San Francisco Bay Area Vocal Ensemble Kitka Releases Unconventional Lullaby Disc

Kitka - Photo by Sarah Small
Kitka – Photo by Sarah Small

Renowned vocal group Kitka will be releasing Cradle Songs on November 3rd. "These songs were not only about putting a baby to sleep,’ says Kitka singer Shira Cion. "They summon something bigger, something cosmic…We wanted to create something different than a purely sweet and sentimental album. We envisioned an album that captured all the depth and dimensions of motherhood."

Cradle Songs (Diaphonica Recordings) is an unexpected, gentle journey through the traditions that shaped young dreams along the eastern edges of Europe, and a song-cycle that embraces the ensemble’s personal sonic memories of childhood.

This quest for a different kind of lullaby project was sparked by Kitka’s audiences, who urged the group to record a collection of the most elemental genre of woman’s songs. The project took flight in a series of serendipitous meetings with the extraordinary Armenian singer, Hasmik Harutyunyan, who unveiled an entire landscape of lullabies that departed from the cute and cuddly. "The Armenian lullaby texts have stunningly beautiful poetry, with a lot of powerful, natural and cosmic imagery. But there are also lyrics that convey intense sadness and longing," Cion explains. "The songs tell histories of children and parents lost, of cultural genocide. In many Eastern European lullabies, the mother pours out all the grief, fears, and hopes in her soul when she sings to her child. Our close friend and mentor in Ukrainian folk song, Mariana Sadovska, even jokingly refers to some of the cradle songs from her native tradition as ‘sadistic lullabies.’"

"At first, I found these lullabies really challenging," reflects Kitka singer Janet Kutulas, whose Greek family sang her one of the songs the group wove into "Nani, Nani, Kitka Mou." "They seemed almost inaccessibly dark. But the more you listen to them, the more and more beautiful they become. They aren’t your stereotypical tra-la-la lullaby."

As Kitka mined libraries and recordings, worked with traditional singers, and summoned early musical memories, they discovered more striking melodies that went far beyond simple, purely innocent tunes. The Georgian lullaby "Megruli Nana" harkens back to the ancient goddess of light and fertility, called Nana in Western Georgian languages, who is asked to protect the infant as they drift into the dangerous liminal place between wakefulness and dreamtime. Another Georgian song, "Es Ak’vani," is sung as a circle-dancing chorus ritually lays a baby in his cradle for the first time. "Oj Jano, Jano," from Macedonia , is almost an anti-lullaby, depicting a young husband asking his wife why they cannot conceive a child. The wife answers that when she was an infant, her mother cursed her with childlessness because she slept all day and wailed all night.

"Dzurk, Dzurk," a lullaby of the Komi-the Finno-Ugric peoples of far northwestern Russia-mimics the sound of the birch cradle creaking as the baby is rocked. The ancient song came to Kitka as a serendipitous gift facilitated by 21st century technology. Kutulas discovered the melody in an old book, and with Cion, tried to learn more about the unfamiliar language. The key to unlocking the mysteries of the Komi-Zyrian language came via email, when one of Komi’s most beloved singers sent mp3s of herself singing the song as she recalled it from childhood. "Here’s this woman we’ve never met who somehow had access to a digital recorder," Kutulas gushes. "We were so enamored with the soundbites she sent that we seriously considered putting them on the CD."

Yet the stark beauty of the Komi singer’s performance and the other lullabies the group had gathered presented a unique challenge to Kitka: how to transform songs traditionally sung by a single mother’s voice into pieces for an eight-voice ensemble that would capture listeners’ imaginations and not lull them deeply into dreamland.

"We really grappled with the idea of what the album would be like," Kutulas explains. "A lot of people had come up to us at concerts and said, pointedly, ‘I hope you are making a CD we can put on so our child will go to sleep.’ We said, ‘yeah, sure, sure.’ But when we thought about it, we wondered if we really wanted make an entire CD of slow sleepy songs. We went through a whole exploration, and settled upon a more varied, dreamscape-like collection of songs"

The process unfolded over several years. The group sought a variety of creative solutions to the solo lullaby-vocal ensemble challenge. Kitka even commissioned an original by San Francisco Bay Area composer Dan Cantrell: "Slow to the Dawn," based on Sephardic lullaby texts. New arrangements of traditional melodies were created, some involving weaving lullabies from different regions together. Three of Hartyunyan’s lullabies became a hypnotic tapestry of songs in "Three Armenian Lullabies," in which three Kitka soloists overlay individual melodies above an ensemble vocal drone that recalls the warm, soothing, plaintive timbre of the traditional Armenian double-reed instrument, the duduk.

Sometimes, finding the right arrangement meant playfully intertwining songs from Kitka members’ families with unexpectedly related traditional tunes. "Butterfly Songs" unites a joyful folk song singer Caitlin Tabacay Austin had learned in Bulgaria and a fluttering, hocketing duet composed by Kutulas’ five-year-old niece. "Bedtime Story" combines Russian and Ukrainian lullabies with a pleasant meandering mix of folk and fairy tales, a spoken-word first for the group.

Other arrangements emerged in surprising moments of play. The ensemble discovered a whole new side of one of Cion’s favorite childhood lullabies that forms the heart of the opening track "Cradle Song," a Russian Jewish tune sung as a round. "We were going to record it in its original form," recalls singer and co-producer Briget Boyle. "Janet and Caitlin found a toy piano and Fischer-Price glockenspiel in the studio lounge. We decided, just for fun, to record them jamming on the Komi lullaby melody. It turned out creepy and interesting. When we came back to record the Russian lullaby, four or five of us simultaneously realized, ‘Hey, that toy-instrument track would work really well with the Russian-Jewish lullaby!‘"

Kitka did discover several lullaby genres that were polyphonic. In Georgia, Cion discovered why some folk lullabies are sung by multiple voices. "I was in a centuries-old house in the high Caucasus ," Cion recalls. "These dwellings are built around a hearth, and because winters are incredibly cold, the extended family sleeps together around the fire. When a baby won’t sleep, it’s a whole-family issue. So Granny, Mama, Auntie and the sisters lull the child together, often in luscious three-part harmony." Another selection that showcases a lullaby traditionally sung by an ensemble is the startlingly bold "Nanourisma" from the Greek-Albanian mountain region of Epirus where multi-part lullabies in primeval-sounding pentatonic scales produce a mesmerizing effect.

The nature of lullabies dictated that even with innovative arrangements, the sequence of songs would spell the difference between an evocative soundscape and an overly soporific CD. "We came up with a balance between the soothing and the edgy that we hope will encourage kids to sleep and adults to relax," smiles Kutulas. "We put a lot of consideration into which songs would follow which, so people could easily move in and out of the different moods."

"Everything had intention. Before recording, we had 60 songs to choose from. The ones that made it on the album had so much purpose and thought behind them," Boyle adds. "The weaning down was the most challenging part. There were so many beautiful lullabies we all loved. Eventually, it became about what we needed to do to create the most compelling dreamscape."

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