Slapping the back of a guitar didn’t sound right. Tapping on the back of a kokle didn’t sound right, either. But pounding on a door was perfect, providing a deep, resounding “boom!” to punctuate the Mārtiņi folksong, “Kas dimd, kas rīb?”
And that’s what listeners may hear when they play a new album of traditional Latvian seasonal songs. The album, supported by the Latvian Church Dievturi and recorded by a group of singers and musicians from the American Midwest, should be ready this autumn.
Dievturi and friends from Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin gathered during the Memorial Day weekend May 26-28 for their second recording session in five months at Dievsēta, a Latvian-owned property near the small, rural Wisconsin community of Warrens. Dievturība is a Latvian folk religion that finds its wisdom in the dainas, which are often expressed in song.
“For years the people at Dievsēta have been talking about making a recording of the seasonal songs that we sing at Dievsēta at the different celebrations year-round,” explained project coordinator Zinta Pone of Minneapolis.
Several dozen songs may appear on the album, which is to be available in both compact disc and cassette format. The album initially was meant as a resource for Latvian schools, but its appeal could well be broader.
“People are interested in knowing what songs to sing at different times of the year,” Pone said, “as they are teaching about other traditions for the holidays. The education element is still primary, but we are going to sell the album to the general public. It should be entertaining for everybody.”
About five to 10 songs for each of the traditional seasons are expected to be included in the album, Pone said. “We don’t know yet if it will all fit on one album,” she added.
“Maybe we will divide the year over two albums. There are many people who are not familiar with specific seasonal songs, and we feel it is important to have recordings available so that these songs are not forgotten.” The album is to include printed lyrics and descriptions of the seasonal celebrations.
The singers and musicians who have participated in the two recording sessions number about 20. Songs have been performed solo, by duets and by large groups. Traditional instruments such as kokle, drums, accordian and trīdeksnis—as well as spur-of-the-moment innovations like the door—are used to complement the voices of the singers.
Manning the recording equipment is Atis Freimanis of Washington state, who—along with microphones and a mixer—flew to the Midwest during the winter solstice celebration and again during Memorial Day. Pone and other members of the folk group Lini met Freimanis during a concert trip to the West Coast. “Atis agreed to come to Wisconsin and record these seasonal songs,” Pone said.
Pone’s mother, Elga (leader of the Minneapolis-based folk ensemble Teiksma), and her cousin, Amanda Jātniece (like Zinta Pone, a member of both Teiksma and Lini), helped pick out songs and develop instrumentations and harmonies, she explained. “I did a homemade solo recording of the melodies, which I sent to the participants along with copies of the music and words. That helped them refresh their memories or become familiar with some of the songs before arriving in Dievsēta to record.”
During the recording sessions, the singers and musicians relied on Freimanis to guide them. “He was listening for the best possible sound and advised us of how many takes we should do of each song, played the recording back for our judgment and input and also offered ideas on how to make the songs more diverse and interesting to listen to,” Pone said.
“I think this was a great opportunity for the participants to experience professional recording and to feel an important part in a big project that will be enjoyed by people all around the world,” Pone said. “There is much, much enthusiasm behind the singing.”
Singers from Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin record a Latvian folk song during a recent session at Dievsēta in rural Wisconsin. (Photo by Andris Straumanis)
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