At ‘The Eve of March,’ Kitka, Vajra women’s ensembles embody, celebrate divinity of women

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It’s not too often that a Friday night is graceful in the city, but last Friday’s performance by Kitka Women’s Vocal Ensemble and Vajra Voices brought poise and elegance to Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

The event, called “The Eve of the March,” was a celebration of women in the community. The title refers to the 2019 Women’s March in San Francisco, which occurred the next day. The organizers of the vocal event encouraged attendees of the concert to join the march and share a message of grace for all.

Grace Cathedral has a long history of social justice work, dating back to the 1930s. Between the civil rights movement of the ‘60s, the women’s movement of the ‘70s, and the AIDS epidemic of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the cathedral has actively supported people throughout the Bay Area.

Down the center aisle of the pews, a winding trail of paper doves hung from the ceiling to guide viewers to the stage. As the women of San Francisco-based group Vajra Voices began their chanting, the doves floated back and forth from the reverberations.

Vajra Voices consists of five women who sing in styles “medieval to modern,” per the event’s program. Many of the songs the group performed were composed by Hildegard of Bingen, a German female composer and musician of the 1100s. The combination of the women’s booming voices reached the souls of audience members, who watched in awe from the pews for the entire two-hour performance.

Because the stage platform wasn’t too high above the audience, it was often difficult to see the women singing. The Vajra Voices members moved from the stage to every corner of the crowd, sometimes walking up and down the center aisle or nesting at the back. The constant movement showed that watching wasn’t exactly necessary — the women drew attention to their voices and proved that their physical presence wasn’t the focus.

Since most of the songs weren’t sung in English and were separated by instrumental breaks, it was difficult to follow the program to know which song was being performed when. Frankly, however, that didn’t really matter either; it was easy to fall into a trance when listening to the women, and orienting yourself in the concert didn’t need to come from a nicely printed pamphlet.

Kitka Women’s Vocal Ensemble entered the room shortly after the intro by Vajra Voices. Walking in from the back and up the center aisle, the Kitka women began with a fusion of calls influenced by Eastern European and Eurasian styles. The two groups merged in the middle of the aisle, sharing space for the rest of the concert.

The voices of the Kitka and Vajra women mixed well together, with each individual adding her own flair to the overall sound. Together, the singers moved to the back of the audience, and the power of the women’s voices emulated a medieval Florence Welch.

During the performance of “To Burst To Bloom,” a series of poems by 12th-century Taoist writer Sun Bu’er set to music by composer Theresa Wong, the women’s voices rose to a high octave, occasionally sounding like sophisticated slide whistles.

It wasn’t all voices during the night, however. Instrumentalist Shira Kammen brought the elegance of the vielle, a string instrument similar to a violin, to the mix in instrumental transitions between vocal rushes. Her solos were powerful, and her skill was highly demonstrated through her fluid motions with her instrument.

Toward the middle of the performance, the women led the audience in joining in on the song “Lumen, accipe,” a chant and three-part canon piece. The lyrics sung translate to “receive the light and pass it on / I give that you may give.”

“The Eve of March” embodied the essence of strength, wisdom and love within and of women everywhere. Between the spirit of nature and the glow of light, these women showed how spirituality and the power of women go together hand in hand.

Skylar De Paul covers music. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @skylardepaul.