Travel to the Lost Homelands of Armenia on a Musical Tour Led by Kitka

2 min
Singer and ethnomusicologist Hasmik Harutyunyan performs ancient Armenian folk music with Oakland's all-female chorus Kitka in “Gorani: Love Songs to Lost Homelands.” (Photo: Courtesy of M. Zakrzewski )

For 40 years now, an all-female vocal ensemble from Oakland has led audiences in the Bay Area and beyond down a musical rabbit hole to visit the imagined recesses of our collective past in Europe and Eurasia.

The eight women of Kitka Women's Vocal Ensemble call on that past in polyphonic unison, performing a staggering variety of traditional music that evokes, not your past per se, but that of your great-grandmothers, in some village lost to the mists of time, and often, tragedy. It's powerful stuff, both because the singing is fabulous, but also because the singers of Kitka do their homework and collaborate with people who come from the countries where these ancient lullabies, love songs and laments are sung.

This month, Kitka brought over Hasmik Harutyunyan, one of the premier voices of Armenian folk music, who runs the Shoghaken Folk Ensemble and directs the Hayrik Muradyan Traditional Song and Dance Children's Ensemble in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. Tonight, she performs the last concert of a series, Gorani: Love Songs to Lost Homelands.

Harutyunyan says the concerts delivers exactly what the title implies: a musical bridge to village life before the slaughter and forced diaspora of the early 20th century.

"After the concert, people are coming to me and sometimes they’re so excited. They’re telling, ‘Oh that’s the song my parents or grandparents were singing.’" This music, she says, takes them on a journey to their childhood.

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"This is actually our third collaborative project with Hasmik Harutyunyan," says Kitka's longtime artistic director Shira Cion. "She’s taught us so much. She’s so generous spirited. She’s like an encyclopedia of Armenian folk music."

Bay Area institution Kitka is celebrating its 40th year performing traditional folk music from Europe and Eurasia, as well as introducing folk musicians from those regions to American audiences.
Bay Area institution Kitka is celebrating its 40th year performing traditional folk music from Europe and Eurasia, as well as introducing folk musicians from those regions to American audiences. (Photo: Courtesy of Tomas Pacha)

Harutyunyan is no stranger to the US. She was last in the US with Kitka nearly ten years ago. She performed at Carnegie Hall and participated in Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project. Her music can also be heard on the soundtrack of the film Ararat.

Kitka's fascination with Armenian folk singing might seem obvious, but the music is a departure from the rich harmonies and intricate ornamentation of traditional Eastern European vocal music Kitka is known for. (Kitka means “bouquet” in Bulgarian and Macedonian.)

"Armenian music is really a different colored crayon than what we're accustomed to," says Cion. "Most of Kitka's repertoire is polyphonic, meaning scored for many voices singing in harmony. Whereas Armenian music is modal music and monodic music. So it's different. It's really based on melody lines that interact with a bass drone pitch. This sort of music is much more common in the Near East, in Indian music and Persian music. Because there isn't so much fussing with the harmonies, the melody lines are particularly beautiful, intricate, rich and compelling."

This program also features the music of by the Armenian composer and folk song collector Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935), an iconic figure in Armenian history.

"He was very much like Bartok was for Hungary or Alan Lomax was for American folk music. As a Western trained classical composer, he took inspiration from these folk melodies and created harmonized choral pieces in a more Western classical tradition, both for choirs and for the piano," Cion says.

Thanks to the work of Vardapet and his students, thousands of traditional songs survived the Armenian Genocide of 1914-1923. Harutyunyan aims to do the same in modern times. Ororotsayin, Harutyunyan's new book and CD anthology of 57 historical Armenian lullabies, includes mostly songs that have never been recorded before.

Harutyunyan first learned to love her tradition at the knee of her grandmother who sang to her as a child in historic (Western) Armenia. As an adult, Harutyunyan picked up more from other grandmothers, as well as from their descendants and old song collections.

For Harutyunyan, this practice of ethnomusicology is not academic. "Folk songs are the road to take to go back to our homeland. If we lose that road, we are going to be lost forever."

Along those lines, Harutyunyan notes, "We still have thousands of music, songs and melodies in khaz. That's the old Armenian notation system. We lost the key to read these melodies. So we are still waiting for some day when some smart generation will be able to read these melodies and songs.

There's a sizable Armenian-American population in the San Francisco Bay Area, concentrated in and around San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose. Harutyunyan's concerts typically draw a large turnout. Might there be some Silicon Valley techies in the audience game to take up that challenge? "Maybe," she muses, laughing. "Computer now is doing so many amazing things. Why not? This is the time!"

You can catch the last concert of this series tonight at the Hammer Theatre Center in San Jose. Details here.

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