For nearly 40 years, Čikāgas Piecīši have been recording songs in their unique Latvian style, as well as playing to audiences all over the world. The Piecīši, although their number has rarely been five, have long been an institution and an important musical voice during the years that Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union. Unfortunately for many of their fans, the records they released in the 1960s and 1970s have been long out of print and extremely difficult to find. And even when found, the years had taken their toll on the recordings, leaving the original releases scratchy and unlistenable.
Thankfully in this compact disc age, those great old albums have found a second life in digital format. These two compact discs collect four older albums: Sanfrancisko – Rīga, No Lielupes tilta, Vakarziņas and Čigākas Piecīši koncertā. These albums were recorded in a time when the prospect for Latvia’s future independance was very bleak. They paint a picture of what it was like to be a Latvian exile at that time, about people adapting to life in the United States and other foreign countries, while still never forgetting their Latvian origins.
Actually, three of the four albums reviewed here are not true Čikāgas Piecīši recordings. Sanfrancisko – Rīga and No Lielupes tilta are recorded solely by Alberts Legzdiņš and Janīna Ankipāne; Armands Birkens joins them for Vakarziņas. The only album that features the entire Piecīši ensemble is Čikāgas Piecīši koncertā. However, all the records fall under the Čikāgas Piecīši umbrella due to the presence of their leader and main songwriter, Alberts Legzdiņš. Legzdiņš is perhaps one of the greatest Latvian songwriters and lyricists, and these albums are a testament to that.
Čikāgas Piecīši draw influences from all areas, including Latvian folk songs and American instruments and sounds—such as the banjo and harmonica. Their songs range from humorous observations on everyday life to more melancholy melodies. A recurring theme throughout many of their songs is what it is like to be Latvian in the United States.
The oldest album here is Sanfrancisko – Rīga, a collaboration between Legzdiņš and Ankipāne released in 1969. Here the Latvian folk song influence is at its most apparent, as many of the recordings on this album are either Latvian folk songs or sound very much like them. The Latvian folk songs include “Es adiju raibus cimdus,” “Staburadze” and “Mans brūtgans ir jātnieks,” a song I remember singing in Latvian camp. A favorite on the record is “Es savai līgavai,” a Legzdiņš original. A recurring theme in Legzdiņš’ songwriting is the paucity of Latvians around the world. This theme appears in the song “Tautas skaitīšana.”
No Lielupes tilta, released in 1971, also teams up Legzdiņš and Ankipāne, for a very similar record as Sanfrancisko – Rīga, as it is also a folk song-influenced record. One of my favorite Latvian folk songs, “Nāks rudentiņis,” is performed here. Another favorite Legzdiņš original is “Piektdienas vakars,” a song about the adventures of the narrator and “Braunu kundze” (Mrs. Brown) while the narrator waits for ground beef to thaw in the sink one particular Friday night.
The track listing on Sanfrancisko – Rīga / No Lielupes tilta appears to have one error, as the song “Ezers tīruma galā,” although listed as being on the Sanfransisko – Rīga portion of the CD, actually appears later on the No Lielupes tilta portion.
Vakarziņas, originally released in 1970, contains some more melancholy moments. One of the sadder songs on the record is “Mātei dzimtenē,” a song about a mother in Latvia who in vain awaits the return of her sons. Vakarziņas also contains one of the most beautiful songs in the Piecīši library: “Līgo dziesma,” a song about the Latvian celebration of Jāņi (Midsummer). “Līgo dziesma” is a song urging mothers and fathers to teach their children all the songs of Jāņi so that they will never be forgotten.
The humorous side of the Piecīši also is very much alive and well on this record, as songs like “Man garšo alus,” a song with a well-known Latvian theme: beer, and how no other alcoholic beverage can compare to it.
Čikāgas Piecīši koncerta, released in 1975, as far as I can tell is a live recording of a Čikāgas Piecīši performance. I’m not entirely positive that it is a live recording, as the audience’s clapping and song introductions seems to be pasted together with the songs themselves. However, it is still a collection of great songs. This is the only album (of the four reviewed here) to feature the full Čikāgas Piecīši group. Perhaps one of the most famous Piecisi songs is “Pazudušais dēls” (The Prodigal Son), with words written by Uldis Streips about Latvians returning to visit Latvia after having left the country many years ago. The “Amerikāņu popurijs” (American Potpourri) on Čikāgas Piecīši koncertā is different than the one on the 1996 “best of” collection, Agrīnie gadi. This version contains a lengthy section about Latvian-American leader Uldis Grava. Another beautiful tune from the pen of Legzdiņš is “Es redzēju bālēliņu,” a song about young men going to war and how they leave behind loved ones, as well as how their great deeds are forever remembered in the words of folk songs.
One of the more amusing tracks is “Sekss ir labs” (Sex Is Good), which is a song about procreation sung to the tune of a Latvian children’s song. As introduced on the record, the song is meant to be taught to children at a young age to decrease the low childbirth rate among Latvians. And how can you argue with a line like “Gliemeži ir pacietīgi, eži dara uzmanīgi, vāveres uz katra zara, Dievs zin kā to čūskas dara” (“Snails are patient, hedgehogs do it carefully, squirrels on every branch, Lord knows how snakes do it”)?
The major complaint I have about the CDs is the packaging. There is very little of it. Besides the album cover and list of songs (and, in the case of the Sanfrancisko – Rīga CD, a brief statement from both Legzdiņš and Ankipāne) there isn’t anything else! Lyrics are especially missed. Many times I can’t really catch what is being sung. Legzdiņš being the great songwriter that he is, I think it would be of benefit to many to have the lyrics available. And because Čikāgas Piecīši have such a lengthy and interesting history, pictures and stories from their past would be fascinating, too.
Packaging aside, these are great records, and I recommend them highly. Hopefully the interest in these CDs is great enough to warrant the re-release of the other Cikagas Piecisi albums. I’m especially waiting for Mēs, puisēni, an album I used to listen to over and over again when I was a little kid. I still have the severely battered vinyl record somewhere.
These records show a great group at the height of their songwriting and performing, and still sound great today, almost 40 years later.
(Editor’s note: This article orginally appeared on SVEIKS.com.)
Vakarziņas and Čikāgas Piecīši koncertā
Čikāgas Piecīši, 1998
Notes: Also reviewed is San Francisko – Rīga / No Lielupes tilta, a 1998 re-release of two albums by Janīna Ankipāne and Alberts Legzdiņš.
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