Kitka are an all-female vocal ensemble from the the San Francisco Bay area that started in 1979. While members have come and gone over the ensuing forty years, Kitka remain firmly committed to promoting and celebrating the rich and diverse musical traditions of Eastern Europe and the women who shaped many of these traditions with their voices. This past year, Kitka decided to revisit the musical themes they explored on Wintersongs with a new CD called Evening Star. Both albums are worth a close look, not simply to assess the quality of the music but to see how Kitka have evolved over time.
Wintersongs does contain songs simply about winter, along with songs about the New Year and the feast of the Epiphany, but the album focuses on Christmas carols from the eastern and southeastern parts of Europe. Christmas is celebrated in different ways in different places, but music is central to the holiday pretty much everywhere you look. While part of the album’s ambience comes from the sparse, mostly a capella arrangements, the songs reflect a sense of spirituality which not only transcends the specifically Christian lyrics of most of the songs, but stands in sharp contrast to the music that dominates American airwaves in December. “Byla Cesta,” for example, is a Moravian carol about a conversation between the mothers of Jesus and John the Baptist. Kitka present it with the air of a chant, with droning vocals underneath the melody. The Romanian carol “Domnulet Si Domm Din Cer” alternates prayerful verses with a more insistent chorus. And the singers dial up the volume on the festive, rousing Georgian carol “Alilo (Alleluia),” showing off their ability to cover a broad range of dynamics.
Most of the songs only feature the voices of the Kitka singers, but the songs that do include some instrumental accompaniment wind up sticking out a bit more as a result. “Zamuchi Se Bozha Majka” is the album’s standout track. Kitka sing in the distinctively evocative, minor-key harmonies found in Bulgarian women’s singing, but the rhythmic tambura (a plucked string instrument similar in sound to the bouzouki) and some sharp percussion put an edge underneath the beauty of the vocals. The accordion and drums on the Ukranian song “Oj, U Horodi” are played with a vigor worthy of a full Balkan band. “Ayios Vasilis” is an ode St. Basil, one of the founders of the Greek Orthodox Church. Despite the religious nature of the song, a solo vocal is paired with a Greek bouzouki and some percussion in an arrangement that is actually quite seductive.
Kitka also connect their collection of mostly Eastern European Christmas and winter songs to a song whose melody is immediately recognizable. “Shchedrik” is a Ukrainian folk song about a swallow, but its melody was set to English words in the 1930s as the very familiar “Carol of the Bells.” It straddles both musical worlds, and it shows that Kitka’s songs have exerted more of an influence on our own culture than we might realize.
Fast forward to 2018, and while a number of women have come into and out of the fold (only Shiron Cion and Janet Kutulas remain from the lineup that recorded Wintersongs), Kitka remain vibrant and maintain the sense of purpose they started out with. Their new CD, Evening Star, mostly returns to the winter and holiday themes the group explored on Wintersongs, and with the exception of an extended accordion solo on the album closer “A gute vokh,” doesn’t feature any instruments other than some occasional percussion. But while Evening Star bears many similarities to its predecessor, Kitka have gotten more adventurous in their arrangements. Indeed, a few tracks stick out precisely because they wouldn’t have fit so easily on Wintersongs. The set opener “Collage of Koleda Carols” is a collection of Bulgarian carols (“Koleda” is the Bulgarian word for Christmas, although the word might be rooted in a pre-Christian holiday). The arrangement starts out plaintively enough, with a solo voice, but soon you hear a steady, insistent droning chant. The F# sung (and wailed) over an E-minor chord adds a touch of dissonance, designed to take the listeners out of whatever expectations or comfort zone they may have settled into. Further into the album, the Latvian song “Kur bijãti ziemassvetki” and the Ukranian song “V hospodaron’ka” also use persistence to steadily build up intensity.
Having said that, most of of Evening Star is not a great departure from Wintersongs. “Zapovedi blazenstv” is a lovingly devout musical adaptation of the Beatitudes, sung in Russian. The Bulgarian song “Momci koledarci” and the Ukranian New Year’s Eve song “Sco v pana khazjajna” show that the Kitka have not lost their mastery of dynamics. The ensemble continue to interweave the languages and cultures of Eastern Europe, with songs stretching from Greece north to Latvia and mixing Christmas carols and other Christian themes with Yiddish lullabies and songs of the Jewish Sabbath.
Evening Star mixes calm beauty with simmering intensity throughout, but both ends of the musical spectrum boast one song that really stands out. The gorgeous minor-key love song “Heyamoli” is sung in Laz, an endangered South Caucasian language from the Black Sea coast, but is also the one song on either album that has a true waltz rhythm. It is the most emotional song on either recording, and Kitka do a superb job bringing out the emotion with rises and falls in the volume of their singing. The song on the album that will make it or break it for most listeners, though, is “Fly, Trembling Spirit.” This track threads two Greek traditional songs around a folk standard from, of all times and places, Colonial America. The portion of the track that is sung in English actually sounds jarring the first time you hear it, especially since the song concerns death and the ultimate fate of the soul. Even the more expected parts of the song contain some mournful wailing, making for some unsettling, challenging listening.
And yet, the song works. It shows that while our own cultural traditions traditions may initially seem out place among those of Eastern Europe, they are no more and no less human. We share the same anxieties over the shortness of our time here. And in the dead of winter, we celebrate the return of the light to penetrate the darkness, regardless of what beliefs or values underpin our celebration. On Wintersongs and Evening Star, Kitka take their listeners to a part of the world that, like every other part of the world, has much to offer us. They love the songs they’ve uncovered and show it with their voices, and it’s hard not to share in the delight. The albums will appeal to fans of vocal music, especially if they have a preference for female singing, and of course to fans of Eastern European music in particular. But I think everybody will get something positive from a good listen. Evening Star is a bit more intense than Wintersongs, which will make some people like it more and others less, but both albums are certainly worth having.