Mati sarkanā vējā – autobiographical account of life in occupied Latvia

Review of book by Alfrēds Stinkuls, Mati sarkanā vējā (Hair blowing in the red wind), Lauska, 2020

Thirty years have passed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but, in certain ways, it seems like a lifetime ago. It is difficult to imagine a world that included things like the Berlin Wall, the Baltic countries under occupation, and the Iron Curtain. However, thirty years in the overall course of history is a very brief period, and things that seemed to be in the rear-view mirror may very well unexpectedly appear again. This is especially true today, when what was recently thought to be unthinkable has become all too real.

That is why Alfrēds Stinkuls’ autobiography, entitled Mati sarkanā vējā, about growing up and living in occupied Latvia is particularly timely. Released in 2020, the book covers his life until his emigration westwards from Soviet occupied Latvia in 1986 and provides a revealing view of what everyday life was like in the 1970s and 80s in Latvia, what ordinary people had to endure and suffer through.

What makes Stinkuls’ story particularly compelling is Stinkuls is a self-described ‘hippie’. He had long hair and a beard, which was highly unusual and frowned upon in the Soviet Union, which had little tolerance for anything that resembled dissent and/or free thinking. This got Stinkuls a lot of unwanted attention through the years, and the book is also a story of perseverance against the soul crushing ideology of the authoritarian government. The book also includes many pictures and fascinating document facsimiles.

Stinkuls also kept meticulous notes on the events in his life (either that or he has an exceptional memory), as the book not only includes many detailed episodes from his life but seems to include notes on every concert he ever went to. Not just concerts in Latvia, but attending concerts in Leningrad, such B. B. King in in 1986 (the book also includes a facsimile of a souvenir postcard from the concert, where Stinkuls wrote down the names of all the musicians in King’s band), as well as the North Texas University Jazz Lab Band.

Though the book covers his run-ins with the Soviet authorities (Stinkuls spent time not only in jail on trumped up charges of ‘hooliganism’, but also in a psychiatric institution, where he ended up after the army commission determined him unfit to join the Soviet army), it also covers the absurd, Kafkaesque bureaucracy of the era. One almost comical incident is when Stinkuls’ Shure record player starts picking up a Soviet propaganda broadcast (a jamming signal), and the author goes to the nearby radio station to complain that he could not listen to records. To their credit, the radio technicians investigated why this was happening and suggested Stinkuls put the record player in an iron box (which helped, but only slightly).

More serious was the discovery of a listening device in his apartment – very well hidden in the ceiling with wiring going through the balcony. The Soviet authorities, of course, discover that their active device has been tampered with, and then approach Stinkuls. However, in an absurd twist to the story, the authorities cannot say that it was a listening device (since they were prohibited), so they accuse Stinkuls of damaging a ‘fire alarm wire’. Thus begins one of the more terrifying sections of the book, as Stinkuls and his girlfriend Inguna Galviņa are routinely harassed and intimidated.

Though many of the episodes described in the book give a bleak impression of life in Latvia, there are still many positive and hopeful moments in the book, some even humorous. Stinkuls and many of his friends found sanctuary in the ‘Mežuplejas’ property (located in the central Latvian region of Vidzeme, near the village of Skujene). Many of the events of the book take place on this property, and it becomes a regular gathering place for Stinkuls and like-minded individuals for the next decade and a half to enjoy a bit of freedom, away from the prying eyes of the Soviet authorities.

In the 1980s, it becomes clear to Stinkuls and Galviņa that the situation has become hopeless and untenable, and they both choose to depart Soviet Latvia in one of the few ways possible, to wed a foreigner in a (presumably fictitious? The author does not clearly specify) marriage and emigrate. Inguna is the first to go, marrying a relative of Stinkuls’, and then Stinkuls himself marries an exiled Latvian woman. The Soviet bureaucracy follows him to the very end, when he is denied departure from his original embarkation point of Tallinn, and he then journeys to Leningrad where he is finally allowed to board a train to Helsinki (along with his 11 bags).

Though the story ends here, the reader is left wanting to know more about what happened to Stinkuls after he left Latvia. Did he ever return? How did he make it to California (where he currently lives)? What happened to Mežuplejas? Perhaps the author will continue the story someday.

