Legzdiņš’ memoirs of adventures of Čikāgas piecīši in revised book

The Latvian American group Čikāgas piecīši, throughout their career lasting more than half a century, are one of the most recognizable and significant Latvian ensembles in history. Their songs and performances were popular not only with exile and diaspora audiences, but they also resonated with listeners in Latvia during the Soviet occupation. Their enduring popularity shows no sign of fading, even as the group is no longer as active as in the past.

The group’s core member is founder, vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Alberts Legzdiņš, who has steered the group throughout its more than fifty year career. Legzdiņš has also written a book about his experiences with the Piecīši, and that book – Čikāgas piecīšu brīnišķīgie piedzīvojumi – originally released in 1993 by SIA NC – was re-released in 2014 with a few small updates.

The book chronicles the group’s founding in Chicago in 1961 and their experiences on major tours of the United States, Australia, and Europe, and concludes with their triumphant tours of Latvia in 1989 and 1991. Along the way there are many anecdotes and amusing stories about the various successes and mishaps along the way.

Among the many reasons for it being notable, the book could also be considered a chronicle of what some might consider to be the ‘golden age’ of the Latvian exile community – the 1960s – in that during those years just about every city of at least a medium size had an active Latvian community. Their first major American/Canadian tour in 1963 brought them to Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver and Winnipeg – difficult to arrange for an ‘amateur’ group who had to juggle tours with the demands of full time jobs. Reading this book today it seems almost inconceivable the level of activity and interest, considering how small the diaspora Latvian community has become in the subsequent decades.

Also fascinating is Legzdiņš’ 1970 visit to occupied Latvia to meet with relatives and determine the possibility of arranging a Čikāgas piecīši concert in Latvia. Understandably, no one wants to talk to him on the phone, and there is also his attempt to call his wife in the United States, telling the operator that he ‘wants to talk to America’ and the response is ‘Don’t we all?’ and gets hung up on. Unfortunately, for various reasons, it still is almost two decades before the Piecīši can perform in Latvia. The book also delves into the controversy surrounding visits to Latvia by exiled Latvians in the 1970s, and the frequent harsh assaults on those that did.

From reading the book, a particularly amusing aspect is that Legzdiņš made sure to note just about every meal he had along the way! Smoked salmon in Seattle, oversized meatballs in Melbourne, and smoked eelpout (lucīši) at the Latvian National Theater (which only Legzdiņš could bring himself to eat), to mention but a few.

The book is a breezy read, full of the typical Piecīši wry humor. Mishaps abound, with other strange and interesting events occurring – the time spent in Fiji on their way to Australia, the shark warning in Bondi, Legzdiņš tripping over Ilmārs Dzenis’ double bass during a show in Toronto, and many other comic events. The occasional typo notwithstanding (the inconsistent ‘Latvianization’ of names – Jack Benny does not change, but then Red Skelton becomes ‘Red Skeltony’ and Milton Berle ‘Milton Berli’), the language flows easily and the stories are always engrossing .

Still, to call this an ‘updated’ edition is a bit of a stretch. The updates are new introductions by journalists Ina Eglīte and Ēriks Hānbergs and new afterword by Legzdiņš, altogether less than ten pages. In fact, this rereleased version is almost 100 pages shorter than the original version! The original release had a number of newspaper and magazine articles, interviews, commentaries by other group members, as well as quite a lot of other information that supplemented Legzdiņš’ story. Granted, the extra material made the narrative somewhat disjointed in the original release, but the extra information made for a more comprehensive read and provided a better understanding of why exactly the Čikāgas piecīši became such legends not just in North America, but in Latvia and the rest of the world as well. This large deletion of material is unfortunate.

Along those same lines, from reading the book, the impression is that the group has not really done anything of note in the last twenty years (the narrative stops with their 1991 tour of Latvia) – barely any mention of further tours of Latvia and elsewhere, the success of the musical play Eslingena (where Legzdiņš provided the music), and their 50th anniversary tour in 2011 (though, granted, this was covered by the documentary film Par mani, draudziņ, nebēdā, available on DVD). Even though it can be argued that the pinnacle of the career of the Piecīši came with their 1989 and 1991 tours of Latvia, it still would have been interesting to hear a bit more about those subsequent years. For those who already have the original release, there is not much new here, but it is still certainly worth reading for anyone that missed the first edition of the book.

