University discovery of Balkan music brought Kitka conductor to SF

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Shira Cion, Executive and Artistic Director of Kitka. Photo: Vincent Louis Carrella

Shira Cion’s path to a decades-long involvement with the Kitka Balkan Women’s Choir began in the 1980s, when she was studying voice at Connecticut Wesleyan University. She had a particular interest in the extended vocal techniques favored by songwriter and performer Meredith Monk, and one day a fellow student passed her a cassette tape labeled simply “Bulgarian.”

“He said: ‘If you like Meredith Monk and wild uses of the voice, you should see this,’” Cion recalled. “It was a tape of traditional polyphonic village music from Bulgaria, and it just blew my ear of mind.”

Cion headed straight for San Francisco, where he had heard there was an active traditional Balkan music scene. There were two main choirs dedicated to female a cappella singing, and she made contact with both. One was preparing for an upcoming concert and asked her to come back in a couple of months; the other, Kitka, brought her in for an audition days later.

She has been there ever since, first as a singing member and since 1997 as the group’s artistic and executive director.

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Kitka, an all-female vocal ensemble from Eastern Europe, is ready for their annual “Wintersongs” series. Photo: John Nilsen / Friction

Kitka’s membership fluctuates between six and 12 singers, depending on the performance project, but the group’s stylistic roots remain constant. It is dedicated to the distinctive sounds of traditional Eastern European choral music, not only from Bulgaria and Macedonia, but also from Ukraine, Russia, the nations that formerly formed Yugoslavia, and even the Baltic states.

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“This is music that uses a different set of vocal techniques than traditional choral music or Western classical music or even Western pop music,” Cion said. “It’s a very natural type of speech-based voice production that was originally used for outdoor singing to accompany the rhythms of daily work in agricultural societies.”

The harmonies are thick and powerful, filled with perfectly tuned intervals that create a resonant web of overtones. The rhythms are also unusual to Western ears, with meters based on 7, 11 or 15 beats, a function, Cion says, of the region’s traditional dance forms.

Kitka’s repertoire includes a mix of purely traditional music and new works composed expressly for the ensemble. Cion, who is the organization’s only full-time employee, oversees the music curation process along with assistant director Kelly Atkins and longtime member Janet Kutulas, whom Cion describes as his “artistic wife.” . (Cion, 57, lives in Berkeley with her husband, a master drummer and multi-instrumentalist from Bulgaria.)

One of the group’s annual traditions is the seasonal program “Wintersongs”, which draws on Christmas music from around the Balkan and Slavic world. This year, in light of the geopolitical situation, the program focuses on the music of Ukraine.

“We are making music based on some traditional Ukrainian seasonal rituals, with the symbolism of the sun, moon, stars and rain appearing in Christmas carols,” he explained, adding that they aim to raise funds and awareness for organizations. of humanitarian aid that have been recommended by their Ukrainian collaborators.

“But we have also added some Georgian, Bulgarian and Serbian music. We always do a kind of patchwork quilt.”

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Friction: December 9-18. Locations in Belvedere, Sacramento, Menlo Park, Oakland and San Francisco. $25-$50. 510-444-0323.

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