June 12, 2005
Latvians and Estonians have a similar folk music background—logically so, seeing as they are geographical neighbors. Even though they use similar instruments, each nationality has its own interpretation of this musical genre.
Ezīši, an Estonian and Latvian collaboration from the United States, draws on these similarities and has created a very pleasant “easy listening” compact disc. The recording is good for background music for a dinner party, great as a conversation piece to introduce non-Balts to the folk music of the region (this is Baltic, not Balkan music—no balalaikas here!) and can even as an accompaniment to a Latvian or Estonian (or Lithuanian, while we’re at it) dance night.
Ezīši (also known as Siilikesed in Estonian and Hedgehogs in English) is a group of musically talented individuals from Indianapolis, Ind. Most of the members are U.S.-born and only some have Baltic roots. Their common trait is a passion for folk music. They even made some of their instruments themselves and, according to the CD liner notes, their “goals are to help preserve and to spread awareness of the folk music of the immigrant communities from the Eastern Baltic area…our specialty is the presentation of medleys of similar or at least compatible tunes from different nationalities of northeastern Europe.”
Even the name of the group is a glimpse into Baltic heritage. “The name of the group recalls rarely seen but fondly remembered creatures of the old homelands,” the liner notes continue. “These little animals can protect themselves by rolling up into a spiny ball. Thus they aptly symbolize Estonians’ and Latvians’ talent for self-preservation without being aggressive or dangerous to others.”
These folks are masters of their instruments—and not just the kokle. (I’ve heard many a CD of just kokle music, which is most certainly the best lullaby music to date! Kokle songs often all blend into one and the endless plucking of strings can become annoying after a while.) These guys also play the bagpipes (dūdas), shepherd’s horn (ganu rags), wood flute (stabule), accordion, tri-level rattle (trīdeksnis) and many other ancient Baltic percussion instruments. Their rendition of the folk songs is certainly not conducive to sleep! Each instrument appears to have been carefully chosen for each particular tune. No vocals are performed so the focus is purely on the melodies as they are interpreted via the various instruments.
This CD provides a smorgasbord of different types of melodies: some dance tunes, others more contemplative and still others very ancient, soulful melodies that I had never heard before. The liner notes give insight into the similarities of these songs in the region. In some cases the songs have only recently “crossed borders.” The pancake dance (“Pankūkas”) was taught to a group of Lithuanian students by a Czech dance group in the 1970s and a decade later the Lithuanians taught it to their northern neighbors, the Latvians. It would be an interesting topic for a thesis to research the origin of each song and trace it as it was adopted and adapted by folk from neighboring countries.
The music in this recording comes across very pure and clean, probably a combination of sophisticated recording and very precise playing. For instance, the performance of “Sidrabiņa lietiņš lija” (The Silvery Rain) is so sharp it seems the sound cuts the air with a knife.
The dances “Pankūkas” and “Apaļais mēness” (The Round Moon) make your feet want to get up and dance to the music.
For some reason the Balts seem to have mastered the “sad songs.” These more often than not are songs about orphans and their lot in life. Track 26 on this CD provides a medley of hauntingly beautiful “sad songs.”
I have a challenge for you: If you get a chance to listen to this CD, test your knowledge of Baltic folk music and try to discern which song is from which region in the Baltics. I’m sure you’ll learn something new on hearing and reading about each and every song.
The recording may be ordered from Ezīši member Ieva Johnson by contacting her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Daina Gross is editor of Latvians Online. An Australian-Latvian she is also Chair of the Education Board of the World Federation of Free Latvians and the translator into English of various books on industrial history in Latvia.