Youthful folklore ensemble Tarkšķu mandolīnisti a breath of fresh air

Tarkšķi is a Latvian children’s and youth folklore ensemble with a 25 year history, originally founded in Rīga, but later established in the Iecava district, in the Zemgale region of Latvia. Throughout its history, many of its members go on to further musical projects and groups, such as Tarkšķi members Laura Marta Līcīte and Laura Liepiņa, who went on to join the ethnomusic ensemble Tautumeitas.

Tarkšķi have since expanded, and an offshoot group was created, this time with a focus on performances that include the mandolin (and many of them – the songs often have five or more mandolinists performing). Appropriately entitled Tarkšķu mandolīnisti, the ensemble performs songs from the Zemgale region of the early and mid-20th century, and they released their first album – Smuka meitiņ’ – in 2018.

The group’s leader is Kristīne Karele, and she also arranged all of the performances on the album. According to an interview with Karele, the interest in the mandolin was partially due to the mandolin being actively used in ensembles in Iecava throughout the years, even in the early 20th century. Karele went through folklore collections and recordings to gather songs for the group’s repertoire, focusing on songs from Zemgale, and, where possible, from the Iecava region.

On the CD, Karele is joined by mandolinists and vocalists Katrīna Karele, Anna Patrīcija Karele, Kristīne Karele, Kristija Laura Čipena, Rebeka Ivanova, as well as guitarist Viktorija Veinberga, and a number of young singers (some as young as nine years old). Beyond the mandolin, the members also add violins, accordions, and percussion to make for a wide instrumental variety.

The goal was to gather lively and active songs, and the ensemble succeeded quite admirably in this effort, beginning with the first song on the album ‘Leijerkastnieks’, a song about an organ grinder playing on the street. There are many such moments on the album, such as ‘Ak, meitiņas’, a song about the foolishness of a young girl getting married, since she is likely to spend her life with someone who drinks and argues often.

Many songs are about the relationships between girls and boys (particularly girls complaining about boys), such as ‘Meitas puišus apsūdzēja’, where the girls complain about the boys’ behavior to the superintendent in Jelgava, who then threatens to send the boys to Germany unless they change their ways. There are moments of sadness as well, such as in ‘Kārlis un Anna’, where Kārlis must leave his Anna to go off to war, but, when he returns, he finds Anna’s grave.

The sound of multiple mandolins at once provides for a unique sonic texture for the group, occasionally sentimental, with a touch of the Mediterranean about it, such as in the instrumental waltz ‘Grievaltas valsis’, with its mandolin harmonies joined by the melody of the violin. A similar effect is achieved on another instrumental number – ‘Poļu kadriļa’ (Polish quadrille or square dance), which features remarkably precise and dexterous mandolin playing. Credit also must be given to album producer Kaspars Bārbals (who has produced many Lauska folk releases), for the crispness and clarity of the performances.

Tarkšķu mandolīnisti’s Smuka meitiņ’ is certainly one of the most exuberant and joyful Latvian folk albums in recent memory, and is made even more distinctive and memorable with the sounds of multiple mandolins. With their energetic and buoyant performances, the album makes for a delightful and charming listen. As with many of their releases, the Lauska folk music label has given many Latvian ensembles the opportunity to record and release their music for listeners to hear, and Smuka meitiņ’ is a treat to listen to.

For further information, please visit the Tarkšķi Facebook page.

Smuka meitiņ’

Tarkšķu mandolīnisti

Lauska, LAUSKACD078, 2018

Track listing:

  1. Leijerkastnieks
  2. Runča deja
  3. Meitas puišus apsūdzēja
  4. Grievaltas valsis
  5. Kārlis un Anna
  6. Es esu jauna – video
  7. Veca meita esmu
  8. Ak, meitiņas
  9. Valckadriļas
  10. Bēdīgs puika
  11. Bērziņš
  12. Poļu kadriļa
  13. Smukā meitiņ’
  14. Latištūr
  15. Trīne Līze
  16. Ko mēs, meitas, darīsim?

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.

Latvian Radio Choir, Sinfonietta Riga jointly record Vasks’ latest work

The Latvian Radio Choir has long been the premiere interpreter of Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks’ choir music. Their many recordings of Vasks’ songs, both secular (2012’s Plainscapes, 2000’s Māte saule) and sacred (2007’s Pater Noster) have been landmark recordings, not only cementing Vasks’ reputation as one of the premiere living choir music composers, but also the Latvian Radio Choir’s reputation as one of the leading choir music interpreters worldwide.

