May 06, 2012
A cappella music, although often awe-inspiring for listeners because of the vocal talent of the singers, can at times be undermined by the excessive falsetto and slightly overwrought style of singing. Surprisingly enough, Latvian Voices’ latest album Tā kā taka can easily become a favorite.
A number of Latvian groups in the a cappella (vocal music without instrumental accompaniment) genre have risen to prominence over the past years in Latvia. Perhaps the best known is male ensemble Cosmos, who achieved great success and fame with their arrangements of songs, both Latvian and international, as well as their original works. With the success of Cosmos, it is perhaps no surprise that other a cappella ensembles have popped up. Though the achievements of these groups have not quite matched those of Cosmos, there is one fairly new ensemble that might very well have the chance to do so – female group Latvian Voices.
As their name seems to indicate, from their inception Latvian Voices are intent on succeeding on the world stage. Their first album, Waving World Wide, released in 2010, focused more on an international repertoire (with both sacred and traditional songs), and their second album, Seventh Heaven, released the same year, was a Christmas-themed album, featuring songs in English and German, among other languages. However, for their third album, Tā kā taka, released in 2011, they have recorded in their native language featuring both arrangements of Latvian folk songs as well as new compositions.
The group is made up of seven female Latvian singers – Elīna Šmukste, Nora Vītiņa, Zane Stafecka, Andra Blumberga, Laura Leontjeva, Laura Jēkabsone, and Karīna Kaminska.
Though they have waited until their third album to focus on their Latvian repertoire, it is this repertoire that makes this album exceptional – being Latvian themselves, and native Latvian speakers, not to mention knowledgeable about Latvian culture and songs makes for this material being closer to the singers than their other material has been. These songs have an energy and vitality that starts with the first song – “Ar dziesmiņu ciemos eju” (lyrics by Ojārs Vāczemnieks, arranged by Laura Jēkabsone), a lively song that is, rather appropriately, about singing itself. The harmonies and interplay between the various singers makes this a particularly enjoyable arrangement.
Among the Latvian folksongs they perform include “Es gulu, gulu” (arranged by Nora Vītiņa), one of the sadder Latvian folksongs about a girl who sees her beloved ride away in a dream, “Rūtoj’ saule” (arranged by Vītiņa), a song once again about singing, as two sisters who have not seen each other in years still sing to each other from their respective farms. A favorite is their charming and playful performance of the song “Zvejnieks mani aicināja” (arranged by Jēkabsone), a song about a girl who meets a fisherman who invites her onto his boat, but the girl demurs, considering the boat (and the fisherman himself) to be a bit shabby.
The highlights of the album are the original songs – particularly title track “Tā kā taka” (lyrics/music by Vītiņa) as well as “Lietus” (lyrics/music by Jēkabsone), as the singers through their interplay conjure rain in this romantic song.
Spanish beatbox (percussive sounds made by voice) artist Lytos joins the group in “Kuito” (words/music by Jēkabsone), a performance that was inspired by the Cosmos song “Vindo”. Lytos’ percussive elements add a new dimension to this song which is, if I’m not mistaken, in a made-up language (much like “Vindo” was). The exceptionally realistic drumbeats that Lytos conjures up give the song a dynamic rhythmic foundation.
The CD booklet is quite detailed, containing a number of photographs with brief write-ups on each of the singers, some commentary on each of the songs presented, as well as a history of the group, with all text appearing in Latvian, German, and English.
Tā kā taka was an enjoyable surprise – their interpretations of these Latvian songs are both engaging and memorable. The group seems destined for wider success – at the time of this writing they had just won at an a cappella competition in Leipzig. Though the group performs frequently, it is telling that so far in 2012 they have only performed in Latvia twice – the rest of their performances have been at festivals and competitions all over Europe. This collection of both ancient Latvian folksongs, as well as new songs, is a truly enchanting work.
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.