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Concert program for Kitka

Saturday, December 19, 2020 at 7 pm

Download a copy of the program here.



Program, notes & texts

Pirin region, Bulgaria, traditional, from the repertoire of the Bisserov Sisters via Village Harmony

“God’s tree grew tall; its top held the blue sky. Under the tree was the Virgin Mary, holding the baby Jesus in her arms. She woke up, ‘Hey, you twelve priests! Light twelve candles, ring twelve church bells, so we can baptize the baby Jesus Christ!’”

Bulgaria, from repertoire of the Mystère des Voix Bulgares, arranged by Kosta Kolev

The Bulgarian word for Christmas, Koleda, has origins in the ancient Roman Kalendae festival, dedicated to the beginning of the solar year. Koljada was also the name of the old Slavic winter god.

“Cheers to you, master of the house! Oh Koleda! We sing to you, we praise God. As much sand as there is by the sea, may you have as much grain in this house. As much water as there is in the ocean, may you have as much wine in your barrels. As many leaves as there are in the forest, may you have as many sheep in your pens.”

Transylvania, Romania, arr. by Peter Simcich

This colindă, or carol, is one of many collected by Béla Bártok in Transylvania around 1909, and set for piano in his Romanian Christmas Carols (1915). Only the original melody is used in this vocal arrangement.

“The young bridegroom prays on the mountain, hoping to stir the quiet wind up. The wind blows over the mountaintop, through the sheltered spots, through the stony valley. At the mossy boulder, it stirs the green-leaved bramble and flushes out the sorrel stag. The stag, however, turns to the youth and says: ‘Hold on, hold on, don’t be too hasty! Instead, come along with me. I’ll take you down to the Ford of Jordan, and there we’ll meet nine other ashen-hued stags. You can kill all ten of us, and then use our antlers to put gables on your house, make a fence with our ribs, roof your house with our hides, and then paint the house with our blood.’ Praise the Lord God Almighty!”

Guria, Georgia, from Ensemble Mzetamze

This ritual ring dance song was traditionally sung by women to celebrate the birth of a son. Georgian ethnologists connect its intriguing text to ancient astral cults.

“Sun within and Sun without, Sun, come inside the house! A boy has been born to us. His father is not at home—he has gone to town to get a cradle. The sun has set and the moon has risen.”

Composite arrangement by Barbara Byers and Kitka

The trailblazing American folk singer and song collector Ethel Raim shared these three striking lullabies with Kitka. As is the case in many old world cradle songs, comforting melodies provide a cathartic vehicle for the singer to express stories that are often dark and sorrowful.

Dremlen feygl oyf di tsvaygn
Yiddish, text by Leah Rudnitsky, via Ruth Rubin and Ethel Raim

Rubin writes: “The shooting of 4,000 Jewish men, women and children at Ponar (outside of Vilna, Lithuania) on April 5, 1943, left a grievous impression on the young poet [Rudnitsky], who herself, soon after, perished at the hands of the Nazis. A three-year-old child, wandering in the streets after the roundup moved this poet to write this lullaby. The melody may have been adapted from a song by the Soviet composer [Artur] Polonsky.”

“Birds are dozing on the branches. Sleep, my dear child. By your cradle, in the field, a stranger sings you to sleep. It was at your cradle she stood, filled with joy. And your mother, oh, your mother will never come back to you. I saw your father running under showers of stones, and his orphaned cry flew across the fields.”

Yiddish, from the repertoire of Mordkhe Schaechter, via Leybl Khan and Ethel Raim

Hayda-lu-lu, my little one, my beautiful one, hayda-lulinku. Father has gone to the woods, my child. He will bring you a little bird. Father has gone to the field, my child. He will bring you a little flower.”

Az di vest batsuln brider
Yiddish, text by Moishe Leib Halpern, melody by Leibu Levin, from the repertoire of Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman, via Ethel Raim

“When you have means, brother, you can travel in a fancy carriage. If you don’t, brother, you go by foot on stones and thorns. Close your eyes, ay-de, lu-lu, lu. Like a wild dog you’ll be chased away from doors and gates, and where you spend your day, you will not spend the night. You’ll sit yourself upon a stone, beating yourself in head and heart, and mother Rukhl (Rachel) will cry over your dark fate. When the messiah can no longer take your pain, he will sit upon a stone and beat upon himself.”

Child of the stars
Music and lyrics by Leela Grace

“On the night that you were born, I looked out the window to the sky. And the stars sang to me as you echoed your first cry. I looked down into your face and saw stars shining in your eyes. My small queen of the earth, child of the stars. As I looked in your wide eyes, and held your gaze with my own, I could see with aching joy you dancing from me when you’re grown. But wherever you go, my darling, know you’ll never be alone. My small queen of the earth, child of the stars.”