2017’s Laudate Dominum can now be added to this already venerable discography. The recording is a collection of five sacred works for choir and orchestra, all composed between 2011 and 2016. Joining the Latvian Radio Choir and conductor Sigvards Kļava on the album is the equally talented chamber orchestra Sinfonietta Rīga.

Sinfonietta Rīga also has a long history with Vasks and his music, and have also recorded many noteworthy CDs of Vasks’ orchestral works, such as 2012’s Vox Amoris and 2008’s Viatore. This album is also not their first recording of Vasks’ music with the Latvian Radio Choir, as they also played on the Pater Noster recording.

Much of Vasks’ music, both choral and orchestral, focuses on spiritual and sacred themes, and many of them can be considered prayers, such as ‘Da pacem, Domine’. According to Vasks, this quiet and restrained work was composed to be a ‘cry of desperation for our times’, and the Latvian Radio Choir provide an engrossing and compelling performance of this piece, which is at once both tinged with sadness as well as hope.

‘Mein Herr und mein Gott’ is based on the writings of 15th century mystic Nicholas of Flüe (also known as Brother Klaus), who, in his later years, had a crisis in spirit and lived as a hermit for twenty years. The prayer, an exhortation to God to bring one closer and remove everything that distances, is deeply personal, and Vasks provides an appropriate musical vision of this prayer, full of piety and veneration.

The choir and orchestra are joined by organist Ilze Reine on ‘Laudate Dominum’, a fifteen minute work where the only sung text are the phrases ‘Laudate Dominum’ and ‘Alleluia’. Alternating between the rich and solemn organ performance and the reverent choir singing, the work slowly builds to a climax before reaching the triumphant, jubilant conclusion with the repeated word ‘Alleluia’.

The record also has two works inspired by the writings of Mother Theresa. The first is simply entitled ‘Prayer’ (subtitled ‘Lord, open our eyes’). Vasks’ works can often be discordant and harsh, and while the music on this collection shies away from that kind of approach, there are elements of this aspect of Vasks’ compositional style in ‘Prayer’. That is quite appropriate, considering that this prayer is to ‘hear the cries of the hungry, the cold, the frightened, the oppressed’, and Vasks often clearly and directly articulates suffering and hardship in his music.

The second work inspired by Mother Theresa is ‘The Fruit of Silence’, a work the Latvian Radio Choir has recorded previously (2015’s The Fruit of Silence), that time with choir and piano. This time, the piano (which only played single notes throughout the piece) has been replaced with the orchestra, which adds an additional dimension to the work, particularly at the conclusion of the work, with its placid and harmonious resolution – quite appropriate, considering that the final word in the work is ‘peace’.

Pēteris Vasks’ music is at once personal and universal, and the collaboration between the composer and the Latvian Radio Choir and Sinfonietta Rīga has resulted in the beautifully spiritual Laudate Dominum. This collection of prayers reveals not just the talents of the artists, but also the keen and deep understanding and appreciation of the goals and musical visions of Vasks’ works. Vasks’ music, particularly his sacred music, is often serene and peaceful, with moments both of sorrow and brightness, and the choir and the orchestra, working in tandem under the masterful direction of conductor Sigvards Kļava, have created an excellent document of these works.

For further information, please visit the Latvian Radio Choir website and the Sinfonietta Rīga website.

Laudate Dominum

Latvian Radio Choir and Sinfonietta Riga

Ondine, ODE 1302-2, 2017

Track listing:

  1. Da pacem, Domine
  2. Mein Herr und mein Gott
  3. Laudate Dominum
  4. Prayer (Lord, open our eyes)
  5. The Fruit of Silence

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.

Dagamba combine Beethoven with Rammstein on new CD

The instrumental ensemble Dagamba have long been known for their compelling and unusual arrangements, particularly how they combine classical music with popular music. On their albums Recycled (2015) and Seasons (2016), they created musical fusions of many different artists, styles and eras to great effect.

Dagamba have continued this path on their latest release – 2017’s #LudwigVanRammstein, which, as the title makes clear, combines the music of composer Ludwig van Beethoven with German industrial rock group Rammstein.

