Traditional music of women from Eastern Europe and beyond

The women in Kitka began performing the folk music of Bulgaria and other Eastern European countries in 1979. At first, the Oakland based group was a small, dedicated group of amateur singers, but over the years they’ve evolved into one of the finest a cappella singing groups on the planet.

“For decades, the Bay Area has cultivated a vibrant community of people interested in Eastern European folk music,” said Shira Cion, the group’s executive artistic director. “It started in the ’50s and ’60s among enthusiasts who were part of the international folk dance movement. When I finished college in the late ’80s, I moved to San Francisco to get involved in the international folk music scene. I was particularly drawn to the harmony singing traditions of Balkan and Slavic lands, especially women’s vocal music rooted in Bulgarian village traditions.”

Like most performing groups, Kitka was hit hard by the COVID shutdown. “As an a cappella ensemble, we knew singing was potentially lethal,” Cion said. “We had to pivot and find ways to keep ourselves connected to each other and our community. 

“Thanks to Kelly Atkins, our deputy director, we found a way to put our music and programming online. Atkins studied film-making in college at Humboldt State (in Arcata). She was able to create digital content with stunning visuals, utilizing music from Kitka’s live and studio recording archives. She made video shorts to mark various points in the history of the pandemic—the day we reached 1,000 dead, Mother’s Day, Juneteenth and Christmas.”

This year, Kitka returns to the stage with their annual Wintersongs tour. “The first Wintersongs series was in 2000,” Cion said. “Over the course of our research into vocal traditions, we discovered a treasure trove of holiday songs and folkloric rituals, accompanied by carols and hymns from all over Eastern Europe. We knew the holiday season is a time when people love to go hear choral music. We offered our spin on these traditions and gave our audience a chance to hear seasonal music they’d never have an opportunity to otherwise hear. 

“The concerts are so popular, but there’s still hesitancy for folks to return to live performances and, since many promoters have shut down, we’re producing the concerts ourselves. That means renting the halls, buying insurance and hiring staff to make sure everyone follows safety protocols. It’s a lot more work to do it on our own, so everyone in the group is now a singer, staff member and concert worker. We’re hoping people will show up to hear these songs of peace and positivity.”

Early next year, Kitka will branch out again, with BABA, an original vocal theater project. It will be directed by Karmina Šilec, leader of Slovenia’s Carmina Slovenica, a female choir known for dramatic multi-disciplinary stage productions. BABA tells the stories of Sworn Virgins from the Balkan highlands, women who changed gender to become men.

“It’s hard to explain this centuries old phenomenon concisely,” Cion said. “If there is no male heir to a family bloodline, a daughter could be appointed to become a man. It’s a different transformation than what we think about as transgender in the Bay Area. This practice comes out of an extremely gender binary, male dominated context. 

“When Sworn Virgins take an oath to become men, they often change their names and present themselves as male, wearing men’s clothing and gaining the freedoms, privileges and status of community patriarchs. They vow to live a life of celibacy and virginity, sacrificing the right to have romantic or erotic partnerships. 

“The piece will explore this largely unknown tradition from remote regions of Eastern Europe, where the social order was historically tribal, or family clan based. It’s the most ambitious project we’ve ever undertaken and will be stretching us artistically, in many new ways.”

Kitka’s ‘Wintersongs’ concerts take place on Dec. 11 at St. Bede’s Church, 2650 Sand Hill Rd., Menlo Park, 650-854-6555; Dec. 16 and 17 at St. Paul’s Church, 114 Montecito Ave., Oakland, 510-834-4314; and Dec. 18 at Old First Church, 1751 Sacramento, San Francisco, 415-776-5552.

East Bay Express E-edition East Bay Express E-edition