Yiddish, from Adrienne Cooper and Polina Skovoroda Shepherd, arr. Caitlin Tabancay Austin

“If my voice were louder, if my body were stronger, I would take to the streets shouting, ‘Peace! Peace! Peace!’ Because I have power, I’ll run through the streets, shouting ‘Peace! Peace! Peace!’”

Romania, Byzantine carol from the repertoire of the nuns of Camarzani Monastery, arr. Lily Storm

“Today the One without beginning has descended and come to dwell with the Virgin. I pray to the Lord in Heaven! From the East the Magi come, bringing gifts to the Lord. Gold they have brought, myrrh they have offered, and incense precious to the One Most High. The angels sang, the shepherds played their flutes; Heaven & Earth were merry. Today the whole world rejoices, singing & praising the Lord.”

Village of Tsalenjikha, Samegrelo, Georgia, recorded in 1967 by French musicologist Yvette Grimaud Kitka learned this song from Carl Linich of Trio Kavkasia.

This song was traditionally sung on Christmas Eve by masked carolers who roamed from house to house to greet the inhabitants with holiday blessings. In return, the singers received drinks, fruit, candy, and bread.

“Alleluia! May Christ bring us Christmas! I bring heralds of Christmas! On the twenty-fifth of the month, Christ was born in Bethlehem. May our host prosper! It’s time for a sweet dinner! May peace be here!”

Svaneti, Georgia, composed by Ilia Paliani (1886-1966), from the repertoire of the Rustavi Choir and the Kartuli Ensemble

In the isolated, proud, and independent region of Svaneti, high in the Caucasus Mountains in northwestern Georgia, the pre-Christian sun god K’viria is still celebrated with song, dance, and ritual. This piece was composed by the Svan composer Paliani and utilizes many traditional regional polyphonic motifs. A pagan hero and son of gods, K’viria served as mediator between the supreme god (Ghmerti) and humanity as protector of society and an instrument of divine justice.

“Oh, K’viria! Sun of the Heavens, K’viria! Almighty K’viria!”

Turov, Zhytkavichy/Gomel region, Belarus, in Yiddish, from the repertoire of the sisters Zinaida Lyovina and Dasya Khrapunskaya

This tune is a humorous dialogue between a rebbe (Hasidic sect leader) and a gabbe (synagogue assistant).

“‘Gabbe!’ ‘What does the rabbi wish? When the rabbi wishes, he should be offered something. What?’ ‘Latkes with goose fat, so that the rabbi and his wife should have healthy throats. A bowlful of chicken soup, so that the rabbi and his wife should have healthy stomachs. A plateful of fish, so that the rabbi and his wife should have healthy feet. In honor of the holiday, bim-bam-bam-bam, in honor of the Sabbath.’”

Ukraine, traditional, from Nina Matvienko, arranged by Lily Storm

“’Song of early spring, where did you spend the winter?’ ‘I was in the forest, by the tree stump, picking cherries. I picked cherries, I fed children, oh, so they would grow like spring flowers.’”

Armenia, composed by Komitas Vardapet, from Hasmik Harutyunyan

This piece, by the Armenian priest, composer, music educator, and passionate folk song collector and preserver Komitas, is cherished throughout the Armenian diaspora and is often sung to commemorate the Armenian Genocide.

“Spring is here, yet it has snowed. Oh no! My lover is cold towards me. Ah, my unfortunate beloved! A curse on those evil tongues.”

composite arrangement by Elizabeth Setzer

Svaneti, Georgia, from the repertoires of  Esemble Riho and the Rustavi Choir

An epic folk poem in the Svan language, describing the warrior Mirangula, who despite his mother’s warnings, goes off to fight the Balkarians across the pass, and is killed in battle. While the poem is more than a hundred stanzas long, the song lyrics are excerpted from one of the poem’s opening verses.

“Mother’s Mirangula, mother’s boy, she had only you. She brought you dinner in the tower. Mirangula was not there, mother’s Mirangula.”

Siberia, Russia, from the repertoire of  Masha Scream and Arkona

“Winter, winter, freezing and frosty. Oh, winter, don’t freeze over, for the sake of a good fellow. Oh, as with a husband and his wife who could not live together in cold disharmony. In coldness they could not live. The woman tormented her husband, and invited him into the garden. She invited her tormented husband into the garden, the garden no longer green, and hanged him.”

Village of Klušnykivka, Ukraine, from Mariana Sadovska

“From behind the mountains and the bay, black clouds are approaching. Rain is starting to fall and the blue sea is rising and flooding our boat. Oh brothers, our boat is sinking!”

Vilnia region, Latvia, from the repertoire of Saucējas

This rotāšana (spring calling song) utilizes a style of vocalization called vilkshun (forward-pulling), a crescendo typical of traditional Baltic pagan singing styles.

“’Cuckoo, don’t sing in a blossoming apple tree. If you have no other tree, call from the tip of a reed. Call alone in a silver oak tree. Why did you leave green copper at the edge of the Daugava River?’ My sisters, you do not know what kind of trees grow on the other side of the river—birch and alder—where the nightingale sings.”

