An Englishman in Latvia

On music

March 17, 2024 Alan Anstead Season 2 Episode 2
On music
An Englishman in Latvia
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An Englishman in Latvia
On music
Mar 17, 2024 Season 2 Episode 2
Alan Anstead

Latvia has a rich music scene, from classical music to the internationally acclaimed Song and Dance Festival, ancient folklore dainas, and a thriving popular music culture. In 2000, Latvia even came third in the Eurovision Song Contest! Not bad for a country of 1.8 million people.

In this episode, we will explore the folklore, classical and popular music of Latvia. I will tell a few stories from the 1990s and the present day. Join me on a musical journey!

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes Transcript

Latvia has a rich music scene, from classical music to the internationally acclaimed Song and Dance Festival, ancient folklore dainas, and a thriving popular music culture. In 2000, Latvia even came third in the Eurovision Song Contest! Not bad for a country of 1.8 million people.

In this episode, we will explore the folklore, classical and popular music of Latvia. I will tell a few stories from the 1990s and the present day. Join me on a musical journey!

Thanks for listening!

On music

Latvia has a rich music scene, from classical music to the internationally acclaimed Song and Dance Festival, ancient folklore dainas, and a thriving popular music culture. In 2000, Latvia even came third in the Eurovision Song Contest! Not bad for a country of 1.8 million people.

In this episode, we will explore the folklore, classical and popular music of Latvia. I will tell a few stories from the 1990s and the present day. Join me on a musical journey!

Raimonds Pauls

Raimonds Pauls is a revered figure in the world of music in Latvia, known for his contribution as a composer and pianist. In my view, he is the most famous Latvian musician. He was born on 12 January 1936 in Rīga, Latvia. His musical journey began early, influenced by a family with a passion for music - his father played the drums, and his grandfather played the violin. Raimonds’ early life was marked by tragedy with the loss of his older brother to meningitis. However, this did not deter him from pursuing his passion for music. His father’s decision to introduce him to music proved to be pivotal, setting him on a path that would lead to a remarkable career spanning over six decades.

This love for music led Raimonds to start piano lessons after an initial attempt with the violin was deemed unsuitable due to his young age. His formal education in music commenced at the Secondary Musical School of E. Darziņš, where he honed his skills and developed a deep appreciation for jazz by studying various records. His talent blossomed early, and by the age of 14, he was already gaining experience playing the piano in restaurants and clubs alongside the violin and saxophone virtuoso Gunārs Kušķis.

Throughout his illustrious career, Pauls has been recognised for his unique ability to blend Latvian folk music with jazz, blues, rock and roll, French chanson, and German schlager, creating contemporary music that resonates with a wide audience. His compositions have been performed in prestigious concert halls worldwide, showcasing his flair for melody and creative imagination.

His most notable musical works include “Million Roses” in 1982, a vast catalogue of thousands of songs, quite a few musicals in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, and a piece that weaved narrative and melody—“The Legend of the Green Maiden” in 2000. These compositions reflect Raimonds Pauls’ mastery in blending Latvian folk elements with contemporary music, making him a pivotal figure in the Latvian and international music scenes.

He has been honoured with numerous awards, including the title of People’s Artist of the USSR in 1985 and various orders from Latvia, Sweden, Russia, Armenia, and Japan. In addition to his musical achievements, Raimonds Pauls also served as the Minister of Culture of Latvia from 1988 to 1993, further cementing his legacy as a cultural icon.

As a composer, pianist, director, arranger, and producer, Raimonds Pauls’ influence extends far beyond the borders of Latvia. His music has touched the hearts of many, and his legacy continues to inspire new generations of musicians and music lovers alike. He has had, and still has, an enduring impact on music and culture, both in Latvia and around the world. His work remains a beacon of artistic excellence and innovation.

The music in between the sections of this podcast is a short piece from a Raimonds Pauls’ composition.

Prāta Vētra

Prāta Vētra, internationally known as Brainstorm, is a Latvian rock band with a story that spans over three decades. Formed in the summer of 1989 in Jelgava, Latvia, by four classmates—Renārs Kaupers, Jānis Jubalts, Gundars Mauševics, and Kaspars Roga—the band later welcomed their classmate Māris Mihelsons to join them.

The band’s journey began with their first single, “Because You Come”, in 1992. They signed with Microphone Records, one of the largest record labels in Latvia, in 1997 and gained significant attention after finishing third in the Eurovision Song Contest 2000 with the song "My Star". This event marked their international breakthrough and led to increased popularity. There was some tragedy. In 2004, bassist Gundars Mauševics died in a car accident in Latvia. He was only 29 years old. Despite this loss, the other band members continued working.

