Kitka Is Bringing Eastern European Music to the Bay Area
Getting married and dancing and singing along to the live music is a highlight of any wedding. And for most people that’s where it ends. But not for Fairfax’s Kelly Atkins; she was encouraged to join the group that played at her wedding and 13 years later she is helping to not only lead it but bring its stunning traditional Eastern European singing to ever more audiences.
For Atkins, an indie rock artist well-known for playing in bands that placed a premium on intricate vocal harmony, making the jump to singing songs that were more likely heard in the village center than on a smoky stage was a logical leap to make. “I had heard Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares in the ’90s and thought, ‘What is this?’ ” Atkins says. “It just ignited something in my brain.”
So after lots of practice and a few auditions, Atkins did join her wedding band, Kitka, a Bay Area favorite, formed by amateur singers in 1979. Since then the group has evolved into an internationally acclaimed professional ensemble featuring a collection of multigenerational vocalists ranging in age from their 20s to late 60s. They sing songs from all over the world but focus on women’s vocal music with deep ties to Balkan, Slavic and Caucasian lands.
“It’s the sort of folk singing style that is almost an extension of your speaking voice — it’s traditionally something that people did naturally in the village, as opposed to something you had to go to a conservatory to learn,” Atkins, the group’s deputy director and frequent co-music director, says. “It’s a very natural way of making music.”
Pre-pandemic Kitka toured in countries like Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Turkey, Georgia and Armenia to perform and learn from native-speaking song masters there. The group has also written its own songs, commissioned new works and even done mashups to put its own spin on the music. “Right now, we have this beautiful Corsican song about the ocean and then slowly but surely this Georgian work song sort of trickles in,” Atkins says. “They’re completely different cultures but we just hear musically that it would work really well together.”
For Kitka, at top of mind always is showing respect for the cultures and traditions behind the music.
“We learn the vast majority of the songs from the actual native speakers and song masters,” she says. “And they sort of gifted them to us and we feel empowered to sing and share them.” Since the group often tackles as many as 20 different languages in a performance, the task can be difficult. “It’s definitely the most challenging music I’ve ever sung, not just the music itself but the language and making sure that we have the vocal placement just right,” she says, adding that most of the songs are learned by memory. “You have to really internalize it. It’s even more ear-wormy than you would think; it’s very catchy, it really gets into your body.”
It’s no surprise that Bay Area audiences have fallen in love with this sometimes-unfamiliar music, often making the group’s holiday Wintersongs concerts a family tradition. “There’s a lot of really interesting dissonance, strange chords and weird rhythms and vocal timbres that can be kind of jarring and very intense,” she says. “But it doesn’t feel or sound weird to me anymore, it just sounds beautiful.”
And, of course, people from the countries represented attend shows and are often moved by the experience, notably last year when Kitka presented a heavily Ukrainian-themed show. “There were people in the audience that were crying, and they were so supportive, complimentary and thankful that we were continuing this musical tradition.”
For those who want to experience singing the songs for themselves, there is the new Marin Kitka Community Choir that Atkins started last year in San Anselmo. “It’s going like gangbusters, with 25 to 35 consistent members,” she says, and people of any skill level can learn to sing this folk music. “Mostly,” she adds, “people are just really grateful to be singing together again.”
Marin audiences can see Kitka at St. Stephen’s Church in Belvedere on December 3, with shows continuing around the Bay Area through December 17. MKCC sessions begin on January 9, 2024.