Vilki latest album features Latvian war and battle songs from different eras

With Latvia’s location between multiple major powers, it is no surprise that centuries of wars have left their impression on the nation. Uncountable armies and soldiers have marched over the territory of Latvia, and Latvians were regularly dragged into larger conflicts. Consequently, there are hundreds (if not thousands) of Latvian songs about war and battle.

The Latvian men’s vocal ensemble Vilki have made it their mission to gather and record as many of these songs as possible. Since their beginnings in the early 1990s, Vilki have been regularly performing and recording songs of war, and they released their latest album – Bunkurs 13 – in 2021. The title – Bunker 13 – is also appropriate considering that this is the group’s 13th album. The album gathers songs from throughout Latvia’s history – from ancient folk songs to modern military songs. The group performs songs with minimal instrumentation – songs are sung in unison, with the occasional harmonica, kokle, or accordion to assist.

Some listeners may be surprised to hear so many happy songs on the album. Notwithstanding Latvia’s tragic history, many of the songs here are about the preparation of going off to war, with a touch of bravado. The album includes some well-known songs like the World War I era Latvian Riflemen’s song ‘Mirdzot sķēpiem’, a song about a romance between a rifleman and a young maiden. Though this song does end on a mournful note (the maiden weeps at the rifleman’s grave). The dance-like ‘Jautrības brīžiem’ is about soldiers taking a break from battle to enjoy life, ‘Karavīram garlaicīgi’ is also a rousing song about what soldiers do in times of boredom.

Not all the songs are positive though – for example ‘Kurzemes pēdējie leģionāri’, about the last remaining Latvian Legionnaires in Kurzeme at the end of World War II. Uncertain of their future, the soldiers endeavor to remain hopeful in the face of certain destruction by Soviet forces, and Vilki’s performance of the song is poignant and heartbreaking. The song ‘Bunkurs 13’ is full of dark humor about the destruction of this particular bunker, but the men are determined to still fight for Latvia to the bloody end.

The modern era is represented by ‘Kājnieku dziesma’, a recently written soldiers’ marching song. Written by trainees at the National Defense Academy of Latvia, Vilki perform a full-throated interpretation of the song.

One does wish that the group had provided more information about the songs in the CD packaging (no booklet is included), especially considering the history of the songs. It would have been helpful to at least know which era the song was from, to provide some historical context.

The enthusiastic and authentic performances by Vilki on Bunkurs 13 breathe new life into these songs and help reveal the history of Latvia’s soldiers from throughout the centuries. Covering many different eras, with songs both joyous and bleak, the album reconfirms Vilki as premiere interpreters of Latvian war songs.

For more information, please visit the Vilki website

Bunkurs 13


Lauska 2022

Track listing:

  1. Es savai māmiņai
  2. Zviegtin zviedza
  3. Tumši bija, gaišis tapa
  4. Uz tēviju!
  5. Sakarnieku dziesma
  6. 19.divīzijas dziesmas
  7. Kurzemes pēdējie leģionāri
  8. Ložmetējnieku dziesma
  9. Artilēristu dziesma
  10. Ai, bāliņi
  11. Mirdzot šķēpiem
  12. Izlūki
  13. Jautrības brīžiem
  14. Aizjāja latviets
  15. Karavīram garlaicīgi
  16. Kad ar uzvaru
  17. Brīvības kareivji
  18. Paliec sveiks, mans mazais draugs
  19. Uz priekšu, latvieši!
  20. Ikkatru sestdien’s vakaru
  21. Bunkurs 13
  22. Kājnieku dziesma

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.

Recent release restores Jānis Ivanovs’ symphonies in prominent place

Latvian composer Jānis Ivanovs (1906 – 1983) has been called Latvia’s ‘greatest symphonist’, which is understandable, considering that he composed twenty-one symphonies during his lifetime – one of the most significant contributions to Latvian symphonic music by any composer. However, many of his symphonies have receded from view, and are rarely heard internationally.

The Latvian national record label Skani has been actively encouraging Latvian ensembles to record the music of Ivanovs not just to raise the composer’s profile, but also to bring his music to listeners worldwide. In 2021, the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra and composer Guntis Kuzma released two of Ivanovs’ later symphonies – nos. 15 and 16.

Symphony no. 15 (or Symphonia ipsa), composed in 1972, is, like many of the composer’s works, full of tension and conflict. Ivanovs, like many other Latvian composers, suffered under the Soviet system, particularly when trying to balance his own inner artistic visions with the demands of the State.

The first movement is hesitant, almost uncertain, with brief melodies appearing in the strings and wind instruments, which are then taken over by dramatic lines in the strings and harsh sounds from the brass instruments. The movement alternates between moments of tranquility and moments of tension and concludes on a somber note. The second movement ramps up the tension and is highly energetic and always in motion, and the third begins peacefully, but always with a sense of foreboding as it slowly builds to a dramatic, thunderous climax. The LNSO and conductor Kuzma imbue the with both the necessary tension and dramatic effect and maintain this all the way to the conclusion of the fourth movement, which returns to the hesitancy of the first movement as it slowly fades away.