Over the years, Prāta Vētra has released multiple albums, with songs in Latvian, Russian, and English, reflecting their versatility and appeal across different audiences. Their music often features a mix of pop rock, alternative rock, and indie pop, showcasing their ability to evolve with the times while maintaining their unique sound. For my British listeners, they played at the Glastonbury Festival in 2013. They have also done acting and film work, too. The band members’ story is not just about the music but also about their enduring friendship and collaboration, which has been the foundation of their success.

Throughout their career, Prāta Vētra has shown a remarkable ability to adapt and grow, both musically and in their creative endeavours, while staying true to their roots and maintaining a strong connection with their fans.

I’m one of their fans. I think I have seen Prāta Vētra perform about five times. First, in the 1990s in Riga. Then, over the years, at outdoor gigs in Liepaja, Ventspils, and Valmiera. You get your money’s worth as they play for hours and hours. In recent years, they have brought on guests to play with them on stage, including a Ukrainian choir in 2023.

The Hobos

The Hobos are a notable Latvian rock band with a story that reflects their passion for music and their journey through the Latvian music scene. Formed in January 1999 in Riga, Latvia, the band quickly caught the attention of Latvia’s most popular band, Prāta Vētra. This connection led to a memorable jam session that helped launch The Hobos into the spotlight. Their debut album, “Numbvision,” released in December 1999, was a significant success, earning the title of “Best pop&rock album '99” at the Latvian Music Records of the Year Awards. Following their debut, The Hobos continued to impress with their subsequent albums, “Perfect Solution” in 2001 and “Flashback Mornings” in 2002. Both stood out at the Latvian Music Record Awards, receiving the prize for the best rock album in their respective years. In 2004, The Hobos released a double album titled “Radio Jah Jah” to celebrate their five-year anniversary. The first disc contained original songs, while the second featured covers of various popular tracks. It is playing on my music system at the moment!

The band’s story took a tragic turn. Their frontman, singer and guitarist, Rolands Ūdrītis, overdosed on heroin in 2002, resulting in partial paralysis of his right foot. Despite this, he continued to be active in music, forming the folk music group “U.K.” and later the group “Maš Maš.” He also started a project “Ūdris & Balode” with actress and musician Ilona Balode, whom he married in 2015. He changed his surname to Balodis-Ūdrītis, and later that year, they welcomed a son. In January 2016, however, Ūdrītis was involved in a serious car accident in Riga, which left him in a critical condition. The music community rallied to support his treatment and rehabilitation, and he was fantastically supported by his wife over the subsequent years on a slow path to recovery.

I was at their very first gig in a cafe on Pulkveža Brieža iela in Riga. My colleague at the British Embassy knew the band, so I tagged along. I saw them many times in 1999 before leaving Latvia at the very end of that year.

Positivus Festival

The Positivus Festival is an annual, three-day summer music and culture festival that was held in Salacgrīva, Latvia, from 2007 to 2019. Situated in a forest park by the sea, about 100 km from Riga, people camped there, and the festival prided itself on its environmental and well-being elements. As Salacgrīva is only 12 km from the Estonian border, there were many Estonians there too, and other Europeans who came for the great bands and the wonderful environment. After two cancelled years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival moved to the capital Riga from 2022. The music changed too. At the Salacgrīva Positivus, I have seen Years and Years, Ellie Goulding, Alt-J, Iggy Pop, The Lumineers, The XX, Bastille and many other well-known bands. The Riga version caters more for a younger, primarily Baltic audience with local hiphop and electronic music. I haven’t been since 2019 and miss it in its old form.

Classical music

Latvian classical music is a rich and diverse field that has contributed to the global classical music scene.

The early foundations of Latvian classical music are deeply rooted in the country’s folk traditions, particularly the dainas. These folk songs and their unique melodies have influenced many Latvian composers, who have incorporated these elements into their classical compositions.

Some notable Latvian composers over the years:

  • Jāzeps Vītols (1863-1948) is often considered the father of Latvian classical music. He founded the Latvian Conservatory of Music and was a pivotal figure in establishing Latvia’s classical music tradition.
  • Emīls Dārziņš (1875-1910) was known for his “Melancholic Waltz”. Dārziņš was a significant composer despite the tragic destruction of most of his works.
  • Jānis Mediņš (1890-1966) was a multi-talented musician. He composed some of the first Latvian operas and ballets, blending traditional forms with influences from other European composers.
  • And Lūcija Garūta (1902-1977) was a prolific composer and pianist and contributed to many Latvian musical institutions.

Today, Latvian classical music continues to thrive, with composers and performers gaining international recognition. The country’s orchestras, choirs, and soloists are celebrated for their performances, and Latvia regularly hosts classical music festivals that attract audiences from around the world.

Latvian classical music, with its blend of traditional folk elements and modern influences, remains a vibrant and essential part of the nation’s cultural identity.

