March 13, 2006
Like many American families in the late 1970s and early 1980s, ours had a lot of records. As a kid, I would listen to music almost non-stop. In fact, in a certain picture of me in which I’m no more than three or four years old, I am standing next to a junky record player that’s clearly playing a Trīs no Pārdaugavas record.
Though there were not many of them, Trīs no Pārdaugavas was my favorite of the Latvian-American groups of that period, with Čikāgas piecīši not far behind. I’m not sure what it was about them that piqued my interest at such a young age. I liked how the group sang with its three-part harmonies, and I liked its arrangements—just acoustic guitars, with the occasional bass guitar and percussion. I also liked that Trīs no Pārdaugavas performed its own material as well as classic Latvian songs.
I also credit the group with being one of the main influences in me deciding to play guitar and sing. My repertoire contains a number of songs that I first heard on Trīs no Pārdaugavas records.
Although the group was very popular in North America, performing in most every Latvian center, information about it is not readily available. Search for “Trīs no Pārdaugavas” on Google and you will retrieve some hits—including the times I have mentioned the group in reviews for Latvians Online.
The group had its beginnings in 1967. At the suggestion of Tālivaldis Grīnbergs, head of the New Jersey Latvian Lutheran congregation, Vilnis Baumanis (having just returned from studies in Paris with guitar in hand) and Fēlikss “Liksis” Ērmanis (a physics researcher at Bell Laboratories, wine connoisseur, opera lover and capable tenor) decided to put some songs together to be performed at an autumn ball. To ensure proper musical accompaniment, they invited Fēlikss’ son, Mārtiņš, to join the group as well.
The name of the group itself is a bit of a misnomer—none of the singers was actually from the Pārdaugava region in Rīga—but is meant more as an analogy. At the time, New York City was considered the “Rīga” of the northeastern United States. However, all three members of the group were from the state of New Jersey, which was on the other side of the Hudson River (also affectionately called the “Daugava”). So, naturally, they are the “Three from over the Daugava River”—or, Trīs no Pārdaugavas.
For the group’s first concert, they prepared seven standards, and their friendship with the local Latvians began and lasted for more than 25 years. Fēlikss sang tenor, Baumanis sang baritone, and Mārtiņš, though at times protesting this decision, sang bass.
From there the legend grew. The group performed, in matching orange shirts, at Latvian centers in the New York City area—including Yonkers, Long Island and the Priedaine center at Freehold, N.J. The group’s repertoire expanded beyond those seven tunes to include songs by the Latvian group Brāļi Laivinieki as well as French standards. But even the addition of these songs would not suffice. It turned out the group had an ace in the hole: Baumanis was a talented songwriter as well.
Besides being popular on the concert circuit, the group also able to find an audience for its recordings. The group’s first record, simply called Trīs no Pārdaugavas, was released in 1970. Besides containing Latvian standards like “Nāk rudentiņš,” “Jāņu nakts” and “Lakstīgalas naktī,” the record also had some of Baumanis’ original works, including “Šamais vecītis” and “Latvieši kopš seniem laikiem.” When you are five years old, a lot of the themes and meanings of songs go over your head, so it is rather interesting to listen to the record years later. There’s some “subversive” stuff here, too, particularly “Latvieši kopš seniem laikiem,” which makes the point that Latvians have been “hippies” all along, due to their use of “kaņepes” (hemp) in bread and so forth. Certain songs also have a political context, as events and characters of the day are mentioned (Vietnam and Jacqueline Onassis, among others).
The 1970s and 1980s was the group’s most active period. Its popularity expanded well beyond the northeast United States to include Latvian centers all over America and Canada. Concerts in Latvian centers regularly attracted hundreds of listeners, while performances at Latvian song festivals in Toronto, Milwaukee and Seattle drew thousands. Many Trīs no Pārdaugavas performances never made it to record. Concert-only songs included “Galotnītes,” a song about the difficulties presented by Latvian grammar. For example, the group poked fun at the fact that some Latvian women (mostly abroad) are strongly against adding the feminine ending to their last names, so when a certain lady married Mr. Gailis, she said she would not be a “Gailene” but a “Gailis.”
Drawing from the group’s interest in opera, the trio in later years created an “opera” called “La forza di pepperoni,” with familiar arias and a dramatic plot. Jānis, the simple, honest pizza chef, loves the beautiful waitress Gaida (he sings the aria “Dievišķīgā Gaida” to the tune of “Celeste Aida”). But soon arrives the suave and dashing Smalkais Frīdis (sung by Fēlikss), making Jānis plot murder. To add to the dramatic effect, this was performed in partial costume: Mārtiņš wore a chef’s hat, Fēlikss a beret and Baumanis a scarf over his shoulders and a rose in his hair. Before the “curtain went up” the group announced that the night’s performance would be graced by the world-famous artists Martini Pavarotti, Vilnicia Dellikurči and Felicio Kavarra, but that because of budgetary considerations the soloists would also participate in the choir.
