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Written in fRoots issue 359, May 2013

Dziediet, Meitas, Vokora

Lauska LAUSKA CD035 (2012)

You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. The wonderful close-intervals-against-drone groktalica singing we recorded in the Dinaric mountain hinterland of Dalmatia for the Žegar Živi CD is still a living rural tradition, just about, though who knows for how much longer. But it’s an example of a type of polyphonic singing, now to us a thrilling and exotic sound, which seems to have been much wider-spread in Europe and beyond, an old layer of European music that remains closer to the surface in some places than others.
     In the Selija region of south east Latvia, on the border with Lithuania, a version of that old polyphony, in this case two voices plus a drone harmonising often in edgy seconds, continued until the early twentieth century. It was to be found particularly in the rotasana, spring songs, which have a chorus of the word “rota”, and Midsummer Eve songs with their “ligo” chorus.
    In 1891 Andrejs Jurjans and in 1923 Emilis Melngailis went to Selija and transcribed some of the songs – for spring, midsummer, Christmas, wedding, funeral, milling, mythological songs, game and teasing songs, lullabies, mummers’ songs, shepherds’ calls, soldiers’ songs. They’re written transcriptions; no recordings of the living tradition exist to show how the singing really sounded. So Saucejas, the eight-member female vocal group of the Latvian Academy of Culture, worked from the transcriptions, experience and intuition to make the recordings on this CD. Jurjans and Melngailis also collected men’s songs, goat-horn melodies and a kokle tune, so some tracks are sung or played by guest males.
     That perhaps makes it sound like this could be a pretty academic listen, but their singing is very Latvian, strong, unaffected and non-arty, the melodies are richly, varied and interesting, and the well-recorded result is striking and impressive.
The CD comes in a very well put together hardback book-style pack, with nearly a hundred pages of text, in Latvian and good English, and photos. With notable modesty, there’s only one photo of the Saucejas group, and even that an old one from 2008.


© 2013 Andrew Cronshaw

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