Folk music

As we have seen, much of Latvia’s music stems from its folk traditions.  With its rich history and cultural significance, folk music is a cornerstone of the nation’s musical heritage. 

Latvian folk music has roots dating back over a thousand years. The earliest recordings of Latvian dainas, traditional folk songs, are from the 17th century, but a systematic collection only began in the latter half of the 19th century. Dainas are central to Latvian folk music. They are typically short, consisting of one or two stanzas and unrhymed. These songs often feature pre-Christian themes, legends, and drone vocal styles. They reflect the life of the people, focusing on significant events like birth, marriage, and death.

Accompaniment for these songs is provided by traditional instruments, the most important of which is the kokles, a type of box zither. The kokles has undergone modernisation in the past century, leading to the development of the concert kokles, which has more strings and capabilities. A compilation of Latvian folk songs by Krišjānis Barons was published between 1894 and 1915 and included about 300,000 song texts and their variants.

In the 1970s, kokles music, which had only survived in certain regions of Latvia, revived. The Latvian expatriate community, particularly in the United States, has also played a role in keeping kokles traditions alive. Latvian folk music continues to be an integral part of the country’s cultural identity, celebrated through festivals, performances, and academic study.

I wanted to know more about the dainas, and it was recommended I go to the Krišjānis Barons Museum on Krišjāņa Barona iela 3–5 in Rīga, not far from the old town. Unfortunately, the lights were off, and the door was firmly locked. I have found this to be common among small museums in Riga. If they are not open one day - try again on another. Despite the opening hours sign!

To get a deeper understanding of the music of Latvia, I had a wonderful discussion with Daiga Bondare from the Latvian Literature and Music Museum.

Me: I covered the Song and Dance Festival in a previous podcast, although we focused on the event itself rather than the music played. What are the music traditions at the festival?

Daiga: As you probably mentioned back then, it's been 150 years since we have had this great tradition of song, and now it's also a song and dance festival. It all began back in 1873 when about a thousand singers gathered in Riga to perform Latvian songs. Not only Latvian songs back then, because it was really kind of the early stages of Latvian choir singing culture, and there was not much to sing in Latvian. So the first repertoire, the first pieces that were learned and performed at the festival, were folk song arrangements, and this gave a powerful kind of impulse to the further development of Latvian professional music. The first composers were actually teachers, people who had basic, but really good musical education and who could have a choral setting for Latvian folk songs. They really started finding value in this folk music, and the question was, if other nations have their songs, what about our songs? Can we perform them in a choir? Is there a value? And the answer was obviously yes. Let's arrange them for choir, male choir or mixed choir at that time and let's sing them, let's see the cultural value of our heritage. And so for the first song festival, the program comprised mainly folk song arrangements. There were just a really few, about two choir songs by Kārlis Baumanis. He is the author of the national anthem of Latvia, “Dievs, svētī Latviju”, or “God bless Latvia”. He actually wrote this song before the song festival and he wanted it to be performed during the song festival in Riga.

But as you know, that was a Russian empire, and everything publicly performed was subject to censorship. So, the censors would not allow this song for public performance just because it was nationalistic. So it was still performed during the opening ceremony, which was in closed premises, not on the open stage. The rest of the Repertoire back then was music by different European composers, secular music, as well as church music. So everything together.

It started with the sixth festival, which was the first festival in an independent Latvia, where completely solely Latvian music was played. Until then, there had to be some Russian music included just because, you know, it was the Russian empire, and in order to appease censorship, you had to include certain pieces. The same happened during the Soviet occupation. In order to keep the festival running, you had to make these concessions. You had to allow Soviet songs, propaganda songs, and songs by other Soviet composers to be performed just so you could keep this festival going and have those songs that you really wish to sing on board, so to speak.

Yes, during 150 years, every tradition has an enduring part and a changing part. Of course, this continuation, the core, is the a cappella singing. And then, with time, there were elements added. So, for instance, wind and brass orchestras started performing also as well. It happened just because many songs had to have instrumental accompaniment.

We have had kokle players joining since the 1960s, and I guess they are also an integral part of the song festival. Now, in the 21st century, the Latvian Song and Dance Festival is a festival of coming together. It is a great event that celebrates our singing heritage, our musical, our dancing heritage, and our musical heritage as such because the first festivals also included orchestral pieces, symphonic music, and symphonic concerts are an integral part of the song festivals.

Whenever it was possible until the Soviet occupation, you had concerts of sacred music, and this tradition is renewed as of 2003. We have these sacred music concerts.

The structure of the festival is that you must have at least one a cappella choir concert and definitely a dance concert or several of them.

One of the very important elements is the participants' parade through Riga. This, you can also say, is actually a musical tradition because nobody just walks through Riga and is silent. It's always with a lot of song and dance and it's a very colourful and soundful parade.

