Kitka is a women’s vocal ensemble unlike any other. These eight sophisticated singers blend a contemporary sensibility with specialized vocal techniques from Eastern Europe that have been distilled over centuries. This February they launch a ten-city tour - featuring repertoire from their latest release Wintersongs along with classic material from Kitka catalog, hailing from countries like Bulgaria ,Belarus, Georgia, and Greece.
Many of the songs that Kitka will perform on the tour have a winter theme, and several are also thought to have pre-Christian origins celebrating the solstice. Just as cultures outside of Europe have integrated newer Christian beliefs with existing older nature-centered traditions, the same is true in Eastern Europe, giving the repertoire an earthy and exotic feel, offering a broader appeal than if it were simply liturgical music.
The song “Zamuchi Se Bozha Majka”—has origins in the ancient Roman winter Kolendae festival, dedicated to the beginning of the solar year. Koljada was also the name of the old Slavic winter-god. Traditionally in the Balkans, young men would toss wooden crosses into icy rivers, and then dive in to retrieve them, while their elders collected bottles of sanctified healing water on the riverbanks.
“The music taps into something really essential and ancient,” says Kitka vocalist and executive director Shira Cion. “You think about the solstice and the nights, which are dark and cold and long. A lot of our songs either encapsulate that winter mood or bring a contrasting spirit of warmth, light, and jubilation to it.”
Using only the pure unaccompanied voice, Kitka—which means “bouquet” in Bulgarian and Macedonian and is often used in Balkan women’s songs—creates a constantly shifting landscape of sound, pulsing with angular rhythms, where dramatic dynamics leap from delicate stillness to shattering resonance, and seamless unisons explode into lush incomprehensible chords. The origins of these vocal techniques are in the fields and hillsides of the Balkans, Caucasus, Baltics, and Slavic lands, where songs had to both carry across great distances or be used in intimate community settings.
“Much of Kitka’s repertoire utilizes an ‘open voice’ technique that contrasts markedly from Western classical ‘Bel Canto’ style and more familiar folk style,” Cion explains. “The open voice has a very forward placement, with lots of vibration in the mask of the face. The entire human body acts as a chamber for resonance producing a very big sound, rich with overtones. The sound is something like a ‘belt’ but more focused, penetrating, and shimmering. It is actually a style of vocalization that is much closer to speech than to what we typically think of as singing. Vibrato is less a part of the tone and more used as ornamentation. And there is a huge vocabulary of intricate ornamentation in each regional style.”
Kitka’s material ranges from ancient village chants to complex contemporary works. The sound of their voices is exotic, both elegant and eerie. The melodies are hauntingly beautiful and the ensemble’s seamless blend of eight very unique voices is extraordinary.
As The Oregonian put it, “Only a Slavic folk tune, after all, can express bliss in a minor key, agony in jaunty dance rhythms. The languages in which they sing are largely unfamiliar to American ears. It is exactly this unfamiliarity that is so riveting, as Kitka’s sensitive precision lifts their work out of the merely musical into a universe beyond words, an experience that is primal and elemental.”