Folk songs about war on album by Latvian folk group Rāva

Rāva, a band from Rīga, Latvia that came together in 2014, describe their style as ‘dark, experimental folk’. Using extensive sound effects and synthesizers, as well as traditional instruments, their interpretations of Latvian folk songs tend towards the solemn and weighty, and their live performances are also enhanced by performance art elements.

This approach to Latvian folk music, while unique, is perhaps not at all surprising, considering the nature of many Latvian folk songs. A significant number are sad, if not tragic, with their tales of death, war, orphans, as well as life’s difficulties.

The group released their self-titled debut album in 2018, and the songs are all almost entirely based on folk songs about war. The ensemble was founded by ethnomusicologist and vocalist Ilze Ceļmillere, and she is joined by guitarist and sound effects specialist Toms Ceļmillers, Emīls Zonne on vocals, mandolin and flute, as well as vocalist Eduards Plankājs and Viesturs Āboltiņš on vocals and bass. Initially, this collection of songs was gathered as Ceļmillere’s thesis work, and was presented as the performance art work ‘Vārna krāca ozolā’, and later the group recorded the songs to create this album.

The record begins with ‘Sniegi sniga’, a radically different interpretation of the folk song that inspired the popular song ‘Zibsnī zvaigznes aiz Daugavas’ (arranged by composer Jānis Lūsens and originally performed by singer Mirdza Zīvere in the mid-1980s). While Lūsēns’ version was a sweet and tender song, Rāva present it more as an ominous, fatalistic song about war approaching, with Ceļmillere intoning the words over sound effects and a slow bass line to enhance the feeling of dread.

As the songs on the album are about war, this may remind listeners of a similar album Dzelzīm dzimu by the ensemble Vilki, which also contained war songs. Both albums feature interpretations of the song ‘Vīri, vīri, nebūs labi’ (on the Rāva album it is called ‘Vārna krāca ozolā’). Rāva’s version of this song about preparing for war is melodic, with the band members providing harmonies over arpeggiated chords, with a bit of discordance at the end, provided by the flute and guitar.

The album moves more towards the area of sound and performance art with the track ‘In Memoriam’, which does not include any vocals, but is based around a recording of former Latvian Legion member Laimonis Ludzenieks (who passed away in 2017, and this song is dedicated to his memory). Against a backdrop of unsettling sound effects, Ludzenieks tells of his quite terrifying personal experiences in battle, as well as foreboding dreams and visions he had during the conflict, including one where his mother comes to him to warn him of the difficult day he will have.

Over a sparse accompaniment Rāva create a heartbreaking vision of the song ‘Uz kariņu’, a song that is also about departing for war, as the soldier turns around to see all his family members crying, and the finality and despondency of all those involved is expressed in Rāva’s performance.

On their debut album, Rāva, with their dark and experimental interpretations of Latvian folk songs about war, have woven together an engaging and thought provoking album. Using sounds effects and many dim and shadowy musical colors and textures, the group has created a record that, while truly dark and even bleak at times, is still quite affecting and moving. Of course, not everyone may enjoy this collection of songs due to their weighty nature and dark atmosphere. Many of the songs, with their slow, deliberate pace, may remind some of funeral dirges. Still, Rāva have indicated that this record concludes their exploration of war themes, and will explore other Latvian folk themes in the future. Rāva’s interpretations of folk songs about war will remind the listener of the tragic toll that war has taken on Latvia throughout the centuries, as well as the grim reality of conflict, and this is richly reflected in Rāva’s performances.

For further information, please visit the Rāva Facebook page.

Rāva

NABA Music / Melo Records, 2018

Track listing:

  • Sniegi sniga
  • Vārna krāca ozolā
  • Bāliņš
  • In Memoriam
  • Uz kariņu
  • Tiderā
  • Projām jāiet
  • Baltaitiņa
  • Veratiesi vara vārti

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area who lives in Rīga, Latvia. When not working in the information technology field, he sings in the Latvian Academy of Culture mixed choir Sõla, does occasional translation work, and has been known to sing and play guitar at the Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs in Old Rīga. 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.

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