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Written in fRoots issue 227, 2002
Upe UPE CD 021 (2001)
Upe UPE CD 028 (2001)
Upe UPE CD 026 (2001)
Upe UPE CD 025 (2001)
Music From Latvia
Cooking Vinyl International Music Series GUMBO CD022 (2001)
A clutch of recent new releases from Latvian label Upe’s Latvian Music Collection, in its characteristic elegantly designed plastic-framed cardboard packs.
As approaches to Latvian folk music emerge from the ways of Sovietism, in effect a new folk scene is emerging. As part of that process Ainars Mielavs’s label (which also issues Latvian music in other genres) is continuing to release a stream of these CDs, pulling traditional songs out of memories and written collections into new life. Before Upe began, there was hardly any Latvian traditional music on CD, and none on a Latvian label. What had appeared on vinyl or cassette before 1991’s independence bore the heavy stamp of Soviet approval, and after it Latvian musicians struggled financially to release anything at all.
While some in the series, such as Ugis Praulins’ 1999 Paganu Gadagramatu or the works on the same label of the bands Ilgi or Jauns Meness, expand on the material with developed arrangements or atmospherics, all of the four here simply present the songs in uncomplicated arrangements, with the main intention of getting people singing some of them again in a natural way.
So on Skaistakas Dziesmas (“The most beautiful songs”) we get a selection of songs from across the country, chosen by Mielavs and Ilgi’s Ilga Reizniece, sung by a roster of male and female singers and variously and lightly accompanied on instruments including kokles (the Latvian version of the Baltic zither known in Finland as a kantele), guitar, fiddle and bass.
Kyukova Dzagyuze (“Songs of the cuckoo”), performed by the five-member female group Laiksne, concentrates on their specialty, the body of songs from Latgale, Latvia’s easternmost province, in which the cuckoo is used as a symbol of ill fortune, sorrow or transition. Again simply sung, gently accompanied on plucked or strummed kokles, fiddle, quietly plucked bass or, on the last track, what sounds like plastic whirly-bloogle tubes.
Labritini, Ritina consists of children’s songs, sung entirely by Ilga Reizniece’s nursery pupils at Jkrmala Alternative School, accompanied in places by Reizniece on fiddle, kokles and whistle, Jauns Meness guitarist (and recording engineer on all these albums) Gints Sola, and occasional light percussion or keyboard. While clearly of use mainly to other small children and their significant adults, it’s not the massed shout one might dread; the children mostly sing one at a time, with considerable cuteness and personality. Part of Reizniece’s booklet note is worth quoting: “As a folklore teacher I have come to realise that you can’t really “teach” folklore. That’s because a folk song is more a relationship than notes or words. Folklore has never been a school subject; it’s the very life of our ancestors simply given a foreign name”.
Alus Dziesmas means “Beer songs” and it’s the only one of these that isn’t gentle; in fact it’s as brutally hearty and rowdy and accordionish oompah as its name implies, with titles like I’m A Hearty Drinker, Where Are You Beer, My Mate?, Here Comes The Beer Can, and Listen Beer, Let Me In. But this music’s part of the tradition too: “The modern revival of beer drinking and its reinforcement by singing helps us to partly revitalise the habits of our ancestors - to socialise, to feast, to drink beer without getting drunk, and to sing”. And after what they’ve had to put up with Latvians deserve some noisy fun, and they do make excellent beer.
It’s not easy for a person such as Mielavs to release what he does and be economically viable; foreign interest and sales are a great help, so it’s good to see Cooking Vinyl bringing out Music From Latvia, a well-programmed and listenable compilation of tracks from these albums and the rest of the Upe Latvian roots catalogue, including the more world-crossover releases such as Paganu Gadagramatu, Ilgi’s Sow The Wind, and the Latvian Bagpipes CD that has raised some interest further west. It’s a shame, though, that the resources of a UK label haven’t matched up to the inviting classiness of Upe’s design and packaging to make this a CD that says “buy me - I look interesting and exotic”. All it has bestowed is a standard jewel case and cheapo folded-over insert with no more information than track title and source album.
© 2002 Andrew Cronshaw
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