Mati sarkanā vējā tells the occasionally ordinary, occasionally extraordinary story of Alfrēds Stinkuls and the experience of living in Soviet Latvia as a long haired, bearded hippie. Full of extensively detailed anecdotes and stories, as well as many pictures, Stinkuls’ memoir provides a stark reminder of an era that, while many decades in the past, still reverberates today. Stinkuls’ stories of being a brave, free-thinking individual in an oppressive system are both inspirational and a cautionary tale – that the past is never truly in the past.

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.

Riga Saxophone Quartet recordings display versatility of the saxophone

The Riga Saxophone Quartet, an ensemble with thirty years of history, has raised the profile of the saxophone as a serious academic instrument with their performances and collaborations with other musicians. Since its inception, the driving force of the group has been renowned Latvian alto saxophonist Artis Sīmanis, and, since 2016, the other members of the ensemble are Katrīna Kivleniece-Cābule on soprano saxophone, Ainars Šablovskis on tenor saxophone, and baritone saxophonist Baiba Tilhena.

In 2021, the Riga Saxophone Quartet released the album Saule tikai (or ‘Merely Sun’) a collection of five modern works composed by Latvian composers, and the recordings display not just the skill of the Quartet, but also the versatility of the saxophone – the diverse styles and sounds that saxophone music can have.

The poetry of Imants Ziedonis inspired ‘Divas fantāzijas’ by Latvian American composer Dace Aperāne, a work that features the RSQ performing together with pianist Herta Hansena. The first fantasy, ‘Uz mēness pusi’ is tender and lyrical, with a dreamy melody in the piano joined by the freely flowing sounds of the saxophones. The second fantasy ‘Saule tikai – aplis’ begins with mysterious, lyrical interplay between the saxophones, becomes playful, and then concludes on a somber note, with rising notes in the saxophones, which then seem to evaporate with the sound of a triangle.

Accordionist Natālija Meļņikoviča joins the RSQ for the recording of composer Mārīte Dombrovska’s ‘Dīvainie sapņi’, a three-movement work inspired by imagination and dreams. Much like dreams, the work is full of unexpected twists, at times reassuring, at times ominous. The sound of the accordion adds to the overall uneasy feel of the work, particularly in the first movement, which begins calmly, then seems to gradually turn into a nightmarish vision. The second movement is like a strange dance, while the third movement has an eerie calm about it, almost like a sense of dread, and then concludes on a more melodic note, but then the work stops suddenly, almost as if suddenly waking from a dream.

Composer Rihards Dubra often has sacred and spiritual elements in his works, and his contribution to this collection, ‘Vidi quattuor angelos’, is a vocal instrumental work with text from the Book of Revelations. The RSQ is joined by mezzo-soprano Ieva Parša, a singer with extensive experience in singing modern works. ‘Vidi quattuor angelos’ is reverent and full of piety, with Parša’s vocals being both reserved and rich with spiritual veneration.

Composer Edgars Mākens has performed with indie rock bands Gaujarts and Manta, is also a composer of theater music, and the inspiration for his ‘Rīgas triptihs’ was the towers, market and bridges of Rīga. The RSQ, joined by percussionist Guntars Freibergs vividly present the images and atmosphere of Mākens’ work – from the solemn ‘Torņi’, a vision of the many famous towers of Rīga – not just church towers like on St. Peter’s Church, but also the radio tower on Zaķusala. The lively second movement – ‘Tirgus’ – allows the RSQ to paint a picture of the Rīga Central Market and all those in it – merchants, shoppers, tourists, all mixing together. The many bridges of Rīga are presented in ‘Tilti’, and one imagines walking along these bridges during sunset, and the RSQ conjures a multi-colored impression of this evening stroll.

Composer and percussionist Rihards Zaļupe provides the rhythmic and perpetually moving ‘Extension in Blur’, a work inspired by photographs by Australian Latvian artist Roberts Birze. The pulse of the work is generated by the Morse code equivalent of the title, and alternates between short and long pulses. The RSQ take these pulses and create a vibrant, energetic musical kaleidoscope.

