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 nominally 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.