The final number of a concert would be a rhymed ribbing of the local personalities and current events of the Latvian community in which they performed. Usually this involved prior gathering of gossip from “secret sources.” This gave the performances a natural, dynamic ending.
In a similar way, the group used the children’s ditty “Gribam zināt” to poke fun at Latvian organizations and society: “Gribam zināt, gribam zināt, Ko mūsu tautas vadoņi dar’? Bārdiņu kasa, naudiņu prasa, Visi dara tā!” (We want to know, we want to know, what our Latvian leaders are doing? They scratch their beards, ask for money—everybody do that!). At the time the leaders of both the American Latvian Association and the Latvian National Association in Canada, Uldis Grava and Talivaldis Kronbergs, both stout gentlemen, sported well-manicured beards.
More albums followed. The second album, Zilā jūriņā arrived in 1972, again with a mix of Latvian classics such as “Vaidava” and new songs such as “Viss kārtībā.” The latter is a song about bad and worse news being delivered to a woman, starting with the death of a horse and ending with her house having burned down—“bet ārpus tā – viss kārtībā” (but beyond that, everything is fine!).
A frequent theme in the songs of Trīs no Pārdaugavas, as well as in the songs of fellow Latvian-American group Čikāgas piecīši, is being Latvian in the United States, or just generally being Latvian in a place that is not Latvia. The song “Tauta tālumā” from this same record is about the bleak view of Latvia and Latvians that many had in the 1970s. The song is from the perspective of both an older Latvian living in exile (“Tautietis trimdinieks”) and an older Latvian living in Soviet Rīga (“Tautietis rīdzinieks”) Assimilation was in full swing in both areas. In exile, many Latvians had come to enjoy the comforts and opportunities of their new homelands, which weakened the resolve to fight in some: “Ēdot šrimpus tas tautu uz cīņu sauc” (While eating shrimp he calls on his people to fight). In Soviet Latvia, where the policies of russification were trying to literally smother ethnic identity, no one could be sure how long Latvia would be able to stand: “Vai ilgi elpos tā, Tauta Gaujmalā?” (Will it breathe much longer, the people by the Gauja?). This song is still topical today, but in a different sense, as many Latvians are leaving Latvia en masse (this time of their own free will) searching for better jobs and opportunities in western Europe and elsewhere in the world.
For its third album, Circeņu kāzās (1974, re-released on cassette 1991 and on compact disc in 2004), the group decided to take a different route and aimed the record at children. Besides featuring classic children’s songs (including “Aijā žūžū, lāča bērni,” “Ai, sunīšī, nerejati” and the ever popular “Varžu pāris”), the album also featured some new compositions, including “Mazais Pēteris Piparnieks,” a song about a very “tidy” camper, and “Antiņš,” based upon the story of “Zelta zirgs” by Jānis Rainis. Many of the songs featured young Latvian schoolchildren on background vocals.
Dienu virpulī (1975), the group’s fourth album, contains the sentimental favorite, “Es ceru, ka kādreiz man dārziņš būs,” a song about lost love and the hope that a garden will bloom some day without heartache and flowers that wilt. Also on the album is “Monika,” a Baumanis original about a woman of well-rounded super-model qualities who walks the streets of New York, creating traffic jams and havoc wherever she goes. “Eiropā” is a humorous take on a trip to the Latvian Song Festival in Cologne, Germany. In the beginning of the trip the former Displaced Persons look forward to returning to cultural Europe, but after experiencing some tourist discomforts are happy to return to the good. old U.S.A.