In addition to the re-release of Čikāgas piecīšu brīnišķīgie piedzīvojumi , a songbook entitled Hei lailī un citas Čikāgas piecīšu dziesmas 1961 – 2013 (Musica Baltica, ISMN 979-0-69795-286-7) has also been published, and contains more than 100 of their songs, including many obscure and unreleased songs as well. Each song has music and lyrics, including more than twenty different verses of their traditional closing song ‘Hei lailī’ that have been written throughout the years. The book also includes many photographs, band member profiles, and some brief notes on many of the songs.

Čikāgas piecīšu brīnišķīgie piedzīvojumi is a unique and valuable, not to mention often hilarious, story of the best known Latvian diaspora ensemble. It is not just a story about a band, but also a story about the worldwide Latvian exile community. In their travels throughout the world, the Piecīši met with both success and setbacks. Featuring Alberts Legzdiņš’ trademark dry and self-deprecating humor, it is a treat to have this book back in circulation.

 

 

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area who lives in Rīga, Latvia. When not working in the information technology field, he sings in the Latvian Academy of Culture mixed choir Sõla, does occasional translation work, and has been known to sing and play guitar at the Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs in Old Rīga. Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.

PBLA Izglītības padomes pārstāves apmeklē Norvēģijas tālmācības skolu

Pēdējos gados latviešu diasporā aktuāls kļuvis jautājums par iespēju apgūt latvietības uzturēšanai aktuālus mācību priekšmetus attālināti. Tāpēc PBLA Izglītības padome pašlaik aktīvi pētī citu valstu tālmācības pieredzi un risinājumus. Norvēģijas skola Globalskolen attālināti nodrošina norvēģu valodas, sociālo zinību un reliģijas mācību saturu norvēģu bērniem visā pasaulē. Projekts sekmīgi darbojas jau 17 gadus, aktīvi sekojot jaunākajām tehnoloģiju attīstības tendencēm un nodrošinot Norvēģijas publiskajās skolās apgūstamo mācību saturu norvēģu diasporas bērniem un jauniešiem vecumā no sešiem līdz astoņpadsmit gadiem, bieži to attiecīgi pielāgojot konkrētā skolēna vajadzībām.

Labi strukturētās, lietotāju augsti vērtētās un Norvēģijas valsts atbalstītās programmas pieredze un atrastie risinājumi ir labs paraugs, no kura iedvesmoties un mācīties, veidojot latviešu diasporai piemērotu tālmācības programmas saturu. Latvijas Izglītības un Zinātnes ministrijas atbildīgās amatpersonas ir apstiprinājušas, ka darbs pie šādas programmas tiks sākts drīzumā. Gūtās atziņas PBLA Izglītības padome ņems vērā, piedāvājot risinājumus un ieteikumus Latvijas izglītības institūcijām, kas atbildīgas par attālināti pieejama mācību satura izveidi latviešiem pasaulē.

Heavy metal band Skyforger dedicate album to Ancient Prussia

Skyforger, who are almost certainly Latvia’s best known and most popular heavy metal band, have released their latest album entitled Senprūsija. As the title would indicate, the theme of this album is Ancient Prussia, and the songs are about Prussian history, legends, and culture of the extinct Prussians.

Skyforger are often called ‘pagan metal’ or ‘folk metal’, as many of their songs include aspects of Latvian folklore and folk songs, pagan traditions, as well as legends (their previous album, 2010’s Kurbads, was about the legend of the Latvian warrior Kurbads). The band play an extremely aggressive brand of metal, with relentless guitars and drums, and vocals are are more shouted than sung. The group, made up of vocalist Peter (the members have declined to provide their last names in the CD booklet or on their website) on lead vocals and guitars, Edgars ‘Zirgs’ on bass and vocals, and Edgars ‘Mazais’ on drums, with Alvis Bernāns providing additional guitars and vocals regularly perform all over Europe in solo concerts and many metal festivals, and will be one of the featured guests at the German pagan metal festival Heidenfest 2015 in October.

