the early music Ensembles Alcatraz and Project Ars Nova, and Medieval Strings, she has also worked with Sequentia, Hesperion XX, the Boston Camerata, the Balkan group Kitka, the Kings Noyse, the Newberry and Folger Consorts, the Oregon, California and San Francisco Shakespeare Festivals, and is the founder of Class V Music, an ensemble dedicated to providing music on river rafting trips. She has performed and taught in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe, Israel, Morocco, Latvia, Russia and Japan, and on the Colorado, Rogue, Green, Grande Ronde, East Carson and Klamath Rivers.
Tucked into age-old winter canticles is the enchantment of footsteps on snow under a starlit sky, the flickers of candles in the darkness. While the nights may grow longer, the songs of winter remind us of the return of the light, and that all heavenly and earthly bodies are connected in cycles of life, death, and renewal.
The Bay Area women’s vocal ensemble Kitka has been thoughtfully researching and reinventing traditional songs from Eastern Europe and Eurasia for four decades. Kitka’s song-catching adventures in regions spanning Transylvania to the Caucasus have resulted in a vast collection of seasonal folk carols, ritual songs, liturgical hymns, lullabies, and poetry-driven pieces from diverse sacred and secular traditions. Kitka’s new album, Evening Star (release: November 9, 2018 on Diaphonica) is the ensemble’s sequel to their acclaimed 2004 recording Wintersongs.
Evoking the cosmic, the earthy, the contemplative, the raucous, and the comforting, Evening Star takes listeners through the soundscapes of wintertime in Balkan, Slavic, and Caucasian lands. The songs include traditional carols drenched in celestial light and pagan mystery; ethereal reminders of compassion’s call; party tunes that get just a little out of hand; and meditations on the cycles of stars and planets, the seasons, and human life.
“This album springs from that very human, ritualistic instinct to come together and sing in the deep, dark heart of wintertime,” explains Shira Cion, Kitka singer and executive/artistic director. “Different cultural and spiritual perspectives create distinct musical expressions, but there’s a common thread: that need to gather together in community at a time of year when survival requires the sharing of warmth. There’s a tangible sense of ‘as above, so below’ in these songs. The lyrics are poetically rich with images of the moon, sun, and stars, as well as wintry elements such as frost, snow, and storms.”
Kitka’s versatile sound resonates on every track, eschewing the smooth, unified gloss of more classical choral ensembles for the full-bodied texture and beauty of women’s voices, high and low, youthful and seasoned, gentle and gutsy.
Kitka performs repertoire from Evening Star, as well as other striking seasonal music on their annual Wintersongs tour this December and January.
“A refreshing spin on traditional seasonal choral music… thoroughly marvelous!” (NPR)
Traditional songs often cradle stories that are otherwise lost to history, be it wonder at nature or the loves and losses of our forebears. “What unites all these songs is the way they describe cycles, the wheel of life, and the cosmos,” says Kitka vocalist and Evening Star’s lead producer Kelly Atkins. “These cycles embrace everything we deal with as people. For example, the lullabies on the album evoke Mother-Night (the winter solstice), and the winter season’s richness of nativity, of mother and child imagery. New light emerges out of the darkness. The seasons of the year and of life are strikingly similar, and many of these songs illustrate that”.
This is no sentimental journey, however. “Three Yiddish Lullabies” express stories rooted in dark historical events that are extremely sorrowful. “K’viria” (from Svaneti, Georgia) is an ode to a severe pre-Christian god who oversees justice on Earth. the Serbian “Zamuči se Božja Majka” describes the Virgin Mary’s labor pains in graphic detail. Other tunes sing of of earthy hopes (the Yiddish prayer “A gute vokh”), and real terror (“Mirangula/Zimuška”, from Svaneti and Russia).
“These elements intertwine with tunes that accompany a New Year’s tradition that spans Eastern Europe, the custom of telling fortunes.“ notes Cion. "For women, these rituals predict who you will marry and what form your domestic and economic future will take. The Ukrainian ‘Ščo v pana khazjajna’ is one of these ritual songs.”
The thread of nature-centered ritual weaves in and out of Evening Star, taking some unexpected twists along the way. The intriguingly pagan Romanian carol originally recorded by Bartok, “D-oi Roagӑ”, creatively arranged for Kitka by Bay Area composer Peter Simcich, describes sacrificing a herd of stags, painting the house with their blood, and decorating the gables with their antlers for protection against evil.
The exquisite and unusual seasonal songs form one layer of Kitka’s artistry; the next springs from the group itself, with its unique set of voices and visions. The ensemble often innovates, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically, as it brings new songs into its repertoire. Yet all is done with a deep reverence for the group’s teachers, an extended family of respected folk song masters.
“As Kitka has evolved as an organization and ensemble, we’ve prioritized a ‘fair-trade’ approach to song collection. We build relationships with tradition bearers, learning from them, connecting with them in ways that transcend just music, and gaining their trust”, says Cion. “We work closely and collaboratively with our sources to discover the original spirit, context, and soul of a song. In time, we receive their blessings to apply our creativity to tradition via original arrangements and adaptations.” Pieces like “Fly, Trembling Spirit,” a merging of traditional Greek melodies from the Epirus mountains with an iconic American shape-note hymn, become a transcultural meditation on impermanence that blends tonalities and blurs cultural boundaries.
These innovative interpretations (Kitka’s Atkins calls them “mashups”) flow from imagining the scene and mood suggested by the song, tracing its elements and characters sonically, and incorporating Kitka members’ myriad influences and talents.
Evening Star’s opening track is a collage of Bulgarian Koleda (winter solstice) carols, arranged by co-producer, veteran Kitka singer, and composer Janet Kutulas. “Janet and I had the idea of overlaying ornaments that sounded a bit like coyotes,” Atkins recalls. “We had an image of two parties coming together from different sides of the village into one space, and everyone hearing the howls of beasts off in the mountains. We had a wonderful time recreating a natural environment for the song, painting these scenes in a sonic way.”
“V hospodaron’ka,” a richly voiced carol from Western Ukraine, paints a similarly vivid picture. The tune tells a tale of three cosmic guests—the sun and the moon and the rain—joining a household’s feast table, and the party that ensues. “You can hear the celebration revving up and getting increasingly wild as it goes on,” laughs Cion. “More and more guests arrive, with more yelling and dancing.”
The stories unfold from the voices in Kitka itself, voices that the ensemble uses to bring out the emotion and texture, the unexpected potential of traditional songs and texts.“We took a lot of liberties, for example, in our interpretation of “Zapovedi blaženstv/The Beatitudes” a sublime contemporary choral work by the Russian composer Vladimir Martynov.” Cion notes. Martynov’s original setting was for an SATB Russian Orthodox choir with a basso profundo section. We’re a women’s ensemble with a wide range, but there was no way we could hit those low notes, so we knew we had to experiment. We tried several iterations, finally settling on an arrangement for treble voices by Kitka member Caitlin Tabancay Austin in which “The Beatitudes’” blessings are passed throughout the ensemble. You can hear the dark and bright timbres, young and older singers, a diversity of human voices bestowing those blessings.”
Kitka’s 2018 Wintersongs tour is supported, in part, by grants from the Zellerbach Family Foundation, The City of Oakland Cultural Funding Program, and the National Endowment for the Arts.