In Dimiters’ Latvia, not every day is Jāņi

Ai, Latviya

Among the many things that Kaspars Dimiters can list on his resume—besides singer, songwriter, guitarist, drummer, arranger and producer—is “social commentator.”

Ten years after, now that the euphoria of independance has given way to the reality of life, Latvia has its share of problems and difficulties. Of course, many of us who live outside of Latvia, and who at best spend only a few weeks a year there, still have the perception that Latvia can be a bit of a fantasy place: full of people singing folk songs, drinking Latvian beer, dancing folk dances, and generally having a pretty good time.

Much of the new music in Latvia adds to that impression, especially the abundance of schlager, simple songs that almost always are about love, but sometimes about beer.

Taking his cue from this, Dimiters in October 2001 released his 11th album, Ai, Latviya (note that the “ja” in Latvija is replaced by the Russian “ya” letter—the backwards “R”). Although the album’s melodies do seem to have a sound schlager foundation, the lyrics are full of biting commentatry about the state of affairs in Latvia today.

Probably the only trait that this album shares with the satirical pop group Labvēlīgais tips is the fact that these lyrics were written for and likely only understood by Latvians living in Latvia. They refer specifically to certain people and events, and the lyrics themselves are loaded with Latvian jargon that few outside of Latvia will understand. However it is not all impenetrable, as the album, though not painting a particularly flattering picture of Latvia, provides for some good listening. Dimiters pulls no punches, and it is clear that he is speaking his mind and not caring if the listener likes it or not. Such honesty is refreshing.

It is more than likely that I have misinterpreted some of the lyrics along the way. Even with the help of Latvian-born friends, some of these songs are still a mystery to me! Due to my own foreign-born Latvian status, I am likely not the best person to review, or even appreciate this album, but I find myself listening to this record quite often, if only because of its simple melodies, honest lryics and matter-of-fact delivery.

The album opens up with “Latvju mežcirša dziesma jeb Zelma,” a song about a Latvian lumberjack whose beloved Zelma has gone off to Amsterdam. The woodcutter calls Zelma, only for her to tell him, “Mīļais esmu prostitūta, ne vairs jasmīns koši balts” (My love, I am a prostitute, And no longer a bright, white jasmine). The melody makes the song almost dancable, though its subject matter is less encouraging.

A major problem in Latvia is alcohol abuse, and alcohol makes an appearance in many of the songs on the album. The song “Kosmonauts” in particular, is about use and overuse of alcohol, describing how many people drink to become a “cosmonaut,” sailing among the stars in their drunkenness. “Iedzēris varu kā kosmonauts ar zvaigznēm un Venēru parunat” (When drunk I can talk with the stars and Venus like a cosmonaut). This song strangely reminds me of the Čikāgas Piecīši song “Man garšo alus,” a song about the same subject matter. But Dimiters takes a far more critical view of it.

The title track, “Ai Latviya,” comes across as Dimiters’ ode to the Latvia of today, how so much has been experienced, so much has been suffered, and there still is a long way to go before things get better. It is clear from this song that Dimiters does care very much about Latvia, even though it appears hopeless at times. He even compares Latvian progress to a bat’s progress: “Kā akli sikspārņi mēs tumsā redzam ceļu” (Like blind bats we see our road in the dark). Hopefully some progress will be made, even if slowly.

Dimiters has no love for the government of Latvia, and he unleashes some of his most scathing lyrics in the song “Intervija ar ministru” (Interview With a Minister). Taking the government to task for lies and corruption, Dimiters frequently and cynically uses the words “godīgi sakot” (speaking honestly), when it is clear the minister is doing anything but. Even more sarcastically Dimiters sings, “Cik labi mūsu ministram būt neaizskaramam” (How nice it is that our minister is untouchable).

The closes with a “country” version of “Ai, Latvija.” This is likely a dig at American country music, and general foreign influences (of which Dimiters is not particularly fond of). Not just limiting his criticisms to his lyrics, the art (created by his sister, Kristiāna Dimitere) on the compact disc itself has the word “Latviya” in the same typeface as used by the Laima chocolate company—perhaps a slight jab at the commercialization of much of Latvia.

Again, there’s a good chance I have missed the point of much of what he is saying. But that is one of the things that is great about Dimiters—the lyrics are extremely important, befitting his position as social commentator. It does make the listener stop and think. Though sometimes the blunt speaking takes you aback, the honesty of the lyrics is refreshing, in that someone is not afraid to speak their minds about the problems today.

Not every day is Jāņi in Latvia, and life is not as cheery and simple as schlager music sometimes suggests. Ai, Latviya is an honest, warts-and-all picture of Latvia. The situation is not completely hopeless, but there is a lot of work that needs to be done. Such a record would not have been possible 20 years ago, but now that the Iron Curtain has fallen, and Dimiters has been freed of any kind of restrictions, he is able to record and say anything he wants. Music listeners are better off for it.


Ai, Latviya

Kaspars Dimiters

Baltic Records Group,  2001

BRG CD 110

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area . 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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