Helpfully, instead of providing the lyrics in the booklet (the lyrics are still available via the group’s website), Skyforger provide extensive notes in English (Latvian versions available on their website) on each song – what the song is about and some historical and ethnographic notes. Besides providing detail on what is perhaps a lesser known topic (the history and legends of Ancient Prussia), they give the listener a deeper appreciation of the music and themes. The group even note a historical consultant – Agris Dzenis – in the credits.

Though almost all of the album is in Latvian, the first song ‘Ei skīja, skīja’ is in the Ancient Prussian language. In what is the calm before the storm, this somber song, which shows that singer Peter has an excellent deep bass voice, provides a moment’s respite before the scream that launches the title track ‘Senprūsija’. The chugging guitars provide the backdrop for this song about the ancient Prussian lands and the warriors that were made there – ‘Senprūsija – Baltu slava un gods tā reiz bija, varoņus izauklēja, par viņu tie asinis lēja’ (Ancient Prussia – once the praise and honor of the Baltic people, they raised warriors, and they spilled blood for it). The song also features traditional instruments, such as the ‘stabule’ (pipes). Not surprisingly, many of the songs on the album are about fighting and war, appropriately for this style of music!

The song ‘Rāmava’, at nearly seven minutes, is one of the longest and most memorable tracks. Beginning with some excellent guitar work by Peter, the melodic introduction then is supplemented by ritual chanting in Prussian, which is appropriate for this song about the Romuve grove, one of the most sacred places for the Ancient Prussians. The lyrics include references to the three gods who lived in the hollow trunk of the ancient oak in this grove.

Perhaps the most tragic song on the album is ‘Melnās buras’, a song about the devastating effects of the plague on the Prussian nation during the Great Northern War (1700 – 1721). The shrill guitars, sounding almost like an alarm, weave through this song about the misery and death that the plague brought. As per the notes, this was the event that brought an end to the Prussian culture, as it killed more than a third of the Prussian nation. Compounding the tragedy was that many of the keepers of the oral traditions also died, meaning that many rituals and much knowledge was lost forever with their death.

The trouble with this aggresive style of music is that, over a period of time, the songs start to sound very similar and can be difficult to distinguish – though this is not something unique to Skyforger – there are literally hundreds of bands that play a similar way. Skyforger are at their best and most interesting when integrating traditional Latvian music and instruments into their music – that is when their sound becomes more original, and they stand apart from the many groups in this genre. Though Senprūsija does offer elements like these periodically, the album could have used more of them, as well as a bit more actual singing (rather than shouting or growling).

Skyforger remain the undisputed champions of Latvian heavy metal, and Senprūsija is yet another ferocious entry in their catalogue. With nary a breather over the course of its twelve songs, the group display their unique presentation of the story and legends of Ancient Prussia, simultaneously providing an aural assault and history lesson. Though their brand of music may not to be the taste of many listeners, the faithful will continue to have their faith reaffirmed by the group’s distinctive melding of legends, folklore, and intense music.

For more information, please visit the Skyforger website.

Skyforger - Senprusija

Details

Senprūsija

Skyforger
Thunderforge Records, TFR 001, 2015

Track listing

  1. Ei skīja, skīja
  2. Sudāvu jātnieki
  3. Tagad vai nekad
  4. Herkus Monte
  5. Rāmava
  6. Lepnums un spīts
  7. Divi brāļi
  8. Melnās buras
  9. Nekas nav aizmirsts
  10. Rituāls
  11. Zem Lietuvas karogiem

 

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area who lives in Rīga, Latvia. When not working in the information technology field, he sings in the Latvian Academy of Culture mixed choir Sõla, does occasional translation work, and has been known to sing and play guitar at the Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs in Old Rīga. Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.