Perhaps the group’s best album was the fifth, Mīkstās mēbelēs, released in 1979. This was the album where Baumanis truly shone as a songwriter. Quite a few of Trīs no Pārdaugavas’ biggest hits were on this record, including “Ratiņš,” which has a message that resonates still today: after a while, you get tired of candy, and you go back to old friends cabbage and sausages. The album also contained the beautiful song “Dzintarjūra,” as well as another allegory for Latvian-Soviet relations in “Kaimiņš” (in where a young deer, though having done nothing wrong to the bear, gets eaten by the bear anyway). The classic song “Oliņ boliņ” is about searching for those who will carry on the work of Latvians outside of Latvia (”...kas tos trimdas ratus tālāk stums?”), which turns out to be rather difficult, as Latvian after Latvian declines the responsibility. One has to travel all the time, another is always busy, and yet another wants nothing to do with Latvians after hosting Latvian actors. This was actually a sensitive issue at the time, as some of the more conservative Latvians abroad felt that artistic groups from Soviet Latvia were sent to weaken the resolve of the “free Latvians” and create schisms amongst them. Though times have changed dramatically, the theme of the song still is topical today. Also relevant today is “LLA,” which reminds us that not many people actually know where the small country of Latvia is. When asked, one response is that Latvia is “starp Dāniju un Spāniju, netālu no Grieķijas” (between Denmark and Spain, not far from Greece). Though there was a time in the early 1990s when it seemed everyone knew where Latvia was…
The sixth album, No tālām robežām released in 1985, featured the songs “Vai nav burvīgi būt par latvieti?” (about the frantic life of Latvians: Latvian school, Latvian choir, Latvian dancing, and all sorts of Latvians coming to visit at inopportune times) and “Kad visu tautu latvieši kopā nāks,” fantasizing about a time when Latvians from all over the world would be able to converge in Latvia again, something that in 1985 still seemed a ways away. Another song, “Zemgaļu balāde,” drew on Latvian history, a frequent theme of Trīs no Pārdaugavas.
Trīs no Pārdaugavas also performed new songs by contemporary Latvian artists such as Raimonds Pauls. His song “Mežābele” is on No tālām robežām and “Varbūt” is found on Mīkstās mēbeles.
The culmination of the group’s more than 20 years of performing came in 1990, when Trīs no Pārdaugavas was invited to perform a number of concerts in Latvia. Though the group did not have any albums officially released in Latvia at that time, many Latvians knew their songs. Somehow the records had made their way in secret to Latvia, where they were copied and passed further, ensuring a massive audience at a triumphant concert in Mežaparks in Rīga, where approximately 30,000 listeners came to hear the group. As the group would later sing in “Latvija 1990,” the huge crowd made the trio feel like rock stars. Besides the concert in Rīga, they had concerts all over Latvia, including cities like Daugavpils and Madona.
After the trip to Latvia, the group became significantly less active. A few new songs were recorded and were included on the compilation cassettes Ar rozi un prievīti and Tēvzemei un brīvibai, both released in 1992. Ar rozi un prievīti contained mainly Latvian standards and classics, as well as the group’s more humorous songs. Tēvzemei un brīvībai contained more serious and patriotic songs, as well as tunes with basis in history or politics.
A single cassette edition, simply called Labākās dziesmas, was released in 1998 in Latvia by the Gailītis G label. Unfortunately, this cassette, as well as all the albums save Circeņa kāzās, are long since out of print. Perhaps some day they will be properly re-released on CD.
Sadly, two of the three members of the group have died. Mārtiņš Ērmanis passed away in June 2000, and Fēlikss died in October 2004. Baumanis, though not as active in music any more, published a novel called Karš kalnā in 2003, about the adventures of young boys in a refugee camp in Germany after World War II. Also worth noting here is that Baumanis often worked with Latvian-American composer Andrejs Jansons, writing the libretto for the musical “Gundega,” as well as the libretto for the Jansons musical “Sprīdītis” (in Latvian and later in English).
It is unfortunate that so very little of their songs are still in print. I would spend hours listening to these records when I was very young, and something stayed with me. Had I not had these records, I would never have learned such classic Latvian songs such as “Es ceru, ka kādreiz man dārziņš būs,” “Ak vai cik žēl” and “Kad klētiņā dusēsi Tu,” as well as original songs like “Ratiņš” and “Dzintarjūra.” Though there are still many groups in Latvia today that perform those same Latvian classic songs, I much prefer the simpler arrangements of Trīs no Pārdaugavas, as many of the groups that play these songs today have a rather “synthetic” sound with an overabundance of synthesizers and drum machines. It would be a terrible shame if the songs, as well as the efforts and accomplishments of the group over its 30 years, were forgotten. As Trīs no Pārdaugavas sang, “dziesma tālāk iet…” (the song goes on). Hopefully, the trio’s songs will be around for years to come for new listeners to discover.
Skrej, mazais ratiņ’, pa lielceļiem, ved mani atkal pie tautiešiem…
(Editor’s note: The author expresses his appreciation to Vilnis Baumanis for assistance in preparing this article.)
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.
As their matching outfits might suggest, the Latvian-American trio Trīs no Pārdaugavas was popular particularly in the 1970s and 1980s. (Photo courtesy of Vilnis Baumanis)