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Written in fRoots issue 228, 2002
Kukū SMF 007 (2001)
Vai Ant Kalno
Kukū SMF 008 (2000)
Unfond farewell to the Soviet Union, then a pause for resource-gathering, and now it seems a stream of new-roots melt-water is beginning to flow from Lithuania, as it is from its Baltic-region neighbours.
The debut release by ten-member Lithuanian band Atalyja jumps in as a fully-formed new integration of the old music with approaches that might loosely be described as rock.
It’s no easy folk-rockification, though. As with the older aspects of the traditional musics of other parts of the region of the Baltic and eastwards - Finno-Ugrian runo-song and Latvian vocal music, for example - Atalyja’s traditional song melodies, mainly seasonal songs and the polyphonic songs known as sutartines, are very narrow in compass, virtually never straying outside a repeated short sequence made from the first five notes of a diatonic minor scale, and they often use less, frequently just four, sometimes only two. The band has the task of enveloping these tunes, so minimal they’re almost akin to the patterns of Western once-avant-garde systems music, in an instrumental, arranging and production garb that communicates with a present day audience.
They do it by suspending the song, delivered variously by five singers, female and male, in a kind of weary moderate yell (I don’t think I mean that badly) over a bass guitar pattern, and adding in the other instruments - kankles (the Lithuanian equivalent of Finnish kantele), bagpipes, fiddle, viola, flute, skuduciai (unassembled panpipes), guitar, tabla and drums - in overlapping figures or suggestions of canon. The warm, looping bass lines have a crucial role somewhat akin to Hugues de Courson’s in early Malicorne. Indeed the grainy instrumental textures strike parallels with those of the French band, which like Atalyja created a modern but not jollifying or simplistically syncopating expression for a body of traditional material.
Veronika Povilioniene’s album is very different. Unlike the young upstarts of Atalyja, the singer whose calm face fills the booklet cover, framed nun-like by white head-cloth, has been performing folksongs since the 1960s, when despite the Soviets’ cultural levelling there was academic study of folksong, and the academics sang. Veronika, studying philology at Vilnius University, knew songs from her childhood in the “shrewish and very sonorous, rich in mushroom and berry district” of Dzukija, and over the years she became a well-known singer. Much of the traditional material she sings, in a fine, unaffected, even voice, has a much wider tonal compass than that performed by Atalyja.
For about half the 22 tracks on the album, seemingly recorded between 1986 and 2000, she’s recorded in a forest, her voice accompanied only by the occasional avian twitter. The parts of the booklet notes that are translated into splendidly unchecked near-English describe that aspect of the recording, and mention collaborations she has done with various musicians and composers which seem to be represented here, but there’s no translation of Veronika’s own notes and so neither warning nor explanation, to non-Lithuanian speakers at least, of the collisions to come after the opening couple of unaccompanied tracks. On track 3 sneaking in behind her are synthy sounds, which build up to a take-over by an 80s-style jazz-rock band at full squee. Then back to the forest for a couple more solo songs, before the appearance of a jerky-honky tenor sax, with which she intertwines a recitative narrow-compass song with bursts of fast speech; it’s an entertaining dialogue, until towards the end the saxist wanders off into bebop.
And so this intriguingly patched together album proceeds, punctuating solos with items in which she’s joined variously by an acapella folk-choral vocal group, rousing masculine choral vocals and street sounds, a waltz song with dum-ching-ching guitar part and accordion, a set of appealingly natural play songs with a chuckling infant, a serenely floating duet with sax, until the final track where her still quiet solo is, for some non-obvious reason, brutally terminated by an aggressive rock-band male chant. This is one of those records you find yourself going back to, not only because it features a lovely singer of interesting traditional material but also for its awakening lurches into oddness.
© 2002 Andrew Cronshaw
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