Percussion ensemble Kanisaifa melds Latvian folk songs and world music elements

Latvian percussionist Nils Īle has, for decades, been working with and investigating world drumming techniques and sounds. He has traveled all over world, from Africa to Asia and throughout Europe, gathering knowledge and musical experience. He also has founded a drumming studio, which is, according to his website, a “place where both seasoned musicians and the musically curious can come to learn about rhythmic composition”.

That creative atmosphere at Īle’s studio led to the foundation of the ensemble Afroambient in 2001, considered to be the first such ethno-percussion ensemble in Latvia. Over time, the ensemble evolved, and adopted a new name – Kanisaifa – a name that Īle says came to him in a dream. The group released their first album – Atdzīvinot vēju (Or ‘Reviving the Wind’) in 2018. The album mixes percussion together with Latvian folk songs and world music elements.

Much of the album has an atmospheric and dreamy quality to it, such as in the introductory track, appropriately called ‘Sākums’ (or ‘Beginning’), an instrumental work that combines percussion, stringed instruments, sound effects and a wordless vocalization. Using various instruments and sounds, over the course of the track’s eleven minutes, the ensemble creates a multi-layered musical painting.

The mystical ‘Melni vērši’ is based on a Latvian folk song, and Kanisaifa’s performance of this song is particularly memorable, as their percussion-heavy interpretation brings out the otherworldly elements of this song about what appear to be black bulls swimming in the water, but are actually horses with silver bridles.

There are quite a few Middle Eastern elements throughout the album, such as on the hypnotic ‘Vilku deja’ and the passionate ‘Ja dust’. Both songs feature guest musician and vocalist Hamidreza Rahbaralam from Iran, who some will know from his work with the instrumental ensemble Dagamba. Rahbaralam’s vocals and percussion add an additional dimension to these songs, enhancing the world music elements even further.

The record concludes with the – as the group call it – ‘intuitive improvisation’ ‘Atdzīvinot vēju’. As it is an improvisation, the work has a formless, meandering quality to it, but, at almost eighteen minutes in length, some listeners may find it a bit hard to follow. Particularly the last five minutes, which are almost entirely just the sounds of a vargan (or Jew’s harp), a single pitched instrument. Though this gives this performance an ethereal quality, it goes on a bit longer than might be necessary.

Nils Īle and the members of Kanisaifa have brought together not just their musical talents, but a wide variety of percussive instruments (more than a dozen different percussive instruments are listed in the credits) to create a broad sonic palette that is woven throughout Atdzīvinot vēju. Though there is an abundance of percussion, the performances are never noisy or overpowering – quite the opposite, using these drums and other instruments, the group has put together a meditative, melodious and immersive record.

For further information, please visit the Kanisaifa website and the Nils Īle Studio website.

Atdzīvinot vēju


NABA Music / Melo Records, 2018

Track listing

  1. Sākums
  2. Melni vērši
  3. Vilku deja
  4. Kalnos jau snieg
  5. Piesaukšana
  6. Sabāra
  7. Senegāla
  8. Princes ar pērtiķi
  9. Ja dust
  10. Atdzīvinot vēju

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area . 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.

Compositions by Kalniņš released as part of Latvian Centenary collection

Latvian composer Imants Kalniņš, throughout his long career, has composed many beloved songs and melodies. Though perhaps slightly better known for his popular songs, performed by groups like Menuets and Turaidas roze, many of his symphonic works have had enduring appeal and remain in the public consciousness. His 4th symphony, with its rock inspired rhythms and arrangement, has long been a defining work in Latvian academic music.

Beyond his 4th symphony, Kalniņš has composed many noteworthy and memorable symphonic works. Recognizing this, the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra, along with conductor Atvars Lakstīgala, as well as guest conductor Māris Sirmais, recorded a number of Kalniņš’ orchestral works, both past and recent compositions. The two disc collection, simply entitled Imants Kalniņš, was released in 2018 by the Latvian national music label Skani as part of their Latvian Centenary collection. The album includes Kalniņš’ 5th and 7th symphonies, his Oboe Concerto, and the orchestral work entitled ‘Santa Cruz’.

‘Santa Cruz’, conducted by Māris Sirmais, was composed in 2015 and includes many of the elements that have endeared Kalniņš to many listeners. This brief orchestra miniature, with its gently flowing melody in the sounds of the plucked strings, manifests a musical landscape with picturesque scenery.

Kalniņš has also composed for theater and film, and many of the dramatic elements from those mediums can be heard in his 5th symphony, composed in 1979. The first movement is full of tension, with the strings in constant motion, and then this tension transitions to a slower, more ominous theme, before the agitation returns towards the end, with pointed horn bursts to accentuate the drama. The work comes to a harmonious end in the fourth movement, with expands to a triumphant, celebratory theme, punctuated with cymbal crashes and a percussive rhythm, and then a slow fade continues all the way to the end of the work, and the somber melody dissipates into silence. Conductor Lakstīgala accentuates the dramatic in this work to great effect, creating a truly cinematic interpretation of Kalniņš’ composition.

The Oboe concerto, composed in 2012, is one of Kalniņš more playful and joyful works. This performance features oboist Pēteris Endzelis, and his adept and vivid interpretation results in a memorable rendition of this composition. The first movement, with its almost dainty melody, presents a mystical song of conjuring, which may remind some of Kalniņš’ popular music, which often had mystical and mythological lyrical themes. The calm and hopeful beginning of the second movement gives way to Kalniņš’ trademark undulating strings, setting the stage for the dance that begins the final movement, which ends on a reassuringly hopeful note.