During this 150 years history, it's been calculated that almost 700 songs have been sung during the song festival concerts. Okay, the most part of them have been sung only once.

But then there are songs that are so important for the song festival: songs by our classical composers Andrejs Jurjāns, Jāzeps Vītols - Gaismas Pils (Castle of Light), and 20th-century classics. We definitely need to sing Mārtiņa Brauna “Saule, Pērkons, Daugava".

This is a must, and everybody will tell you that this is not a song festival finale concert if you don't sing “Saule, Pērkons, Daugava". Also, Raimonds Pauls “Manai Dzimtenei", which was first performed in 1977. It's now been recognised as the most beloved song by the singers themselves.

Me: Thank you. Fascinating insight into the song and now dance festival and its traditions and things. And I can see similarities in the promenade concert [in UK], particularly that last night of the proms and those traditional songs, quite nationalistic, yet people still want them because they're traditional. Tell me about the Museum of Literature and Music's collection of music history. How has this grown to be a cultural heritage site of national significance?

Daiga: Well, the history of our museum, the Latvian Museum of Literature and Music, goes back to 1925, when Janis Greste started collecting memorabilia of Latvian writers. It expanded during these hundred years to a vast collection of documents, different items, photographs, memorabilia of Latvian writers, poets, musicians, performers, and also about theatre. In 2023, we have over 1 million items in our collection. Our collection of music history comprises about one-fourth of our collections. And that would also include musical instruments, or we are collecting instruments that are made in Latvia. As for now, I could say that the museum has not had the best of times during the last decades because we did not have a permanent exhibition space. But, the museum has adapted to offer a wide range of events, educational programmes, and travelling exhibitions. And last year, we were really, really very happy to open one of our permanent exhibitions. This is the Song and Dance Celebrations Exhibit in Mežaparks. It is exactly the spot where the big events are happening. It's at the back of the big open-air stage.

And next year, when the museum will be celebrating its centennial, its 100 years, we very much hope to open a new permanent exhibition in Old Riga, in the heart of our city, which will be a journey, a very creative and very innovative journey through the personalities of Latvian literature and music. It will be a journey through one of the historical buildings in Riga. It will also tell about the creative and human nature of those personalities who are important to our culture.

Me: Excellent. I'm looking forward to that. It sounds absolutely fascinating. What role did rock music play during the Soviet occupation as a means of rebelling in some way against the Soviet authorities and that regime at the time?

Daiga: Well, at the beginning of the 1960s, inspired by Western rock bands, Latin artists also tried to turn to this genre of music. It really seemed potentially dangerous to the authorities. Musical life under Soviet occupation was, anyway, closely monitored by authorities and by state security. So there was not really much possibility for young musicians to rebel.

Regardless of what I just said, there are symbols of Latin rock that started there, started performing back in the 1970s, in really Soviet times. One such band is the rock band Līvi from Liepāja, which has a really complex biography, very original and powerful music, and tragic losses of members recently. But Livi is still one of the most kind of cherished symbols of the Latvian rock scene.

And then there was definitely one of the most original bands, Pērkons, led by Juris Kulakovs, who unfortunately passed away just a few weeks ago. He was a professional composer. Their concert activities, their innovative repertoire, their performances, they're kind of very, very important for the youths growing up in the late 1980s. It provoked really emotional audience reactions and their performances were even banned several times.

But I know that for my generation, for the generation of 50- and 60-year-olds, Pērkons and Līvi were the most so-called rock thing we had in Latvia and something that was really very important for the young generation that had no access to or very limited access to Western rock culture.

Me: As a Latvian with significant knowledge of the music scene in Latvia, who's your hero? Who would you say is the most prominent Latvian musician, who could be a composer, actor, or player of any sort? Who would you say is your hero?

Daiga: This is really very kind of my personal hero. There is no practical explanation for why exactly, but for a small nation like Latvia, we have a significant number of distinguished Latvian musicians performing abroad. We have a big number of musicians performing in world-renowned opera houses. For me, I guess it's Elina Garanca, a mezzo-soprano. She really entered the world stage as a young girl, a very talented girl. With her talent and ability to work, she has really become a great international star. At the same time, she is still a very, very agreeable, active person. I guess, yeah, for me, the combination of her personality and her beautiful voice, her beautiful musicality is what makes her one of my musical heroes in Latvia.

Me: Daiga, thank you very much indeed.

In conclusion, Latvia has a wonderful music scene for all tastes, whether folklore, classical or popular. The stories of its composers and artists are uplifting and inspiring. Check out some of the musicians I have mentioned in this episode on your favourite source of music.

[Music clip: Raimonds Pauls, creative commons licence with Wikimedia Commons]
[Image: William Parsons on Unsplash]

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