Šop region, Bulgaria, arranged by Stefan Mutafčiev, from Tzvetanka Varimezova

This piece is a compilation and embellished arrangement of fragments of several traditional diaphonic folk songs from western Bulgaria. Basil holds fascinating symbolic meaning in Bulgarian folklore, and it is used to adorn churches and infuse holy water during many sacred rites. It was believed that the Virgin Mary sniffed a spring of basil just before she conceived the Son of God.

“Three stars shone the earliest. Oh, brother banner bearer, white basil, I plant you in the dewy garden. –Dona fell sick in the meadow. Not in the village or close to it. –A maiden digs a ditch by herself, and draws water from it. Hey, maiden, hey, to water the garden, to harvest basil. And now a young gray horse is running through the meadow, dragging his bridle through the grass. Oh, my dear!”

Thrace, Bulgaria, from the repertoire of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, arr. Nikolaj Kaufman

This particular folk carol was traditionally sung for the young unmarried girl of the house.

“Mother boasted about Milka: ‘She is so industrious, and very stylish too!’ Milka’s fame spread all the way to Istanbul, to the marketplace, and to Marko the merchant. Marko loaded his boat with silk, silver, and gold thread. Young and old came to see his wares—last of all beautiful Milka. When Milka stepped aboard to buy silk, Marko closed the hatch and sailed away with her.”

Ukraine/South Russia, arr. Valentina Georgievskaja

“In Jerusalem, the bells rang early.
Refrain: Rejoice! Oh, Earth, rejoice and celebrate! The Son of God, God is born!
Three holy days will visit you.
The first holy day is holy Christmas.
The second holy day is Saint Basil’s Day.
The third holy day is Holy Epiphany.
And to everyone, with these words, be healthy!
And for these mistakes, we ask for chocolates!”

About the performers

Kitka is an American women’s vocal arts ensemble inspired by traditional songs and vocal techniques from Eastern Europe and Eurasia. Founded in 1979 as an offshoot of the Westwind International Folk Ensemble, Kitka began as a grassroots group of amateur singers from diverse ethnic and musical backgrounds who shared a passion for the stunning dissonances, asymmetric rhythms, intricate ornamentation, and resonant strength of traditional Eastern European women’s vocal music. Since its informal beginnings, the group has evolved into an award-winning professional touring ensemble known for its artistry, versatility, and mastery of the demanding techniques of regional vocal styling, as well as for its innovative explorations in new music for female voices.

With an overarching mission of cultivating local and global community through song. Kitka’s activities include an Oakland-based home series of concerts and vocal workshops, leadership of community choirs, regional, national, and international touring, programs in the schools, recording, publication, and broadcast projects, artist residencies, commissioning original works, community service, and adventuresome collaborations. Kitka’s wide-ranging performance, teaching, and recording activities have exposed millions to the haunting beauty of the ensemble’s exquisite and unusual repertoire. With deep ties to Balkan, Slavic and Caucasian lands, Kitka has performed, taught, and conducted cultural exchange activities in Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Turkey, Georgia, and Armenia, as well as in communities throughout the USA, Canada, and beyond.

The ensemble has produced 14 critically acclaimed recordings on the group’s independent Diaphonica label (most recently, Evening Star), songbooks, soundtracks for major motion pictures and independent films, and Kitka and Davka in Concert: Old and New World Jewish Music, a PBS television special.

An important aspect of Kitka’s work has also been the creation of multidisciplinary vocal theater works that tell stories of unconventional women in Eastern European folklore, myth, and history. Projects of note include ACT’s productions of Hecuba with Olympia Dukakis and Viola Davis, directed by Carey Perloff with original music by David Lang; Women in Black with AXIS Dance directed by Thais Mazur with original music by Katrina Wreade; Songs from Mama’s Table with Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir; Cantigas de Amigo with Ensemble Alcatraz; The Rusalka Cycle: Songs between the Worlds and Singing Through Darkness, directed by Ellen Sebastian Chang and Andre Erlen with original music by Mariana Sadovska; Meredith Monk’s Vocal Alchemy; Eric Banks’ I will remember everything: a lyric biography of Sophia Parnok; and, most recently, a critically acclaimed, sold out run of Iron Shoes, a contemporary folk opera created by Janet Kutulas (composer), Michelle Carter (playwright), and Erika Chong Shuch (director and choreographer), co-produced by Shotgun Players.

Kitka was recently honored by a coveted Hewlett50 Arts Award, with which they will commission Slovenian composer and stage director Karmina Šilec to create BABA, a new dramatic work inspired by the lives of transgender “sworn virgins” of the Balkan highlands.

A frequently occurring symbolic word in Balkan folk songs, “Kitka” means bouquet in Bulgarian and Macedonian.