I recently spoke with a friend whose father had just passed away. She told me about returning to her hometown and about her struggles to convince her own mother that it would not be “improper” to include one Latvian folk song as a part of the memorial service. All of this took place right here in Latvia, among normal Latvians, and goes to show how far removed from their own traditional culture many have become.
And so I am very glad that Skandinieki—the best-known Latvian folklore ensemble—has released a recording of wake and funeral songs. The compact disc, called Veļu upe pārplūdus’ (The River of Spirits is Overflowing), contains 24 songs and dances from all parts of Latvia. The collection is a good representation of the hundreds of songs devoted to death and funerals. Please don’t dismiss this CD just because it’s funeral music. This is very important listening material! Plus, it’s not as somber as you might expect.
The texts may be sad, but they are also profound and comfortingly clear-sighted. Interestingly, many Latvian dainas (folk verses) describe death, wakes and funerals from the perspective of the deceased. The deceased may tell those who have remained behind how to prepare for the burial, how to decorate the cemetery, or how to sing and dance at the funeral feast. Yes, dance! An essential part of a Latvian funeral is ritual dance. One of these rituals is the stamping out of the deceased’s footsteps (pēdu izmīšana), so that their spirit may rest easily and not return to the land of the living. An example of this practice is included on the CD, “Nominu, nodeju māmiņas pēdas.” Another funeral dance or game is “Sieviņ brauca mežās,” in which a blindfolded participant must guess who his fellow dancers are.
Other songs of note on the CD are “Dedzan man skalu” about the death of a fisherman and “Vakar māti glabājām” and “Kas tevi šaukie,” both sung in rarely heard dialects. “Zin, Dieviņi, kālabati,” “Jūdzat bēŗus, jūdzat raudus,” “Divejādi saule tek” and “Dzīvoš’ ilgi, nedzīvoš’” are fairly familiar melodies and texts, but the rest of the CD will probably be completely new material for many listeners. The melodies alone of “Viena pati balta puķe” and “Te ganiņi ganījuši” are beautiful enough to make your heart break. “Eim’ pašas māsiņas” is another dance. “Visi ciema kukainīši” is not only upbeat and in a major key, but it even pokes gentle fun at the legions of insects that are awaiting the singer’s death. Talk about a healthy attitude towards death! Near the end of the CD is a Liv wailing song, which does not at all fit in with the reserved manner of Latvian funeral songs. It’s sung so convincingly, though, that it’s fascinating to listen to—almost to the point of being uncomfortable.
Some of the songs on Veļu upe pārplūdus’ have kokle, ģīga or violin accompaniment, but the arrangements are all very simple and the main focus of the CD is definitely on the voices, melodies and texts. Skandinieki is a large group and consequently tends to have a pleasant choral sound. Ten different singers are featured on the CD, with the voices of the directors Helmī and Julgī Stalte being particularly powerful and full of character. Again, don’t be frightened off by the seriousness of these songs. If you allow them, they will give you great comfort and strength, even if you are not in mourning.
By the way, my friend’s mother later grudgingly admitted to her that the inclusion of the folk song in her father’s memorial service had been appropriate…and even very beautiful and moving.
Veļu upe pārplūdus’
Rīgas skaņu ierakstu studija, 2006
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