I first caught the bug for a sort of tight vocal harmony music which has roots in Europe in the early 1980s when I became a fan of The Roches (especially their two albums produced by Robert Fripp The Roches and Keep On Doing). I then noticed this sound being hinted at on seminal records by Kate Bush and later quite directly as she employed Trio Bulgurka on some tracks (such as this heart-wrenching stand out from The Red Shoes, “You’re The One” which features Jeff Beck on lead Guitar and Gary Brooker on Organ).
In 1987, Elektra Records came out with a haunting double-hitter reissue-of-a-sort series called Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares (aka The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices) which ultimately won a Grammy Award. I was fully hooked on the form which I learned emanated from Northern European countries. Eventually, I discovered The Pennywhistlers who were singing this sort of music in America in the mid 1960s and had several albums out on Folkways, Verve and Nonsuch Records.
So imagine my joy when a friend invited me to a concert by an Oakland, California-based singing group called Kitka Women’s Vocal Ensemble which performs this very sort of music here and now in the 21st Century(!).
From their website: “The women in Kitka are fearless sonic explorers, and you can hear their intrepid spirit in every haunting song. For four decades, the nine-woman Oakland ensemble has developed a vast, breathtaking repertoire of traditional songs from the Balkans, Caucasus and Slavic lands, as well as new material composed for the group drawing on those traditional vocal practices. Traveling to rural communities in Armenia and Bulgaria, Ukraine and Georgia, Serbia and Turkey, they’ve gathered songs and communed with elders who are often the last links to centuries-old traditions. The ravishing textures of the women’s voices, unearthly cadences, angular rhythms and unfamiliar languages make Kitka’s performances an enthralling experience.”
Indeed, it was quite stunning to see this nine-person group assemble and deliver all these sounds live in the moment. They even sang one of my favorite pieces from Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares (“Pilentze Pee“)! After the concert I purchased several of Kitka’s CDs which I really liked and even sent some to my brother as I thought he’d enjoy them.
Most of Kitka’s albums are streaming on Tidal in CD quality (which you can listen to by clicking here). All, that is, except their latest, so I figured I would review that for you here, Dear Readers of Audiophile Review…
For me, one of the standout tracks on that album, called Evening Star is the impossibly beautiful “Zapovedi blazenstv / The Beatitudes” which is as I understand it a church related hymn at its root. The album was issued to support Kitka’s Winter tour and is apparently something of a holiday collection but don’t let that sway you. If you like vocal and ambient music, you may find this hauntingly beautiful music you can enjoy year round (I do!). Honestly I am not paying much attention to the words at this point (its in Russian I think, anyhow) but the overall vibe. And to that, this song grows like a flower to a point where I really hate to hear it end. Check out the video for the song here…
“Kur bijati ziemasssvetki” is a Latvian piece that starts out sounding like an outtake from the Philip Glass Qatsi trilogy by way of a King Crimson-esque meditation. And I find my ear drawn to the Bulgarian titles like “Koledna zvezda,” a harmonic blend that is just haunting to my ear… You can check out some video of the studio sessions for Evening Star here.
Generally the standard CD of Evening Star sounds very nice without harsh sonic edges or anything that would get in the way of your enjoyment of the music.
Evening Star seems to only be available as an MP3 download on Amazon, alas (so I cannot attest to the sound on that version). But, it is available as a FLAC download via the group’s Bandcamp page (click here for that). The album is apparently also available in a bunch of other formats according to the semi-snarky commentary on Bandcamp’s help page : “You can also download in FLAC, ALAC (Apple Lossless), AAC, Ogg Vorbis, WAV and AIFF formats. These options are, as we say in the interface, for ‘audiophiles and nerds.’ If you aspire to become either, this isn’t a bad place to start.”
Personally — as both an audiophile and perhaps a nerd — I would love to hear this group’s music presented in a very high resolution format … and surround sound!! Can you imagine being in the center of a sound like this? I can!