With just two years to go before its 50th anniversary, the Latvian-American group Čikāgas Piecīši shows little sign of slowing down. Founded in 1961, the group is still performing, including a long-awaited return to Latvia that took place in 2008 and a concert during the 2009 Latvian Song Festival in Canada. In conjunction with this renewed activity, the group last year released its first career-spanning retrospective compact disc, Čikāgas Piecīšu zelts. Though the group already released a collection of its older songs, 1996’s Agrīnie gadi, this new collection covers the group’s entire recorded history.
The group has been a rather fluid ensemble, with many participants coming and going, but the central member has always been singer and songwriter Alberts Legzdiņš. Penning almost all of the group’s most recognizable hits, he has tirelessly guided the ensemble over its many decades, making the group, as well as himself, one of the most recognizable entities in Latvian music, with many triumphant performances in the United States, Canada, Latvia and many other places.
Distilling the essence of the Čikāgas Piecīši to one single CD is a difficult task, but Zelts, with its collection of trejdeviņi (27) songs, captures almost all of the definitive musical moments in the group’s history.
One can track the growth and evolution of the group throughout the decades. In the 1960s, when its humor was at its sharpest (“Supermarketā”), Čikāgas Piecīši still contained plenty of the good old Latvian melancholy (“Pēc 20 gadiem”).
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Legzdiņš went in a different direction, recording two solo albums with singer and guitarist Janīna Ankipāne. Though not officially Piecīši albums, they are represented here by songs like “Sapnis par Latgali” and “Vecpiebalga”.
With the arrival of singer and guitarist Armands Birkens in the 1970s, the Piecīši reformed. The group recorded some of its most popular songs, including “Pazudušais dēls,” “Līgo dziesma” and a personal favorite of mine, “Kurzemnieki Viskonsīnā.”
The Piecīši continued work into the 1980s, with songs taking a more patriotic feel to them, such as “Made in Latvia” and “Par mani, draudziņ’, nebēdā,” but not losing the humor exhibited since the group’s inception, displayed in songs like “Kurpniekzeļļi.”
A nice surprise in this collection is that there are three songs from the group’s underrated 1994 album Vai debesīs būs Latvija? including “Sprīdītis Rīgā,” “1989. gads” and the title track. Though long a musical voice for diaspora Latvians, many of whom longed to visit a free Latvia, the group was no less relevant after the restoration of independence in 1991. Vai debesīs būs Latvija? included songs about the changing times and moods in Latvia itself, as the euphoria from independence began to diminish and the difficult reality of the situation began to present itself.
Conspicuous by their absence are “Es redzēju bāleliņu” and “Mūsu mīlestība,” two very popular songs. However, the CD does contain “Mister, Kurzemniek!” a previously unreleased (at least not on CD, that is) calypso-style song about the natives of Tobago inviting settlers from the Kurzeme region of Latvia to visit them.
The set could have also used a few more selections from the group’s 1960s incarnation, but that era was reasonably well covered by the Agrīnie gadi set.
Album packaging, which has never been the strong suit of these releases, at least contains a few pictures and the group’s album covers, but no lyrics. It would have been nice to get some sort of commentary from at least Legzdiņš on the songs themselves, but my understanding is that he is preparing another book about the history of the group, so that should certainly provide more information.
The release of Čikāgas Piecīšu zelts and the group’s tour of Latvia at the end of 2008 coincided with one of the sadder moments in the group’s history: the death of founding member and long time skit and joke writer Uldis Ievāns.
A single CD of music is hardly enough to convey the importance of the group and its songs to diaspora Latvians. After all, the songs here are rather simplistic, and the lyrics themselves display a slight, though perhaps intentional, naïveté. But that is one of the main reasons these songs have become so beloved and still today are sung when Latvians get together. Alternatively light hearted, sentimental, patriotic and even poignant, the songs of Legzdiņš and the Čikāgas Piecīši have endured the test of time. Čikāgas Piecīsu zelts is yet another reminder of the group’s contribution to Latvian life.
Čikāgas Piecīšu zelts
BA CD 082
Made In Latvia
Mēs puisēni jaun’ būdami
Sapnis par Latgali
Sekss ir labs
Pēc 20 gadiem
No Lielupes tilta
Man garšo alus
Lai visa pasaule to redz
Par mani, draudziņ, nebēdā!
Vai debesīs būs Latvija?
On the Web
The group’s page on the social networking site draugiem.lv includes samples of songs and a short biography. LV
The group’s site on the Web site of Rīga-based recording company Platforma Music, from which digital downloads of all Čikāgas Piecīši albums may be purchased. LV
Where to buy
Purchase Čikāgas Piecīšu zelts from BalticShop.
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