It takes a Lett to play the pipes

Recently a superb recording has come out featuring Latvian folk music played on bagpipes. The album, Dūdas Latvijā (Bagpipes in Latvia) sports a picture of a young, bagpiping lad in the arch of castle ruins. It is an excellent compilation of Latvian songs ranging from majestic, energetic and uplifting music to matter-of-fact and haunting pieces. This album is the most recent addition to UPE Recording Co.‘s Latvian Folk Music Collection and is a welcome one. While some may complain that there are no English translations of the songs, something better rewards the reader. It is a wonderful essay, written by world-class ethnomusicologist Valdis Muktupāvels, explaining about bagpipes in Latvia.

Bagpipes always have their majestic appeal; some like them more than others. This fact holds true to the chagrin of bagpipers’ neighbors. Referring to its loudness, one bagpiping enthusiast bluntly put it, “How else can you have something as loud as an electric guitar but with no cord?” Having won an international audience with younger audiences with such groups as Dead Can Dance, this instrument hides its long folk history in Latvia. What has been forgotten is that large numbers of festive bagpipers would congregate, playing through the night on the hills and shores of Latvia

Since this long bagpipe tradition has a vivacious presence still found in Latvia, Dūdas Latvijā is an album that conveys many moods. Near the beginning there’s a nice beer-drinking song with warm-hearted camaraderie, “Alus dziesma” (the Beer song) sung by Vidvuds Mednis and friends. Midway in through this song are some interesting refrains, sounding like the chanting and singing found in American Indian pow-wows. Later music in the album, like in the selections “Vaidi” (performed by Valdis and Māris Muktupāvels) and “Dūdu sauciens” (played by Rasa) transports the listener to other eras. A slow version of “Garais dancis” (Long dance) evokes a stately and majestic promenade of kings and queens. The whole album creates a feeling of movement and energy even in its tenderest, quietest movements, as in the song “Mildas dziesma” sung by Iļģi.

One foggy night in Old Rīga I walked home, having helped close a bar. Snow silently had fallen a few hours earlier and the air had warmed up again, bringing together in springtime a rare snow and fog. Both snow and fog were catching light and creating a soft omnipresent glow. It was in muffled, foggy, early morning air that I first heard the haunting, beautiful sound of bagpipes in Rīga. Two bagpipers, with what I later learned were bagpipes common to Central Europe, played at the base of “Milda,” or the Freedom Monument. They played as a slightly amused police officer and I watched. I could only stand in amazement and observe in admiration. After blurting out how I always wanted to learn the bagpipes, the players gladly introduced me to a third set of bagpipes. It was magical. Consequently I have learned enough about bagpipes to deeply appreciate this smaller cousin of the Scottish bagpipes. I easily hear when bagpipes are used, even in the most unexpected and delicate of songs like “Mildas dziesma” (Milda’s Song) Eventually, I got my own bagpipes and am now trying to slowly relearn music. With that, I should be considered a biased judge in rating this album, but a discerning one all the same.

So, what awaits the audiophile who listens to the whole collection?

Much! One song, “Pīmiņ, brōļ’” near the end of the album impressed me with its brotherly love, sung in the Latgalian dialect. The piece played by Rasa, “Aiz Daugavas vara dārzs,”; at first sounds like medieval music brilliantly coming alive and it then carries through with a delightful melody that can happily stick in one’s ear. Towards the end of the CD there is a collection of songs that convey a type of sentiment and emotion that only bagpipes can, a contemplative, yet fierce awareness. In the beginning there’s a playful, carnival, festive feel heard in “Dūdu sauciens.” A summer ball held in the fields with its own homespun music is conjured up from “Dūdu balss un zaglis” (Bagpipes’ Voice and Thief). The hypnotic song “Dūdas balss” (The voice of the bagpipe ), played by Grodi, feels mysterious and seems almost Arabic. It could be like what one might hear for the music inside a sheik’s tent where he was being served his pleasure. Contrasting that song’s sultry feel, we hear a cheerful chorus sing in “Ai, dū makaidū.”

Bagpipes can voice a heavy, foreboding and ponderous message that can put off some people. Yet bagpiping can vary and create expressions of joy, beauty, freedom and wildness. Dūdas Latvijā does this. The songs on this album create a warm, energetic air, good for a gathering of friends. While heard at keg parties or at funerals or at parades, the best bagpipe music is what you can play at home and with friends. This album does this and so much more. Dūdas Latvijā gets a “two thumbs up” in my judgment.


Dūdas Latvijā

Latviešu tautas mūzikas kolekcija

UPE Recording Co.,  2000

UPE CD 017

A travel guide to call your friend

Latvia: The Bradt Travel Guide

When you pick up the Bradt Travel Guide and give it a peek, some strong points immediately present themselves. Its clear organization and rich, easily accessible information make it a jewel. But like many worthy friends, it has some quirks and tendencies that need to be noted and which are overcome or easily ignored. The two minor flaws are that most scales and values are given in British terms, and a there are a few Latvian spelling and grammar errors. While sparse with photographs, it includes some nice teasers—but this is more a matter of preference of what one really needs in a guide, in my opinion. That being noted, I can now easily bubble on about all of the great advantages this book brings to the reader and traveler.

When touring or visiting, the most prized possession is not the money belt or the destination but a good guide book. The expectations that are created from such books can enhance or detract from the travel’s planning and spontaneity. The normal fare of previewed restaurants and hotels populate the book, yet what makes this book stand out is the rich layer of cultural, historic and artistic information. It gives a succinct overview of Latvia’s complicated history along with fair generalizations about its people. The authors were even able to convey how nature is cherished by Latvians and is part of the nation’s rich culture. This is no mean feat.

Having lived in Rīga for almost two years, a friend and I would challenge each other to see who could find an unknown yet quality restaurant in the Old City. We enjoyed learning about the stories and history of Rīga during these forays. I found even these hard-earned gems were listed in the Bradt guie, giving it a high mark by my reckoning. In the same category as quick reference lists found throughout the guide, there are clear concise maps for trails, road and train.

Besides dedicating a good portion of the book specifically to describing Latvia’s history, economy, people, politics and culture, each of these elements show up again throughout the guide. The authors find highlights for each region’s cities and their surrounding countryside. With this book pointing the way, a visit to some of the smaller towns will provide respites and delightful glimpses of nature. Naturally, some travelers will decide to go more into the country of a region, and each chapter of the guide will have some pertinent story or account to share.

What makes this book better than most is its insights into Latvia’s gnarled, twisting and complex history. It doesn’t try to make that history simple, but it certainly simplifies the learning curve that such a culture deserves.

From small essays that require mulling over, to quick reference lists and maps, this guide has all that a traveler going to Latvia would need. It guides us to a bit of Latvia that only Latvians themselves experience and know. Whether one is just starting to become acquainted with Latvia or already is familiar with the country, this book is well worth its price.

(Editor’s note: This review originally appeared on the site.)


Latvia: The Bradt Travel Guide

Stephen Baister and Chris Patrick

London:  Bradt Publications,  1999

ISBN 1898323909