Jūrmalnieki and their music grow in popularity

Perhaps one day people will know that all the great events of the late 20th century had their start in Seattle, notes Guntis Šmidchens, a lecturer at the University of Washington. Those include the founding of software company Microsoft Corp., the spread of the Starbucks coffeehouse chain and the beginnings of the grunge movement. And to that list, he would add the rising popularity of the Latvian folk dance band Denveras Jūrmalnieki.

As the band’s name suggests, the Jūrmalnieki are not from Seattle but from Denver, Colo. Thanks to the urging of Šmidchens, who heard them play at a November 18 commemoration in the late 1990s in Colorado and invited them to Washington to perform during a Midsummer celebration the following year, the five members of Denveras Jurmalnieki have become perhaps the most popular Latvian folk band in North America. Some fans even call themselves Jūrmalnieki “groupies” and have the T-shirts to prove their allegiance.

“I really liked them that time in Denver,” Šmidchens recalled in an e-mail. He was the featured speaker at the event and Denveras Jūrmalnieki were the musical guests, a function the band had been fulfilling for several years in the local Latvian community.

“When they played dance music, I had the feeling of being at a folklore festival in Latvia,” Šmidchens said. “Just like at the dances at these festivals, it was as if the violin simply willed your feet to dance and they could not resist.”

Anyone who in recent years has been to a Latvian song festival in North America, whether in Chicago, San Francisco or Toronto, has probably seen the band perform at least once. During this summer’s festival in Toronto, for example, Denveras Jūrmalnieki played several times, including serving as the live accompaniment to the grand dance performance.

The band also has recorded four albums, including the latest, Dziesmu vainags and Jampadracis, both released earlier this year.

Not bad for five people whose musical talents vary from one who cannot read notes to another with years of formal musical training, and who collectively are somewhat self-effacing about those talents.

“I am completely amazed that people are willing to pay to hear us,” drummer Mārtiņš Rubenis said during an interview with band members following a July concert at the Latvian center Gaŗezers near Three Rivers, Mich.

Rubenis started the band in 1992 along with brothers Ēriks and Aleks Humeyumptewa. Ēriks is the lead vocalist and usually is seen playing the accordeon, while Aleks usually plays violin. Also in the band are Ēriks’ wife Daiga, who plays traditional Latvian percussive instruments such as the trejdeksnis, and zither player Astra Mangule, sister-in-law to Rubenis.

Denveras Jūrmalnieki describe themselves as a lauku kapelle, meaning a country dance band. The impetus for creating the band, Ēriks said, was a desire to have live music at events in the Denver Latvian community. The band is capable of churning out lively versions of Latvian folk songs, polkas and even some pop and rock tunes.

“If you have a song, we can slaughter it,” Ēriks joked. He’s the one who cannot read notes.

A performance by Denveras Jūrmalnieki often seems impromptu and unpolished, even though the band practices weekly. But that also is the band’s charm: “I just like to play music,” said Aleks.

The band draws its material from various sources, Ēriks said. They have collected song books and material from older groups from Latvia such as Brāļi laivinieki. The group writes original material as well.

Originally calling themselves Kalna vīri (The Mountain Men), the band changed its name when the women came on board. The band chose its new name tongue in cheek, because there’s no ocean near Denver (jūrmalnieki means “those who live by the sea”).

From a band playing for a local audience, Denveras Jūrmalnieki have gone on to play for audiences in the thousands. While early on they provided background music for events, the Jūrmalnieki now find themselves front and center. The first time was at a song festival in Los Angeles. Aleks recalled that he was nervous before that performance. But in Toronto this summer, Rubenis found himself not just on stage, but in the middle of the arena floor, a lone drummer marked by a spotlight as male dancers performed around him.

The band not only plays public concerts, but also private functions, such as a recent wedding in British Columbia. Next on the group’s calendar are an Oct. 16 concert in Minneapolis, Minn., and a Nov. 20 appearance during the Cleveland, Ohio, community’s commemoration of Latvian Independence Day. The band also expects to perform in April during the Daugavas Vanagi annual meeting in Milwaukee, Wis.

While the band has traveled widely, it still has some locations on the map it hasn’t managed to get to. So take note, those of you in Montreal, New York, Boston and other locations in eastern North America: Denveras Jūrmalnieki are ready and waiting.

Denveras Jūrmalnieki

The members of Denveras Jūrmalnieki pose for a photograph after a July concert at the Latvian center Gaŗezers in Michigan. From left, Aleks Humeyumptewa, Daiga Humeyumptewa, Ēriks Humeyumptewa and Mārtiņš Rubenis. Not pictured is Astra Mangule. (Photo by Andris Straumanis)

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

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