Think of the cute farmer’s daughter in overalls, straw hat, freckles, pig-tails and a piece of straw between her teeth. Now think of the Latvian version of this scene. That’s what the first half or so of the album Alus dziesmas (Beer Songs) sounds like to me: a caricature.
According to the liner notes, Latvians enjoy beer, but their tradition doesn’t condone drunkenness. The liner notes correctly state that "beer was an integral part of the ritual meal at all ancient Latvian celebrations." Beer was a part of socializing, feasting and singing—a beverage to enjoy, instead of a means by which to get drunk. But you’d never know it by listening to some of the songs on this compact disc, nor by looking at the cover picture!
I admit it—the cover photo put me off from the very beginning: a museum-quality traditional Latvian house with four men partying, one of whom is passed out at the table. The first half of the CD sounds like the picture looks: more or less traditional music, but then there’s that one passed out guy that messes it up. The mood sounds exaggerated, like a parody.
If you’re drunk, then not only would your singing and judgment suffer, but also your playing of musical instruments. The playing on Alus dziesmas does not suffer. In fact, it is quite good, as one would expect from the musicians associated with the UPE Recording label. But to me it sounds like they started recording the vocal tracks at the height of their drinking. Thankfully, after about half a dozen songs the music seems to have mellowed them out some. After a somewhat bitter first taste, the CD ends with several really nice songs, leaving a good aftertaste in my mouth.
A few highlights of the CD:
"Es bej loba īmetēja" is very interesting, being a song from the woman’s point of view. This woman does not lament about her husband’s drinking, as one would expect, but rather jokes about her own fondness for imbibing: "Whoever plans to marry me should first build a brewery so that I can start each day by going there…"
The men’s a capella "Kur tu biji alutiņi" is a nice change from the previous songs and leads into "Redz kur nāca alus kanna," sung by three very confident women. "Redz kur" is the traditional drinking song where I come from, aside from the common ziņģes. It rarely has a set text, because people are expected to just add verse after verse. The melody line is almost too simple, but the elaborate ways people keep the strong beat going (for example, pounding anything made of wood) keep the song fun and exciting.
While all the songs on the CD (except the two instrumentals) are truly pretty much about beer and beer alone, "Pie alus galda sēdēja" is a love song of sorts that mentions beer only in the title. "Alus, alus, laid mani iekšā" is a great waltz-polka combination.
Actually, there are quite a few good, merry, lustīgas songs on Alus dziesmas. But like I said, I don’t care for the treatment they receive on this recording. I also got a bit tired of the constant accordion (as well as the Cajun-inspired playing of it, for example, on "Aiz kalniņa dūmi kūp"), but I guess the instrument does seem to fit well with beer.
A warning to connoisseurs of ultra-traditional music: This CD contains a whole lot of whoops, yips, grunts, squeals, calls and shouts. For some reason these have become quite popular in Latvian traditional music lately. They’re not really at all out of place at a wild party or even just a fun evening of dancing and singing. But some people do not like to hear them on recordings.
Alus dziesmas contains just a few of the many, many songs on the topic of beer and drinking (a great number of which are, need I say, heart-rending laments about drunk husbands, but we hear none of those on this CD). Despite the treatment they receive, the collection of songs is pretty good, and the goal of the CD is noble: to once again intertwine the drinking of beer with the singing of traditional beer songs.
Latviešu tautas mūzikas kolekcija
UPE Recording Co., 2001
UPE CD 026
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