In Berkeley: It’s a woman’s woman’s woman’s world

Kitka. Photo: Thomas Pacha
Kitka: the eight-women Oakland choir plays on Sunday at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley. Photo: Thomas Pacha

Sisterhood isn’t just powerful it sounds hella good. Venues around Berkeley hardly need International Women’s Day (March 8) for inspiration to feature great female musicians, but from Freight & Salvage to R. Kassman Fine Pianos and Berkeley High there are numerous women-centric concerts and events taking place in the coming days.

On 8 p.m. Sunday, the 30th Jewish Music Festival presents the great Bay Area choir Kitka at the Freight, an event that also includes the JMF’s Shofar Award ceremony honoring folk music legend Ronnie Gilbert.

The eight-women Oakland ensemble has developed a vast, breathtaking repertoire of traditional songs from the Balkans, Caucasus, and Slavic lands and new material composed for the group drawing on those Eastern European vocal traditions. For the JMF, Kitka is presenting an array of material, including pieces from last year’s album I Will Remember Everything. The album features composer Eric Banks’ settings of the long censored verse of Sophia Parnok (1885-1933), known as “Russia’s Sappho” for her emotionally charged poems to her lover, the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva.

Kitka is also presenting several very recent additions to the repertoire gathered during last month’s Yiddish music residency by groundbreaking ethnographer and performer Ethel Raim, the artistic director of New York’s Center for Traditional Music and Dance. One of the first American ethnomusicologists to penetrate the Iron Curtain in the 1960s, she made recordings of women’s group in Eastern Europe and ended up founding the pioneering a cappella ensemble the Pennywhistlers.


“Ethel is still going strong in her late 70s,” says Kitka’s executive and artistic director Shira Cion, a longtime West Berkeley resident. “She grew up in Yiddish speaking family and we had an amazing time working with her.”

Given the interlaced world of folk music, it’s not surprising that there’s a strong connection between Raim and Ronnie Gilbert, running through Pete Seeger (who was a buddy of Raim’s and a member of the Weavers with Gilbert). When JMF director Ellie Shapiro raised the idea of presenting the Shofar Award at the Kitka concert, Cion immediately reached out to Raim to get her involved. Her ensemble already had an engagement in Germany, but she was able to come out and work with Kitka teaching lyric Yiddish love songs passed down from mother to daughter. While Kitka isn’t often identified with political causes, Cion says that Gilbert’s history as an activist in the movements for labor, civil rights, peace and women’s rights resonates deeply with the ensemble. But ultimately it’s her voice that “makes her an icon for all of us,” Cion says. “She such a strong singer. That powerful full voice isn’t so far from what you hear in a field in Russia, Bulgaria, or Ukraine.”

JazzGirls day at Berkeley High on Saturday

The Girls in the Band
The Girls in the Band

Raising up girls so that they develop confident voices of their own is what JazzGirls Day at Berkeley High is all about. A national event that takes place in New York City, Seattle, San Francisco and Berkeley High’s Community Theater (from 1-5 p.m. on Saturday), JazzGirls provides elementary and middle school students ages 10-14 with an afternoon of free master classes, a jam session and concert. The workshops are led by some of the finest musicians and educators in the region, including bassists Ruth Davies and Ariane Cap, drummer Daria “Shani” Johnson, pianists Tammy Hall and Cava Menzies, saxophonists Nancy Boyles, Kasey Knudsen and Jean Fineberg, trombonist (and Berkeley High School Jazz Director) Sarah Cline, trumpeter Ellen Seeling, violinist India Cooke, and vocalist Janice Maxie-Reid. All families and friends are invited to a free screening of the documentary about women in jazz, The Girls in the Band, in the Berkeley High’s Little Theater from 4-5 p.m.

Adrienne Torf: performing on Sunday

Adrienne Torf
Adrienne Torf

In a rare East Bay appearance, veteran pianist/composer Adrienne Torf performs 5 p.m. Sunday at R. Kassman Fine Pianos as part of Barbara Higbie’s monthly solo recital series Sunday at the 88’s. Over the years she’s toured and recorded with artists like Holly Near, Linda Tillery, Ferron, and Kay Gardner, though she’s probably best known for her long-running collaboration with the late poet and political activist June Jordan. Their creative partnership included the full-length opera Bang Bang Über Alles, which was produced off-Broadway and by Atlanta’s Seven Stages Theater, and 2003 album June June Jordan & Adrienne Torf: Collaboration (Selected Works, 1983-2000) featuring guest vocals by Rhiannon, Jeanie Tracy, Cris Williamson and Andre dos Santos Morgan.

Andrew Gilbert writes for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.


For more events in and around Berkeley, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. And submit your own events there — the calendar is free and self-serve.