After two decades of international performance and four acclaimed albums on its own Oakland-based Diaphonica label, a cappella octet Kitka could reasonably be called the Bay Area's premier Balkan vocal ensemble. Like a scaled-down version of the popular Eastern European export Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares, Kitka mines the rich traditions of Bulgarian folk song. The ensemble also explores the sinewy Balkan and Slavic melodies of Albania, Macedonia, Romania, Hungary, Georgia, Russia, the Ukraine, and the former Yugoslavia.
But far from being a dry ethnographic or purist study, Kitka often invigorates centuries-old tunes with contemporary arrangements. The group's ornate transformation of the simple Hungarian bridal dance “Hopp Ide Tisztan,” on last year's Nectar, recalls the almost supernatural lilt of Marie Daulne's Zap Mama. Drawing on the band's signature musical device — diaphonics — the track features one singer laying down a drone note as the foundation, around which the other vocalists create a trancelike base as a catapult for gorgeous harmony.
Much of Kitka's material on Nectar suggests the note-perfect austerity of early English polyphony or Christian sacred music. But in concert, the Kitka singers soften the high seriousness of their sound by introducing the stories behind their down-to-earth songs from a less than heavy-handed pulpit. Ultimately though, the words matter little. The lure is in the voices.
Kitka performs on Saturday, Jan. 29, at 8 p.m. at CenterStage (Hoytt Theater at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center), 200 North San Pedro Rd., San Rafael. Tickets are $24 ($20 for members); call 479-2000.