Revising and updating existing beliefs on what the saxophone is capable of and what kind of music it can play, the Riga Saxophone Quartet provide fresh and varied displays of the saxophone’s capabilities on Saule tikai. From reverent, spiritual works, to lively contemporary visions, to otherworldly visions of dreams and fantasies, the Riga Saxophone Quartet exhibit the many melodic and sonic possibilities of the saxophone.

For further information, please visit the Riga Saxophone Quartet website.

Saule tikai

Rīgas Saksofonu kvartets

Skani, LMIC 096, 2021

Track listing:

Dace APERĀNE “Divas fantāzijas” / Two Fantasies

  1. I. Uz mēness pusi / Towards the Moon
  2. II. Saule tikai – aplis / Merely Sun

Mārīte DOMBROVSKA “Dīvainie sapņi” / Strange Dreams

  • I. Risoluto
  • II. Scherzando
  • III. Lontano
  • Rihards DUBRA Vidi quattuor angelos

Edgars MĀKENS “Rīgas triptihs” / The Rīga Triptych

  • I. Torņi / The Towers
  • II. Tirgus / Market
  • III. Tilti / The Bridges
  1. Rihards ZAĻUPE “Palielinājums izplūdumā” / Extension in Blur

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.

Latvian guitarist Reinis Jaunais inspired by nature to create recent album

Latvian guitarist Reinis Jaunais has, throughout his world travels, developed his guitar skills and incorporated many different styles and techniques into his sound. He also regularly works and records with musicians from all over the world to create albums with a broad and varied sonic palette.

His 2020 album Zeme (‘the Earth’ or ‘soil’, among multiple other possible translations of the Latvian word), displays many of these techniques over its twelve songs, the majority of which are instrumentals, though two have vocals.

Most of the songs have titles inspired by nature. The energetic ‘Tveice’ (Swelter) shows Jaunais’ skill with both playing and tapping, and he is joined by Harry Vagrant on the santur (an instrument from the Middle East, a kind of hammered dulcimer which sounds quite like the Latvian kokle) as well as cellist Erna Daugaviete and bassist Ivars Štubis. The santur along with the guitar give this song an almost mystical, unearthly quality.

On ‘Melno smilšu pludmale’ (Black Sand Beach) Jaunais is joined again by Daugaviete as well as Rob van Barschot from the Netherlands on the Guda drum (a kind of percussive instrument that looks like two cymbals joined together – but still able to play on various pitches via vibrations). This relatively new instrument adds a new sonic dimension to the recording, with its melodic and dreamy sound.

Daugaviete’s cello adds a melancholy touch to the somber, subdued ‘Kailsals’ (Frost), while on the almost percussive ‘Stepe’ (or ‘Steppe’) they are joined by Ernests Mediņš on vibraphone. The ethereal sound of the vibraphone, with a melody that sounds like an improvisation, adds to the hypnotic atmosphere of this song.

Though the driving, pulsating ‘Violetās debesis’ (Purple Sky) is a solo performance by Jaunais, the guitarist alternates between playing and tapping the instrument, making it seem like there are multiple performers, giving this song a rich texture. Jaunais also adds vocals to ‘Atceries (kalnos)’, which begins restrained and placid, but then grows in intensity as the song progresses. Jaunais’ breathy, almost fragile voice then does get a bit lost in the mix, making the vocals slightly difficult to understand.

At times lively, at times reserved, the music of Reinis Jaunais combines musical elements and instruments from all over the world to create a diverse musical panorama on Zeme. Jaunais’ guitar and songwriting skills are evident throughout the album, and he brings together many talented musicians and instruments to add additional musical dimensions to his songs.

For further information, please visit Reinis Jaunais’ website.


Reinis Jaunais


Track listing:

  1. Violetās debesis
  2. Atceries (kalnos)
  3. Stepe
  4. Planēta B
  5. Dzīles
  6. Melno smilšu pludmale
  7. Kailsals
  8. Tveice
  9. Naktī
  10. Vētra
  11. Planēta krīt
  12. Dejas epidēmija

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.