Local-music group a Babel of languages


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Six women sitting around a table — chatting and laughing at 100 mph — is quite intimidating for an outsider. For Kol Shira, Iowa City’s own world-music group, it’s just a typical night.

“If we know we have songs to work on, first we chat [and] get it out of our system for a few minutes,” lead vocalist Valerie Davine Bills said. “We all talk over each other a bit. But there is a lot of discussion — does this sound OK? What about this harmony? Do you want to do it this way? How do you want the intro/outro/interlude?”

Cello player Julie Anolik Cassell often needs to put up a sign that says “focus,” just to get the group back on track.

Kol Shira, which means “voice of song” in Hebrew, will take the stage at 7 p.m. today at the Mill, 120 E. Burlington St. Admission is $6.

The six-piece all-woman ensemble’s repertoire comprises music from all over the world and includes more than 12 languages. Needless to say, it isn’t your typical Iowa City rock band. The group formed almost 20 years ago with current guitarist Deb Singer and bass player Linda Wertz. More members were gradually added over the years — Bills (lead vocals), Cassell (percussion, cello), Rita Offutt (voice, guitar, percussion), and Karen Charney (flute).

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Charney believes the group stands out because of the area the members live in. The eclectic community of Iowa City gives bands such as Kol Shira an opportunity to thrive, she said. The members aren’t aware of any similar bands within 100 miles.

“It’s a nice niche in Iowa City, which is kind of a diverse town,” Charney said. “There’s not another group like us.”

This type of group is not only rare in Iowa, Offutt said, but in the United States as well. If a similar group is playing in New York or California, it’s usually not from the United States, she said.

“A lot of these other groups come from places such as Israel or Lebanon,” she said. “A lot of the more popular singers who do this type of music are from the Middle East or Africa. They come here to do the music.”

Although Kol Shira’s members aren’t fluent in all the languages of the band’s music, the women take the time to understand the songs and what they mean, even if it’s not word-for-word translations.

When Kol Shira first formed, the members played Jewish literature, which eventually led them to the ancient Judeo-Spanish dialect of Ladino.

“We liked that, so we thought, ‘OK, we’re going to move into Spanish [music],’” Offutt said. “So we got Spanish and then Russian, and somehow it would grow, and we liked a certain sound, so we would get songs that sounded like that.”

Kol Shira’s collective input helps define the band’s musicality, Bills said.

“I think we all have our preferences,” she said. “I really have a bent for Latin music. I speak Spanish; I like that music.”

The band members note that the Internet is a useful tool to find new sounds.

“I discovered other people doing music I liked, and I would say [to the other members] ‘Listen to this,’ and we’d pick something up and make it into ours.” Offutt said. “We listen to a tune, change it, and make it work for us.”

The band members believe using such an intense variety of music from all over the world allows them to promote unity among cultures. Wertz said the band sings one particular song about love that contains seven different languages.

“It’s about celebrating life.”

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