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Written in fRoots issue 198, 1999

Paganu Gadagramata

Upe CD 009 (1999)

Saules Meita

Upe CD 004 (1998)

Lullabies For Husbands

Erdenklang 91062 (1999)

Only recently emerged from the approved-folklorism era of Soviet rule, the three Baltic states have so far seen the release of a mere handful of roots music releases, and several of them have been on foreign labels.
      In Latvia, though, the label Upe, owned and run by Ainars Mielavs, leader of popular rock band Jauns Meness, has in the last couple of years made huge strides, with impressively-packaged, well-recorded albums in several genres.

      The first release in Upe’s “Latvian Folk Music Collection”, Paganu Gadagramata (Pagan Almanac) put together by Ugis Praulins, is exactly what I was hoping to hear, but didn’t expect to happen so soon. A triumphant, subtle union of the narrow-compass, insistent songs from the same ancient layer of European music as Finnish runo-songs with the transparent freedom of articulately-used modern studio technology, it explores and revels in the material. It flows beautifully, with voices intimately upfront, uncertain, strident or distant, whispering, chiming kokle, buzzing bagpipes, rough energy in an intriguing landscape of grainy textures, with big pulsing rhythms emerging naturally from the music, not grafted on. Praulins plays keyboards, kokle (the Latvian zither, similar to a Finnish kantele), kalimba and flutes, and takes some of the vocals, with singer and fiddler Ilga Reiznice and bagpiper/accordionist/singer Maris Muktupavels (also a kokle player, but not for this album), bassist Andris Alvikis, percussionist Nils Ile and Jauns Meness guitarist and engineer Gints Sola.

      Reiznice and Muktupavels constitute the main folk component of Jauns Meness, and also continue with their folk band Ilgi, which in its new album Saules Meita (The Sun’s Daughter) shows the effects of its Jauns Meness connection in a partial move from a largely acoustic sound to something closer to folk-rock, slightly reminiscent of the sound of formative-period Malicorne. The most recent live Ilgi set I saw took advantage of the rock staging and PA to feature a rhythm section, but this is absent from Saules Meita, which moves between the gutty new fuller sound and the band’s sparser acoustic heartland of voices, bowed strings, kokle, bagpipes, chunky accordion and some percussion. It’s not high-powered, but it’s very Latvian.
Neither of these albums made a padded-envelope entry chez moi - I had to go to Latvia to get them, but let’s hope they’ll soon find foreign distributors.

      There are at present no CDs of Estonian roots music on Estonian labels. Kirile Loo’s albums are on a German label, whose publicity raises a critic’s suspicions by emphasising her self-description as a “runic witch” and mentioning parallels that have been drawn with Björk and Mari Boine. Indeed they have opened up a lot of the territory she now moves in, but no-one else in Estonia is using runo-song and more recent traditional roots to make modern Estonian non-classical music like this.
      Lullabies For Husbands moves away from the ambient traditional-instrument soundscapes of her first album to a hefty world-beat sound, in which all the instruments - violin, flutes, guitar, hiiukannel (bowed lyre like a Finnish jouhikko), synths and samples - are played by Tiit Kikas. She’s very lucky to have found such an inventive musician and arranger; his energetic, sympathetic rhythm and sound environments integrate tightly with her commanding, passionate vocals, which have traditional tunes and lyrics as their centre but often move far outside them into an ecstatic, expressive personal territory.
      Very recently Loo has begun to perform this sort of thing live with a co-vocalist and techno/acoustic band, and from the short snatch I’ve seen they appear a promising prospect for the world music scene.

© 1999 Andrew Cronshaw

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