Songs for Ukraine: Oakland’s Kitka presents a heartfelt response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine
By Lou Fancher
While acknowledging the irony and wholeheartedly grieving over the tragedy unfolding daily in Ukraine, during a recent interview, Kitka Executive Artistic Director Shira Cion equates the all-women vocal ensemble’s first days in the country in 2005 to attending boot camp.
“Lviv’s Les Kurbas Theatre was our first stop,” she says. “We met with members of the Kurbasy Ensemble theater company and Mariana Sadovska, a composer we’d been working with since 2004. I remember we were jet-lagged, but we decided to dive right in. They greeted us with tea, food, sweets, borscht. They fortified us and we dove into the physical theater workout the company is rooted in. It’s vocal expression-driven, but it’s also stomping, running, jumping, supporting each other with risky theater trust-games we’d never done before. We were a group who sang while standing still in lovely circles. Ironically, to remember it now, it was like a boot camp: immersive, intense, exhausting, physical, confusing.”
Oakland-based Kitka was founded in 1979 and specializes in traditional songs and vocal techniques from Eastern Europe and Eurasia while expanding the repertoire for women’s voices with multidisciplinary musical works by living composers with deep connections to Balkan, Slavic and Caucasus lands and cultures. Kitka has performed, taught and conducted cultural exchange activities in Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia—and in communities throughout the Bay Area, the United States and Canada.
In a heartfelt response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the suffering of people in that country, Kitka will present Songs for Ukraine, an online vocal performance and workshop, on March 13. The proceeds from the event will go—100%—to humanitarian aid distributed by Sadovska’s Direct Ukrainian Aid Fund, and to the Les Kurbas Theatre. The theater has become a shelter for internally displaced persons during the war. Cion says admission to the workshop is secured with a freewill donation in any amount, and no one will be turned away for lack of funds.
“We have been pivoting from performing live to online since the start of the pandemic by establishing our Kitka Institute,” Cion says. “It’s our community-engagement branch, completely online, with vocal workshops, performances and master classes of music from many Balkan, Slavic and Caucasus regional lands. What’s been beautiful is we’ve had global participation at our workshops that we could never have had if we had rented a little space in Oakland and tried to squeeze people in. We’ve also been able to bring our singing mentors from those countries into America, without the added expense of physical travel, as leaders and direct conduits to their musical culture.”
Kitka collectively decided that, despite being busy with intense preparation for an upcoming residency at Mills College, they could organize a workshop with the intention of benefitting artist-led Ukraine-aid efforts. “Our connection is to its singers, to traditional vocalists and also to contemporary theatrical artists who are translating Ukrainian folklore in fascinating ways,” Cion says. “On the 13th, we’re hosting a workshop on Zoom from one of our living rooms. We’ll start the session singing a few songs we’ve learned from our Ukrainian collaborators and show video footage of our interactions with Ukrainian elders and contemporary singers we’ve encountered. Then we’ll take one song and break it down, part by part. We’re going to make Zoom more harmony-friendly by having our singers collected in one room so we can broadcast the harmonies that make Ukrainian music so unique and emotionally compelling.”
A Q&A and conversation about the Les Kurbas Theatre will follow the community sing-along. Funds generated will go directly to the humanitarian aid organization founded by Sadovska, who is now based in Germany. “She will be collecting sleeping bags, medical supplies, army boots and other items needed and delivering them through her network and person-to-person connections to people on the ground in Ukraine,” Cion says. “We’ll also be sharing other ways people can be involved through organizations beyond ours.”
Cion says the pieces performed are still being selected, but are likely to include “Ljuljaj, Ljuljaj” (Rockaby, Rockaby), a lullaby; “Oj Davno-Davno” (Oh, Faraway, Faraway), a song about displacement from one’s homeland that Kitka, with partnering vocal groups, used to create an international virtual choir video during the pandemic; and “Oj U Poli Drevo” (In a Field Stands a Tree), a song about the death of a young soldier in battle that Kitka learned from Sadovksa and the Kurbasy Ensemble.
Asked to remember 2005 and the first of two visits Kitka made to Ukraine, Cion says, “One of the things that was magical was that it was the Ukraine flying high after the Orange Revolution that had thousands of people protesting political corruption and oppression in Kyiv. The feeling of democracy was in its sprouting phase, so for us, it was a thrilling time to be there. I will say that some of the elders, especially in small, remote villages we traveled to, were not individuals who were striving for Ukraine to become more democratic. They felt more at ease in a communist society, where needs were met. We saw intense poverty in the older people and nostalgia for when life was more secure, if not more democratic and liberal. In the cities, the energy for greater freedom was inspiring and, as Bay Area people, we could get behind it.”
While learning the music of Ukraine, the ensemble stayed with local families, often in homes led by grandmothers. Cion recalls the elder women dressed in hand-knit sweater vests, funky practical footwear and colorful scarves over their heads. “They were digging potatoes, carrying firewood from forests, baking bread, drinking strong vodka for breakfast, telling raucous stories, singing in incredible multi-part harmonies and speaking mostly Russian,” she says. Cion tried to communicate the group’s gratitude for the Ukrainians’ generosity, speaking in what she calls a primitive, proto-Slavic language with hand gestures.
“We learned we couldn’t compliment anything in their homes or anything they owned, because they’d give it to you,” she says. “The men were more of a mixed bag, some respectful, some less so and not sure what to do around a group of American women. What I remember most vividly is the way they’d teach us songs; getting close by pressing their cheeks to ours, putting their arms around us while we sang together. They had no music notated on sheets of paper; it was mouth-to-mouth, ancient song sharing.”
Raising their voices now from a vast distance, she says the workshop is meant to support all of the people across all ideological and political spectrums who live and work in Ukraine. “We in the core of Kitka are not Ukrainian, but it’s a multicultural country with people from all over the world.” She says the musical traditions of harmony and individual interpretations of Ukrainian songs are especially rich with symbolism during the current crisis. “Our singing is a gesture of solidarity with people who are trapped. Our role is to be cultural ambassadors to these places in Eastern Europe and to cultivate compassion, understanding and curiosity.”