Choir Masters

The blending of Eastern and Western cultures often produces unfortunate curiosities like McDonald's in Moscow or Iranian punk bands, but every so often, something remarkable, something like Kitka emerges. An Eastern European-style vocal group of eight women, the 22-year-old choir has wowed audiences from Bulgaria and Macedonia to California and last month were pinch-hit headliners at the Monterey Music Festival. Their passports bear stamps from Albania, Ukraine, Latvia and more than a dozen other countries most UC Irvine freshmen couldn't find on a map.

You'd never guess the women grew up a short drive from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Now in its second generation, the group was spawned in the late '70s from the San Francisco-based Westwind International Folk Ensemble, which put together a vocal group for a Bulgarian dance suite. “The singers had such a great time, they said, 'Let's do more of this,' and through a few mutations, Kitka was born,” says Kitka member and executive director Shira Cion.

Since then, the choir has amassed more credits than Tommy Lee Jones—performances around the globe, grants and awards, four recordings on their own Diaphonica label, and a 1990 NBC special with the renowned Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares (Bulgarian State Women's Choir). Kitka befriended, even hosted the Bulgarian choir on its first U.S. tour in 1988, and the two have kept in touch since. Though the group gleans techniques from all over Eastern Europe, Kitka is most influenced by—and similar to—the Bulgarian choir. Both employ a folk, rather than classical, style of singing unfamiliar to Western ears. Like a hot spa or crme brle, the flat tones, dissonance, abrupt ends and “yips” common to this style take some getting used to, but after a few songs, the singing in your neighborhood church is likely to sound stilted.

“It's a very natural kind of vocal production that's different from the western style of bel canto,” Cion says. “It's a technique we call 'open voice,' which is a lot closer to speaking than what you'd think of as vocal music.”

To ensure they remain true to such traditions and accurately untangle such phrases as “V serykh sumerkakh,” the women do a lot of field studies. “We all work closely with native speakers to make sure we have word-for-word translations, as well as authentic pronunciation, phrasing and ornamentation. We do a lot of listening,” Cion says.

But the group also likes to add its stamp. “We run it through our filter—that of contemporary American women—and end up with a mix of traditional styles and our own interpretation.”

Crossing the Atlantic to stay connected with their musical roots has become easier over the past decade, largely due to the end of the Cold War. But the group has found that the biggest boon in answering questions, finding new material and keeping in touch with friends overseas has been the Internet. Kitka fell in love with a song on a Latvian album, but no one could translate it. The group hopped online and found the song was actually in the archaic language of Latgalian, so they e-mailed a Latgalian site for help. “In two days, we got a response from the director of the group, Ensemble Rasa. He gave us a translation, history, pronunciation, everything. This is a pre-Christian song from Latvia sung so many centuries ago, and here we are getting it over the Internet,” Cion says.

Those bridges between ancient and modern, East and West, are a rewarding surprise for the choir and a recurring theme in their travels. Not surprisingly, one of Cion's fondest memories is the annual festival in Koprivshtitsa, Bulgaria. Natives from all over the country attend in traditional costumes, with stories and dances to show off. Kitka was there just to listen and learn, but after an impromptu demo for a big-time ethnomusicologist, the women were “whisked off to the main stage in wrinkly traveling clothes” to perform during the closing ceremonies in front of thousands. “We were just a bunch of Americans, but we sang, and the Bulgarians had tears streaming down their faces,” Cion says. “They felt like their culture was being valued and validated. American pop music has invaded so much of their culture—it was an amazing reversal.”

American pop has indeed overshadowed folk music throughout much of Eastern Europe. And with arts funding there dwindling since the collapse of communism, traditional music has lost much of its prominence. Without financial support, groups like Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares can't afford to come to our shores. Kitka may be as close as many Americans get to authentic Eastern European music. This is one reason the women feel the need to tour, but there's another: the Monterey World Music Festival took place four days after the World Trade Center bombings. “We sang in this 1790 cathedral, which was such a spiritually charged place. It was packed to the gills—the doors were opened and people lined up outside for rows and rows,” Cion recalls. “What we do is more than just singing folk songs. It has this transformative power. The world is on the brink of war. People are feeling terrified and vulnerable. There was a military base right there, and we were singing our guts out with military planes flying overhead. We felt this incredible need to communicate songs about love, loss, war, nature, spirituality. Everyone is feeling the same thing. Which country, which language doesn't matter.”

Kitka sings at the San Juan Capistrano Library, 31495 El Camino Real, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 493-1752 Sat., 7 & 9 p.m. $7; Kitka also hosts Open Your Voice, a Balkan singing workshop, at the Church of Religious Science, 101 S. Laurel St., Ventura, (805) 643-1933. Sun., 3:30 p.m. $15. Kitka's albums are available on their Web site, (1989);Voices on the Eastern Wind (1993);Sacred Voices, Sacred Sounds (1995); andNectar (1999).

I’m a former arts journalist with the LA Weekly, OC Weekly, and freelance. I’m now in Seattle, WA, and getting back into writing after many years.

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