It surprised me a bit to see that Dzelzīm dzimu, the latest album in UPE Recording Co.‘s “Latvian Folk Music Collection,” features Vilki (The Wolves), a controversial folklore group that specializes in warrior songs.
Vilki seem to be a group more interested in “doing” rather than “recording”—that is, researching and actually acting out and living the ancient customs and rituals, rather than sitting in a modern recording studio. Vilki concentrate on the past, and not just musically. They’re interested in the whole warrior culture—from the very oldest times to modern times, too—but especially in the culture of about 1,000 years ago, before the forced conversion of Latvians to Christianity. This particular recording focuses on these oldest of Latvian warrior songs from the medieval times and before (no mention of guns and artillery—here it’s only about swords and war horses!)
Notwithstanding this, the result of Vilki’s foray into the studio is powerful. The quality of the songs is high and (it sounds to me) authentic. Every last one of the songs is about war. But even if war isn’t your thing, this is riveting and inspiring music. It’s stark, strong, even chilling. The music does a remarkable job of evoking the power, sadness and uncertainty of war, as well as the excitement of adventure and joyfullness of prancing horses. But luckily, most people who listen to Dzelzīm dzimu are not doing so to get into the mood for going off to war—they’re just listening to good music.
Considering that the subject matter and aura of most of this music are very similar, Vilki have come up with quite a variety of sounds: driving drums, small whistles, a war horn, an assortment of bangles. The listener is taken from the haunting sounds of the first song, “Ko domāji, tu kundziņi,” to the loud bagpipes of “Novītusi tā puķīte,” to the gentle strum of the kokle on “Div’ baloži”; from the intense “Šķiramies, brāleliņi” and mighty “Lustīt mana” to the almost dreamy “Uz tiem laukiem” and sorrowful “Kas tie tādi.” Inbetween is the relatively bright and spirited “Kaŗavīra līgaviņa.” One hears the persevering beat of “Zviegtin zviedza” and the subtle bass of the ģīga on the heavyhearted “Māte mani lolodama.” “Cīrulīti, mazputniņi” is a melancholy solo, while “Visi kauli noguruši” and “Sadziedami, mēs bāliņi” are forceful a capella pieces.
The arrangements are simple yet sophisticated. Vilki rely heavily on fifth intervals for vocal harmonies, giving the music an appropriate “primitive” feel, and only in two places did my ears perk up at hearing an unconventional harmony. About half of the songs on Dzelzīm dzimu are already on the 1997 cassette by Vilki, also called Dzelzīm dzimu. But at least it sounds like the old songs have been newly or freshly recorded. The compact disc sounds much more professional than the cassette.
It seems that the fad in folk music is to introduce modern elements and ingredients from other cultures. Vilki, though, have stayed true to the old music. They’ve stuck to traditional instruments, melodies and texts. And it’s well they have. It’s not even appropriate for warrior music to have much accompaniment besides drums, because you don’t take your fancy musical instruments along to war. But despite the bareness of this music, the effect is good. It’s dark and heavy, and in it one truly feels the somber nature of war. This is powerful music—it sent a few good shivers up my back!
Obviously, these songs have powerful lyrics. Powerful in the emotional sense, but also texts that are meant to bring and concentrate strength—magic spells and rituals, if you will. Unfortunately, the English translations in the Dzelzīm dzimu liner notes are poor. For the most part they can be forgiven, but I feel that the translation of “Uz kariņu aiziedams” is not just poor, but wrong (and in this case, not for a lack of knowledge of English). The child in the song is not the soldier’s fiancee’s child by another man, but rather the soldier’s own sister, who has grown into a young woman while he was away at war.
Despite a comment I heard that Dzelzīm dzimu sounds like a funeral dirge, this is a good, strong and powerful recording for those who like very traditional folk music with a primitive sound and natural “oompf.” Those who like to pore over every last word of liner notes, though, may find the English text on Dzelzīm dzimu to be less informative than notes on previous UPE recordings.
UPE Recording Co., 2000
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