Symphony no. 16, composed in 1974, continues the themes of the 15th Symphony. This is the era of Brezhnev and the time of ‘stagnation’, and Ivanovs’ frustrations continue to manifest themselves in his music. Creeping foreboding permeates the first movement, as grave, somber chords give way to a more frantic, tense crescendo, which then segues into the galloping second movement, a whirlwind of motion filled with uncertainty which concludes with an unexpected drumroll. The third movement is again somber, even morose, but still rich with dramatic tension, and the LNSO reveal the many layers of Ivanovs’ musical language. The symphony concludes with the somewhat calmer fourth movement, ending on a grandiose, stately chord.

The CD booklet, with notes by musicologist Armands Znotiņš (including English translation), provides additional insight into the compositions and the composer, and offers fascinating historical anecdotes, for example after the failure of Ivanovs’ Symphony no. 9 and the criticism of it by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, Ivanovs ceased all communication with him. 

Often bleak and full of angst, Ivanovs’ symphonies can be difficult to listen to, as they seem entirely devoid of any kind of hope or happiness. However, that is what makes the symphonies such compelling listening, as they do seem to offer windows into Ivanovs’ thoughts and soul, his struggle with the oppressive Soviet system. The LNSO and conductor Guntis Kuzma bring forth the dramaticism and deep tension in these works, providing for an immersive and enlightening listen. Ivanovs’ Symphonies nos. 15 and 16 have undeservedly faded into the background, and this release should go a long way to restoring them to a more prominent place in the sphere of Latvian symphonic music.

For further information, please visit the Skani website and the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra website

Ivanovs. Symphonies nos. 15 and 16

Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, conductor Guntis Kuzma

Skani, LMIC/SKANI 126, 2021

Track listing:

Symphony no. 15 Symphonia Ipsa in B-flat minor

  1. I Moderato
  2. II Molto Allegro
  3. III Molto Andante (Adagio)
  4. IV Moderato. Allegro

Symphony no. 16 in E-flat major

  • I Moderato. Allegro Moderato
  • II Allegro
  • Andante. Pesante
  • IV Allegro Moderato

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.

Laiksne’s new album: Folksongs about young Latvian woman’s life

The women’s Latvian folk group Laiksne has, for more than twenty years, been one of the premiere folk ensembles in Latvia. Exuberant performances, rich arrangements, and joyous songs have been the hallmark of Laiksne’s recordings, and this is evident on their latest album – 2021’s Ko zinu gaidīt. After an eight-year gap since their last album (2013’s Es čigāna meita biju), Ko zinu gaidīt is a long awaited follow-up, and does not disappoint.

Many of Laiksne’s albums have an overall theme, and for Ko zinu gaidīt, the album’s songs chronicle a Latvian woman’s life – from birth to marriage. As on their other albums, the group gathers their materials from folk archives (each song lists who originally sang the song and who wrote down the song, as many of the songs were catalogued during various folklore ‘expeditions’ in Latvia throughout the 20th century).

The gently flowing “Ko jauna būdama”, about a girl who planted flowers and made a wreath of roses, shines with the sound of the stabule (reed pipe), while “Nepūta taures” features the sound of the kokle as well as Laiksne’s rich vocal harmonies.

The cheery “Šovasar es valkāju” is about a girl choosing between two suitors, while the similarly up-tempo “Miegs man nāca” is about working hard even when one is sleepy.

The delicate “Ieva”, about a young girl getting ready to be married, is full of tenderness as the girl tries to cheer her despondent mother. Laiksne’s performance of the song captures the sadness of the mother as well as the empathy of the daughter’s reassurances that she will never be far away. In a similar vein, the wistful “Dzīžu, dzīžu vīna pate” is a song about a girl who must sing all alone, as her sisters are away in Latgale – but they still all plan on meeting at their brother’s house.

“Leigoj pologs”, a somber song about a girl struggling to find an acceptable suitor, is performed a capella, and though there are no instruments, the vocal harmonies bring forth the sadness, even bitterness of the song. The song ends on a caustic note, as the mother asks the daughter what married life is like, and the daughter replies “you should know.”

The album closes with the atmospheric “Es piedzimu pie māmiņas”, a song that features vocalists from multiple generations, among them Ilga Reizniece from post-folk group Iļģi, is about the birth of a girl who then is raised by her mother but is also cared for by the Latvian goddess Laima. The sparse instrumentation brings out the power of the words, as well as accenting the idea that Laima will determine the girl’s destiny.

Though in their third decade of performance, Laiksne are still full of vitality and vigor, and Ko zinu gaidīt, with its songs from throughout a young woman’s life, is imbued with tenderness and warmth, as well as joy and humor.

For further information, please visit the Laiksne Facebook page

Ko zinu gaidīt


Lauska CD094, 2021

Track listing

  1. Ko jauna būdama
  2. Es pazinu to meitiņu
  3. Nepūta taures
  4. Šovasar es valkāju
  5. Ieva
  6. Jaizalaide mān sauleite
  7. Ods
  8. Leigoj pologs
  9. Zīdi, zīdi
  10. Riti, riti
  11. Miegs man nāca
  12. Dzīžu, dzīžu vīna pate
  13. Es piedzimu pie māmiņas

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.