Saturday, November 14, 2015


Music has long been an important aspect of Latvian life. Latvians have written thousands upon thousands of folk songs, and the majority of them have been catalogued. Their folk music is based on poetry, and some 1.2 million texts have already been identified, matched with nearly 30,000 melody lines. The type of poetry that is most associated with Latvian folk music is called dainas. It’s typically short and without a rhyme scheme. Many of the topics are related to indigenous mythology and religions and is often about their deities and nature. Traditional music is especially popular at life event celebrations: birth and death and marriages. 

Kokle used by the band Skyforger
These life events were also tied to their dance traditions as well their day-to-day activities. Some of these dances incorporated their pre-Christian beliefs and nature. For the vast majority of these dances, the dancers wear elaborate costumes that are based on where the dancer’s hometown is, and the headdresses that are worn by women vary depending on whether the woman is married or not. Dances that are intended for social environments are typically choreographed so that the dancers are forced to switch partners. And many of these folk dances are showcased during the Song and Dance festival. 


Choral music is a keen part of their music traditions. Not only are there professional choirs across the country, but there are thousands of amateur choirs for everyone else. Every five years, Latvia holds a national festival called the Latvian National Song and Dance Festival. It's extremely popular with 20,000-30,000 people participating in this Herculean event. The music incorporates traditional folk songs as well as a cappella singing and modern songs as well. In 2014, Riga was the host of the World Choir Games. This is the largest choir competition in the world. Their motto is “Singing together brings nations together.” What I wouldn’t give to attend. Apparently, it’s held every two years in a different country. Before Riga, it was held in Cincinnati in 2012 (about an hour and a half from me), and I’m surprised I didn’t even know about it. And the next one is in Sochi, Russia next summer (2016). 

As far as instrumental music goes, there are several instruments that are native or widely used in Latvia. However, the most important one is the kokle, which is a type of zither. It had lost its popularity except for a few regions across the country until a few musicians had brought it back during the 1970s. Throughout the years, there have been many variations on the instruments, such as the addition of strings and the ability to add halftones. Purists think this “concert kokle” ruined the instrument, but others think it expanded its function. 

Rock music became extremely popular during the Soviet years. Young Latvians saw this new music form as a form of expression. And rock and pop are still popular today. I made my playlist a lot later than I usually do, and I wish I hadn’t have forgotten until the last minute because there is a lot of great music from Latvia out there. I found a ton of music on Spotify. What I listened to typically fell into three categories: indie rock, pop/synthesized music, harder rock, and jazz/contemporary/traditional. 

In the indie rock category, I listened to Ainars Mielavs (incorporated traditional instruments and styles of playing with modern indie rock music), Aparats (sometimes utilizes interesting chord changes and 1980s music effects), Autobuss debesis (good at merging different styles and instruments), Astro’n’out (good use of varying the percussion line and chord changes, sings in both English and Latvian), Borowa MC (actually a combination of rock and hip-hop), and Prata Vetra (has a nice beat, kind of chill).

As far as pop goes, it’s not quite exactly what I would call pop from an American point-of-view, but it’s close. I listened to Collide (almost a combination of pop and hard rock at times, except it uses synthesized fillers and mixes), Dzeltenie Pastnieki (very much of an ‘80s minimalist pop-synth band), Hospitalu iela (mixed accordions and strings with Eastern European sounds and rock/pop styles), Lauris Reiniks (could also be indie, pretty catchy at times), and Tumsa (it’s more like rock-pop). 


Hard/alternative rock bands I listened to include Detlef (pretty good alternative rock band, performs in both English and Latvian), Double Faced Eels (a pretty good ska band that kind of reminds me of Third Eye Blind—I like them a lot), Fomins & Kleins (on the border of alternative and indie rock), Jauns Meness (general rock, can do some vocal jumps), Labveligais Tips (I like the use of the trumpet and Latin guitars, not afraid to merge genres), Janis Grodums and Livi (reminds me a little of late 1980s-early 1990s hard rock bands at times), Satellites LV (one part electronica, one part hard rock), Skyforger (the closest thing to folk metal that I’ve found), and The Mundane (a pretty good hard rock band, does a nice job with texture in their music).


And finally, these are bands that fell into my jazz/contemporary/traditional category (in other words, not fitting into the other categories): Aisha (sort of a cross between jazz and French cabaret music), Ilgi (relies heavily on mallet percussion and vocals, uses polyrhythms, mesmerizing), Ieva Akuratere (soprano with acoustic guitar), Kaspars Dimiters (I have no idea where to categorize him, sometimes traditional but then he’ll break out into other genres like quasi-bluegrass), Karlis Kazaks (guitars and accordion with vocals), and Linda Leen (I listened to an album where she did acoustic jazz/blues renditions of pop and rock songs: I'll just leave you with this one).

Up next: the food

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