Village life in Ukraine often has a musical accompaniment. Ukrainian folk songs are usually sung in a group, and loudly. This vocal tradition has found its way to the United States, thanks in part to an ensemble called Kitka . The nine women in Oakland, California, gather Eastern European songs and stories for their performances. But as Kitka preserves ancient traditions, it also changes them. Zoe Corneli from radio station KALW has the story.
It all started with a song.
Five years ago, Kitka's singers already knew a lot about Eastern European folk music - they'd been performing it for years and had traveled to Bulgaria and Macedonia to gather songs. But then they heard a performance of this song about female spirits from Slavic folklore known as Rusalki. The powerful, restless spirits inhabit forests and fields and are believed to regulate fertility and the seasons. Kitka's executive director Shira Cion says that was something new.
â€œAnd it just haunted us, it was one of those songs that you hear once and it just gets under your skin and kind of doesn't leave your mind's ear."
Kitka decided its next project would have to involve the Rusalki. To find out more about the mythical creatures, Cion says the group enlisted the help of Ukrainian singer, musician and song collector Mariana Sadovska.
"It was for Mariana kind of a no-brainer, well if we're going to do this project, obviously we all have to go to Ukraine together."
So in the spring of 2005, the group of mostly American women showed up at Svarysevychi, a village in northwestern Ukraine. Cion says the musicians were taken in as if they were family. They lived with the villagers, cooked and cleaned with them, and learned about village life.
"There's just this incredible strong women's ensemble singing tradition, really throughout the region, and it probably comes from just the structure of agrarian life, and women working together, and sewing together, and doing ritual together."
The singers witnessed a spring festival called Rusalian Week. It starts on Trinity Sunday, when the Rusalki are said to awaken and wander among the living. Villagers perform rituals to appease the spirits, and to bring on a good growing season. Cion was fascinated by the Rusalki. They're said to be the spirits of women who died early or unjust deaths. They're often portrayed as beautiful, long-haired, siren-like creatures.
"Like if you could imagine the folkloric supermodel, that might be the Rusalka who's living in the lake, and kind of luring the unsuspecting men to her and then dooming them by drowning them in the river. But then they can shift shape in a moment's notice, and suddenly they're a revolting hag, with pendulous breasts and green hair and old, scary faces."
Rusalian Week combines such folklore with the traditions of Ukraine's dominant Orthodox Christianity. The week begins with ritual lamentations at the cemetery. In this video from Kitka's trip, we see a close-up of an old woman's leathery, anguished face. She's half-singing, half-crying to her dead husband.
Later the same day, village grandmothers adorn a young girl with greenery. This is a fertility ritual. The girl will be paraded from house to house as a blessing. The women sing as they get her ready.
It's this strong group singing, with rich harmonies and dissonances, that Kitka really goes for.
This is a song from Kitka's newest project, a CD and theatrical piece, both called "The Rusalka Cycle - Songs Between the Worlds." In the play, the singers render village life and mythology in evocative movements. Composer Mariana Sadovska used the music from rural Ukraine as a jumping off point for the score.
"Sometimes melodies are the same, sometimes I little bit change the melodies or rhythms or like, you know I love to combine different songs. Basically it's always looking for how to find expression for the heart, which is inside the song."
This piece combines six different songs in a kind of Rusalka mash-up. Not everyone approves of this technique. One ethnomusicologist has criticized Sadovska's compositions for taking too many liberties with an already endangered tradition. But stage director Ellen Sebastian Chang says groups like Kitka actually do more to preserve folkloric culture than those who try to copy it exactly.
"I think that's the greatest way in fact that you save tradition, is that you allow it to become a part of you and transformed by you. Because if tradition is rigid, it will die."
The Rusalka Cycle previews tonight in San Francisco, with performances tomorrow through Sunday. Kitka is planning appearances later this year in New Mexico and Ukraine. For The World, I'm Zoe Corneli in San Francisco.