When the Iron Curtain came down at the end of WWII effectively splitting Europe into East and West, in some ways it only emphasized a division that had existed long before the rise of Communism. Ever since the Roman Empire split in two with the East being ruled by an emperor in what was then Constantinople (Istanbul in present day Turkey) and the power in the West remained seated in Rome, the two halves of the same continent have moved in different directions. When the Empire in the West collapsed it descended into what we now refer to as the Dark Ages, while the Eastern Empire flourished becoming a centre of trade and culture.
To the rest of Europe there has always been something mysterious and slightly dark about the eastern countries. They have deep and dangerous forests where unknown creatures lurk and high mysterious mountains that could be home to any sort of nameless dread. It's no real coincidence that the story of Dracula was set in Romania. These were places where witches lurked in glades waiting to lure small plump children to their death and spells could cast enchanted sleeps that lasted hundreds of years. Now it may seem odd to mention all of this in connection to a recording made up of lullabies, but the CD being released by the San Francisco based women's vocal group Kitka, Cradle Songs on their own Diaphonica label, isn't what most of us would expect from songs nominly used for putting children to sleep. In fact some of them sound like they would give most children nightmares rather than sweet dreams.
Of the eighteen tracks on this CD thirteen have Eastern European roots, two are Jewish - which amounts to being about the same thing when it comes to music - one Russian/Ukrainian, one American, and one, "Nani, Nani, Kitka Mou", is made up of fragments of songs from around the world. However, and given their predominance it's not much of a surprise, it's the Eastern European songs that leave the strongest impression on the listener. While translations of the lyrics are supplied in the booklet that accompany the CD, we can't help be effected by the sound of the music and, in some cases, their almost dissonant harmonies, which give the tunes an eerie almost scary sound.
True, the lyrics to the songs when translated into English belay some of the strangeness of the music. However, the contrast between the gentle nature of the words and the offsetting sound of the music end up making the pieces sound even more alien in some ways. How can we reconcile the one with the other? Part of the problem is what we have been conditioned to expect a lullaby to sound like through our exposure to Hallmark card like expressions of sentiment that are meant to pass for emotions. In much the way the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm have been turned into the saccharine tales we see presented by the good folk at Walt Disney - try comparing the cartoon version of Cinderella with the original Brothers Grimm tale some day if you want to see what I'm talking about - lullabies and cradle songs have been diluted into sweet and airy tunes.
Here they are replete with references to Goddesses of fertility like in "Megruli Nana", the second song on the disc, where not only is Nana a Georgian word for lullaby and mother, but is also traceable to an ancient oriental Goddess of fertility and light. "Nana (sleep), my darling. The child resembles the sun and the moon". Throughout the disc variations on the word nana (nani, and nanourisma - Romanian and Albanian respectively) show up, and in each case the same multiplicity of meanings is implied. "Kakhuri Nana", the ninth song on the disc, starts off with "I'll sing nana to you. Go to sleep, little rose", where nana could mean lullaby. However it finishes with "In mother's bosom you have found your sweet home." Which could either imply being rocked to sleep in your mother's arms, or being buried in the ground in the earth Goddesses arms.
Not the most cheerful or delightful of sentiments is it? However it represents the reality of a people who would have lived with a high infant mortality rate. Lullaby's that offer comfort to both the child and the parent would have been common if they had to wish a child safe journey very often. Even today we talk about somebody being in the cradle of their saviour's arms when they die, especially in gospel songs. Therefore its not much of a leap for lullabies and cradle songs to do double duty for mourning and easing a child into sleep for the night.
The eight women of Kitka take it in turns to sing leads on the various songs while the others supply harmonies and background vocals. While some of the songs are quite straightforward in their arrangements, it's the more complex ones where they really shine. Here the distinct personalities of each voice comes clear, and instead of merely sounding like another choir singing a sweet song, they take on character that increases our interest. In some instances it appears they are each singing a different harmony, and it's those songs in which we can really feel the power of the music they are singing. These are also the songs which allow us to hear just how different the songs of Eastern Europe are from what we are used to, and the skill required to bring them to life.
Cradle Songs not only offers the listener an opportunity to experience the power and mystery of Eastern European choral music, but is a fine example of what the human voice is capable of creating. Kitka are by far one of the most exciting and challenging vocal ensembles you're going to hear in North America, and their music is always an enchanting delight to listen too. This disc is a perfect example of why they have gained a reputation for performing difficult music with grace and style.
(Originally posted November 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.