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 https://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