A primer on Latvian folk instruments

Although it is always the kokle that first comes to mind when talking about Latvian folk instruments, it is by far not the only one. Here, a brief overview of Latvian musical instruments.

Percussion instruments

Worldwide, percussion instruments are considered the oldest instruments. Most characteristic of the Latvian percussion instruments is the trideksnis (rattle stick), a short wooden handle with small metal pieces attached in rows around one end of the handle. The player shakes the trideksnis like a rattle or hits the handle against his or her other palm, which causes the metal pieces to jingle. Large rattle sticks, called velna bungas (literally, "devil’s drum"), are about 4 feet to 5 feet long and are struck against the floor. The eglīte, or bell tree, is a small spruce tree with the top branches folded down and tied to the center stem, with all sorts of bells, trinkets and decorations attached.

Although there is virtually no archaeological evidence of drums (bungas) in Latvia, it is known from the oral tradition and from historical writings that they were used as signal instruments—to signal a wedding party’s arrival, for example—and also played to accompany dance music.

Bells (zvani) had both a musical and a practical purpose (for example, to keep track of cows) and, though sometimes made of metal, were more commonly made of wood, which was much more plentiful in Latvia. Other percussion instruments include the triangle (trijstūris), buzzer (dūcenis), washboard (robdēlis), tambourine (sietiņš or bubins), and vargans, or Jew’s harp.

Wind instruments

The simplest and oldest of the wind instruments were the whistles (svilpes), which had at most one or two sound holes. They were made of bone, horn, shells, animal teeth, bark and clay. A specialty of Latgale to this day are clay whistles in the form of horses, birds and dragons (svilpaunieki). Stabules (recorders, reeds, flutes) have several sound holes and are made of bark, reeds or bone, but most often of wood. Both svilpes and stabules were favorite playthings of shepherds.

The ganu rags (literally, "shepherds’ horn") is basically a modified stabule. It is made of wood, but with an animal horn attached to enhance the sound. This clarinet-like instrument produces sound with a single reed. Unfortunately it is not heard all that often today. The somas dūkas or dūdas (bagpipe) has been played in Latvia since about the 16th century. It was usually made of sheep’s or goat’s skin, but sometimes even of seal’s or dog’s skin. The bagpipe was and still is a popular instrument, especially for dance and wedding music.

In Latvian, a horn or trumpet made of wood or bark is called a taure, while one made of actual horn is called a rags. Both were considered shepherds’ and young men’s instruments, played to pass the time in the fields, to signal the beginning and end of work, or when lots of noise was needed, such as during wedding celebrations and certain holidays.

Stringed instruments

The stringed instruments are generally more recent. Spēles and pūšļa vijole are primitive instruments that are hardly used anymore. Spēles looks like a hunting bow that is either plucked or a second bow is pulled across the string to produce sound. The player can bend the frame to change its pitch. Pūšļa vijole (literally, "bladder fiddle") is basically a string attached to a wooden base with a blown-up animal bladder acting as a resonator between the base and string. Again, sound is produced by pulling a bow across the string.

The ģīga (trough-fiddle) has a mysterious past—no one really knows where the instrument or its name came from or how old it is. It’s assumed that it is probably related to a similar instrument that was popular in Sweden in the mid-19th century. Also called vienstīdzis or divstīdzis (one-string or two-string), the ģīga is a long, rectangular (about 2 feet to 3 feet long, and 4 inches to 6 inches wide) hollow wooden box with one or two strings attached to the top. It is played horizontally on a table or lap, or less often held vertically, and played with a bow.

And the kokle… That best known of Latvian folk instruments and idyllic symbol of Latvian folk music. Its gentle strums evoke golden memories for most older Latvians, and it is not rare to find a kokle displayed on a prominent shelf in living rooms.

Although a very old instrument, the kokle is still played a lot and holds a special place of honor among Latvians, as well as Lithuanians (kankles), Estonians (kannele) and Finns (kantele). The zither-like instrument is a whittled-out wooden box with a thin wooden cover with sounding holes, often cut in beautiful patterns. Strings are strung across the top of the box in a ray form, that is, strung almost parallel to each other, but closer together on one end, wider apart on the other end. Each string is tuned to a different note in the scale. The oldest kokles have five strings, later versions up to 17 or even 23 strings. Modern "concert" kokles span three octaves and are able to play in all keys. The kokle is usually held in the player’s lap or set on a table, but sometimes it is hung around the player’s neck. Modern concert versions of the kokle are so huge that they must be placed on a stand in front of the player. With the left hand the player silences the strings he or she does not want to hear, while the right hand strums the remaining strings, forming the appropriate chords. Players sometimes also pick separate strings to accentuate melodies. The kokle was and is still used for all sorts of music and purposes.

Modern instruments

The accordion (akordeons), button-accordion (garmoška), violin (vijole), the cītara (chord-zither or dulcimer) or cimbole (cimbalom) are some of the more modern instruments that have made their way from other cultures into Latvian folk music and have found there a very welcome home. Both the accordion and the violin are heavily used to accompany Latvian songs and dances. The cītara is a mid-19th century introduction to Latvian folk music and has taken on a very prominent role in most rural ensembles (lauku kapelas), particularly in the eastern half of the country. The cimbole—similar to the cītara, it is trapezoid in shape and is played with two wooden mallets—is most often found in the southeast corner of Latvia near Belarus and is very similar to the Belorussian national folk instrument.

Now you’ll be able to recognize and know more about what you’re hearing the next time you pull out that folk recording!

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