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Written in Folk Roots issue 169, 1997

Mordvin Songs

Mipu MIPUCD 502 (1997)

Lituanie - Le Pays Des Chansons

Ocora C 600005 (1997)

Mordvin Songs is, as far as I know, the first commercial recording made for Western release of the traditional music of the Republic of Mordva, south-east of Moscow.
      Toorama is a seven-member male vocal group, performing the music it collects largely from the villages of the Erzyan people. Typically the tunes are pentatonic, a lead voice followed after a few notes by the group singing in a robust, almost plain-chant way, but unlike plain-chant there’s not only unison but also octaves and fifths, centring on an implied drone, with the tune ending either on the drone note or a tone below. It has that thick, vibrant sound that I remember as my dominant impression when I first heard the Watersons singing Three Score And Ten. Rhythms are a series of steady one-beats with ties and occasional linking pairs of half-beats, which could add up for the numerically-inclined to varying bars of five or six.
      The songs speak of horses, weddings, storks, a boy hiding from invading armies, nature, the oven fairy... Indeed, if there’s a prevailing lyrical spirit it’s of beauty constantly threatened by war - like a real-life sound-track to that rarely-shown gem of a film The Last Valley.

      A 1200 Km crow-flight west from Mordva and you’re in the largest and southernmost of the states on the Baltic Sea, Lithuania. Ocora/Radio France’s release of recordings made for Lithuanian Radio between 1958 and late 1995 shows that despite the formal disciplining of approved aspects of folklore into the “colourful folkloric spectacle” state ensembles of the former Soviet Union, people continued to sing, and play fiddle, kankles (the Lithuanian equivalent of Finnish kantele), accordion, bandoneon and other instruments in a variety of regional styles, and were recorded for the radio’s archives.
      There’s the polyphony, vocal and instrumental, of the sutartinčs of the Aukštaiciai people of the north-west, the minor-key monophonic singing of the Dzukai in the south-east, field-working songs, wedding songs, dance tunes and more here, performed sometimes by organised groups but all with the stamp of the real thing. During the repressive Soviet times the few good recordings of Baltic traditional music released were mostly on French labels, and now that things have changed it’s good to see Ocora continuing to make this remarkable music available.

© 1997 Andrew Cronshaw

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