Kalniņš’ most recent symphony, his seventh, was composed in 2015, has sentimental and nostalgic elements. Pastoral elements fill the first movement, perhaps suggesting a rural landscape of childhood. However, there are still elements of foreboding throughout the work, as things reach a climax in the third movement, where elements of conflict appear in the horns and percussion, almost like an alarm. The military-like beginning of the final movement, with its deliberate rhythm and relentless advance, continues with clocklike precision with the help of Sirmais’ exact conducting.

Imants Kalniņš, for many decades, has been a leading and defining figure in Latvian music. His signature style can be heard throughout the performances on this album, and are given vivid textures and rich colors, aided by the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra and conductors Atvars Lakstīgala and Māris Sirmais. These recordings display Kalniņš’ acute sense of melody and dramatic abilities, and provide for an engrossing and enjoyable journey through Imants Kalniņš’ symphonic works.

For more information, please visit the Skani website and Liepāja Symphony Orchestra website.

Imants Kalniņš

Liepāja Symphony Orchestra

Skani 067, 2018

Track listing

CD 1

1. Santa Cruz (2015)

Symphony No. 5 (1979)

2. Allegro appassionata

3. Sostenuto dolce

4. Allegretto festivo

5. Largo con grazia

CD 2

Oboe Concerto (2012)

1. ♩= 120

2. ♩ = 60

3. ♩.= 80

Symphony No. 7 (2015)

4. Allegro

5. Andante

6. Allegro

7. Grave

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area . 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.

Gaudeamus’ refreshing take on Prauliņš’ song cycle “Pagānu gadagrāmata”

Composer Uģis Prauliņš has often melded together many different styles and sounds in his works, balancing modern and ancient elements, like on his song cycle Odi et Amo, which mixed synthesizer music with Latin poetry. Prauliņš also has combined modern sounds with Latvian folk songs, such as on his 1999 song cycle Pagānu gadagrāmata (or ‘Pagan Yearbook’). Originally recorded with members of the post folk ensemble Iļģi, the collection was meant to portray a Latvian year in song, from the thaw of the spring to the cold of the winter and the end of the year. Combining Latvian folk songs, original music, and some more recent texts, the album and its arrangements provided for an engrossing journey through the seasons in Latvia.

After almost twenty years, the idea arose to revisit the song cycle. The original recording often featured synthesized male voices, so perhaps that inspired Prauliņš to record a new version with an actual men’s choir – Gaudeamus. Along with a number of well-known Latvian musicians and soloists, a new version of Pagānu gadagrāmata was released in 2018. The song cycle is mostly unchanged, with a few new songs added in, but the presence of the choir and a new set of a performers give this new version additional layers and colors.

A major element of the original was the presence of members Iļģi and singers Ilga Reizniece and Māris Muktupāvels, and the new version also includes similar folk singing specialists, and features singers Asnate Rancāne and Lauma Bērza, both from the folk ensemble Tautumeitas. Rancāne’s and Bērza’s authentic singing is an integral aspect of the album, on such songs like the tragic ‘Balādīte’, based on a poem by Ojārs Vācietis, a heartbreaking song of a young man who is executed by the guards of the local lord. ‘Es gulu gulu’, a similarly sad and tender folk song about a young woman who dreams about her lover leaving her, is given an appropriately dreamy and haunting interpretation by the singers and instrumental ensemble.

Though Gaudeamus do have a large role on the album, one does occasionally wish that there were more choir harmonies to be heard, as the men in the choir often sing in unison, or often simply provide background vocalizes. Still, on songs like the thunderous ‘Ar vilciņu Rīgā braucu’ (a song not in the original cycle), the powerful voices of the choir come together to make for a brawny performance – though some may find that this song with its drums and distorted electric guitar might not fully flow together with the rest of the songs. The choir’s conductor and vocalist Ivars Cinkuss also lends his robust and vigorous voice throughout the album, notably on ‘Man jāsteidzas’, a forceful and energetic performance which is then balanced by the voices of Rancāne and Bērza.

The song collection concludes in winter, with the rousing winter solstice song ‘Kaķeišami tāvs nūmyra’, which is then followed by the quiet, meditative ‘Vecgada vakars’, an instrumental about New Year’s Eve, an appropriate conclusion with a rather sudden ending that brings the year to a close, but foretells of a new year to come.

This release of Pagānu gadagrāmata provides for a refreshing new take on the song cycle. The men’s voices add both power and nuance to many of the performances, while the instrumentalists give the collection a more organic feel, compared to the often synth-heavy original. Uģis Prauliņš, along with Gaudeamus, have created a new version of this collection that maintains the spirit of the original, but still adds new dimensions with the sound and performance of the men’s choir. providing an added vitality to the music as the songs bring the listener through the Latvian calendar year.

For further information, please visit the choir Gaudeamus website and Uģis Prauliņš’ website


Pagānu gadagrāmata

Lauska, CD080, 2018

Track listing:

  1. Zaļa zied zālīte
  2. Atiti leldīna
  3. Pirmais pērkons
  4. Balādīte
  5. Meitas(e) gula ābolāje
  6. Ganiņš biju
  7. Es gulu gulu
  8. Iesēju liniņus
  9. Baltaitiņa
  10. Saucējs sauc aiz upītes
  11. Aiz kalniņa
  12. Sauleite lēce
  13. Tas vējiņš pūta / Nāk rudentiņis
  14. Kaķeišami tāvs nūmyra
  15. Vecgada vakars

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area . 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.