Music KitkaFEATURE

Published on December 6th, 2012 | by Setsu Uzume


Feature: “Wintersongs” Performance by Kitka

KitkaKitka, an all-women’s vocal ensemble, will be going into their 33rd season this year with Wintersongs – the group’s homage to all facets of winter with traditional music from across the Balkans, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Georgia. The concert’s program aptly represents the meaning of kitka, which translates to “bouquet” in Bulgarian and Macedonian, embodying the idea of disparate elements coming together to create beauty; this year’s repertoire includes songs of celebration from Christian, Jewish, Muslim and even more ancient traditions, like paganism, tapping into the heart of why we as humans gather together and raise our voices against the darkness. Kitka’s primal and otherworldly voices take listeners on a strange journey that evokes the dark and bitter cold with songs of despair and mourning, before finally guiding us into the coming dawn with joyful songs of food, family, love and togetherness.

Kitka began in the 1970s in Oakland as an amateur group and has since become an award-winning ensemble with international recognition. The group’s music — powerful, intricately ornamented folksongs sung by eight women — has  been featured in films like Braveheart, Jacob’s Ladder and Queen of the Damned. They have released eleven critically acclaimed recordings — nine from their own label, Diaphonica.

Executive Director Shira Cion has been with the group for almost 25 years, and Michele Simon returns after a 10-year hiatus to co-direct Wintersongs with Caitlin Tabancay Austin. This particular concert has been performed almost every other year since 2000, and each year they have more songs than they can possibly fit into the program, so each performance provides ample opportunity for new music to shine.

KitkaWith songs in 12 different languages and seven different venues, Kitka has always been welcoming of people from different backgrounds. Indeed, there has been an overwhelmingly positive response to the diversity of their repertoire. Kitka’s audience abroad has been deeply moved by the group’s interest and dedication to folksongs, since most traditional music is being absorbed or replaced by American-style pop music. Various ethnic groups have even adopted Kitka as the preservers of their folk music traditions.

“There are many wounds of history because that whole region is a long tale of invasion and occupation,” Cion said.

More and more people in Kitka’s growing audience have begun to understand the lyrics, and feel renewed pride in their heritage and traditions. More than once they’ve been thanked by people for reminding them of the richness of their own culture.

“We have Russians who come up and say, ‘thank you for singing the Russian songs,’ and Bulgarians saying, ‘you sound just like a Bulgarian choir.’  Everyone loves what we do, and they like their piece.” Simon said.

Kitka has worked directly with folksingers from Georgia, Armenia, Russia, Ukraine, Albania, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece. In the old days, adventurous musicologists and folklorists would smuggle recordings out of villages under Soviet surveillance. Now, Kitka is able to travel freely and — thanks to Facebook and Google Translate — is able to keep in touch with a worldwide network of singers based on a mutual love of song, tradition and community.

“The opportunity to go to the places where the music is from — to breathe the air to see the geography and to meet the people, to hear the language all around you — it brings real depth to Kitka’s understanding and performance of the music,” Cion said.

One of Cion’s favorite songs is “K’irialesa” from Samegrelo in Georgia. The group first learned the song in the Songcatcher style — direct study from a master folksinger — in Georgia. The rain poured that day, and both choirs huddled around tea and pastries while they sang songs to each other in a gorgeous Georgian house in the mountains.

“There’s one line in that song that’s very sweet,” Cion said, “meaning ‘may the birds of your dreams flap their wings and take flight, may your grain store houses be full of corn, and may you soon be reunited with relatives that are far away.'”

It seems that the most haunting and enchanting music usually has the simplest message, such as a Yiddish tune “A Gute Vokh” that translates to “Good Week.” It intones simple wishes: “may we all have bread to eat and clothes to wear, may we drink wine and celebrate until the dawn.”

KitkaKitka exists at the intersection of these simple ideas and the transcendent experience music can offer. All of the singers are native English speakers who have picked up new languages because of their love for music. Just as each region has its own distinct flavor, each language has different musical qualities. Even if you don’t speak the language, you find yourself filling in the blanks by making up a new story as you listen. As you begin to understand the lyrics, each new iteration of the same folksong becomes like reading the same picture book with different illustrators.

“I think that’s the reason people gather more in the wintertime to sing together,” Cion said. “There’s a real need for a transcendent experience when it’s dark and cold and depressing — when things are down and difficult — I think it’s almost a biological need.”

No matter what your background, Kitka’s Wintersongs is sure to be a beautiful and moving evening.

“As a journey, it requires a little bit of surrender,” Cion said. “It takes a bit to get you there, to arrive, but the songs are really incredible and I hope folks will arrive, let go and join us.”

See Kitka live this weekend in Oakland on December 7 and San Francisco on December 8. For more information, visit Kitka’s website at

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About the Author

Shot from New York like a bat out of hell, Setsu is a writer and collector of stories. She recently graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Chinese Language & Literature. Her coursework included a stint at a monastery in rural China, where she studied swordplay and Daoist philosophy. Setsu is a co-founder of writing groups in Seattle and San Francisco, where new writers can take their first steps toward publication. She has dabbled in many arts, but only martial arts and writing seem to have stuck. Visit her blog at

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