Flutes for God

For 14 years, Bon Singer poured her musical talents into Kitka, a highly-acclaimed women’s choral group based in the Bay Area.

After leaving the group in 1996, she realized she wanted something different.

“The music that I did with Kitka just grabs you by the spirit or the heart or the gut, yet the lyrical content is not particularly spiritual,” she said.

Though she was drawn to the intricacy of Eastern European music — with its lush harmonies — it was not a kind of music that she considered her own. She felt drawn to compose similar music as she did with Kitka, yet of a Jewish bent.

Calling the women “flutes for God,” Singer said, “I wanted to do the kind of music that grabs you by the spirit but has spiritual content too and has a message of unity as well as our own vulnerability.”

So in 2001, she founded Ya Elah. And with five of its members singing regularly at houses of worship, the “flutes for God” part is no exaggeration.

Singer, who lives in Albany, sings regularly at Chochmat HaLev, the Jewish meditation center in Berkeley, as does the ensemble’s executive director, Cyrise Beatty. Nina Perlman has recently begun singing there as well. Marsha Attie serves as the cantorial soloist at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El’s late Shabbat service. And Alisa Fineman is the cantorial soloist at Congregation Beth Israel in Carmel.

Their sound grabs people to such a degree that one of its percussionists, Tim Rayborn, approached them the first time he saw them perform, saying “I have to be in this band.”

And though it has been performing steadily for the past three years, the ensemble has just released its first CD, “Each of Us.”

The CD took longer than expected because last year, one of the group’s members, Freyda Epstein, died in a car accident.

“Not only were we in shock, but she had a key part,” said Beatty. “We stopped recording and had to find more members and get our feet back on the ground. This music is complicated if you haven’t done it before, and a lot of us are not necessarily Balkan singers. We had to grow into it and feel ready.”

Most of the tracks on the CD are taken directly from Jewish traditional sources. But a few have a more interfaith bent.

Beatty said that for her, the last track, called “Kol HaN’Shama/La Ilaha Il Allah” exemplifies the message of the ensemble. The first part comes from the last line of the Psalm 150, and the second is the central statement of Islam. Calling it the “Islamic Sh’ma,” Beatty translated it as: “There is no God but God.”

“These are two very divided and sometimes antagonistic spiritual paths,” she said, “and for us to recognize the oneness between our cousins and brothers and sisters is a really strong feeling in the heart.”

Other songs include Buddhist and Hindu liturgy, which fits in well with the universal message of the group.

“We get to experience that crashing over, that praying in another person’s shoes and really have the experience of feeling the amazingness of these prayers and making those bridges in real time,” said Beatty.

For Singer and for Beatty, the goal is not only to entertain but to inspire.

Beatty said that after three years of performing, she is glad that people will be able to listen to their music at home as well.

“This has been such a sacred project,” she said. “Sharing these heartfelt songs and prayers with people so it transforms them and creates healing for them is what it’s about for us. I want people to have access to that whenever they need it.”

Ya Elah will perform 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 4, at Giorgi Gallery, 2911 Claremont Ave., Berkeley. $12. Information: (510) 848-1228.

“Each of Us,” by Ya Elah, is available at www.yaelah.com.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."