At first glance, it would seem incongruous to combine the music of these two artists, the only similarity seeming to be that both the composer and group are from Germany. However, considering the often intense and stormy nature of the music of both, the links between Beethoven and Rammstein are closer than might initially seem. Some of Rammstein’s songs could even be considered symphonic in nature, with their broad musical and sonic palette.

Dagamba, who call themselves ‘classical music hooligans’, are made up of cellist Valters Pūce, pianist Dainis Tenis, cellist Antons Trocjuks, Hamidreza Rahbaralam on traditional Persian instruments and occasional vocals, and drummer Arturs Jermaks.

The album is not limited to just the works of Rammstein and Beethoven – for example, the opening number ‘Lullaby’, which mixes the Rammstein song ‘Mein Herz Brennt’ with a brief melodic reference to one of composer Raimonds Pauls’ most beloved melodies – ‘Circenīša Ziemassvētki’. The title of the song is perhaps slightly misleading, as it is not the tender bedtime song one might be expecting – after a tense yet quiet introduction, the full band comes crashing in to create a thunderous performance, and Pauls’ gentle melody becomes almost sinister in this context.

Perhaps one of Beethoven’s most somber and sad musical works is the 2nd movement of his 7th symphony, and this melody has been used to great effect when combined with the Rammstein song ‘Mutter’ in Dagamba’s ‘Crowd of Very Old Children’. The theme, played with appropriate melancholy on the cello is now combined with drums, and, as a result, is given an almost military-like feel, which is then transferred to the weighty chords of the piano.

The presence of the Iranian Rahbaralam in Dagamba has given their music even more musical and artistic flavors, adding Persian and Middle Eastern elements to the rock and classical themes. Rahbaralam also provides some occasional vocal work, for example on ‘1988. Ramstein’, a song that combines elements from the Rammstein song ‘Sonne’ and the music from one of Beethoven’s most famous piano works ‘Für Elise’ (Bagatelle No. 25). Rahbaralam’s vocal performance adds emotional heft to this tragic song, which, as its title might indicate, references the Ramstein air show disaster in 1988. Still, one does wish that there was more of Rahbaralam on this record, as it is often his contribution that makes a Dagamba song memorable.

Dagamba find inspiration in Latvian folk music as well, such as in the song ‘Polytical Fairytale’, which combines the Rammstein song ‘Amerika’ with the ‘Div’ dūjiņas gaisā skrēja’, a folk song about going off to war. The sorrowful folk song, as performed by cello and piano, provides the introduction for the weighty music to follow.

As their next project, Dagamba have selected to synthesize the works of Tchaikovsky with modern elements, and are planning a number of concerts in 2019, with a large scale concert at Arena Riga in April.

One does not need to be familiar with the songs of Rammstein (or even Beethoven’s compositions) to appreciate Dagamba’s musical mélange, as their ability to weave together melodies from different centuries makes for engrossing listening, even for those who might not be classical music or industrial music fans. It is also worth noting the significant contribution of producer (and percussionist) Rihards Zaļupe, who maintains a crisp clarity in all the songs. Helpfully, Dagamba have identified the Beethoven works and Rammstein songs used in each of the tracks on the album, so those who are familiar with the originals will appreciate these new arrangements even more. #LudwigVanRammstein is indeed a turbulent experience, and Dagamba’s vibrant performances are befitting of the intensity of both the works of Ludwig van Beethoven and Rammstein.

For more information, please visit the Dagamba website.




Track listing:

    1. Lullaby (Mein Herz Brennt / R.Pauls Circenīša Ziemassvētki)
    2. Symphony – Du Riechst So Gut (5th Symphony – 1st mov.)
    3. Crowd of very old children (Mutter / 7th Symphony – 2nd mov.)
    4. You ain’t hurt, yo pathetic! (Ich Tu Dir Weh / Piano Sonata No.8 Sonata Pathetique – 2nd mov.)
    5. Polytical Fairytale (Amerika / Latvian folk tune Div’ dūjiņas gaisā skrēja)
    6. Black Moon (Ich Will / Piano Sonata No. 14 Moonlight Sonata – 1st mov.)
    7. 1988.Ramstein (Sonne / Bagatelle No. 25 Für Elise)
    8. Ludwig van Rammstein (Engel / Piano Sonata No. 14 Moonlight Sonata – 3rd mov.)

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.