Solstice album sounds too polished


The most common refrain to the winter’s seasonal music is “kalado,” hence the name of this album, Kalado, devoted to the music of the winter solstice, or Ziemassvētki. These are not Christian Christmas hymns or “Jingle Bells” translations. All of the songs on the album are from the ancient folk traditions, which are still familiar to Latvians but not widely practiced.

I got my copy of Kalado only after New Year’s, so the music on it already sounded out of season to me. But traditionally Latvians went ķekatās from the Mārtiņi celebration on Nov. 10 all the way to the Meteņi celebration on Feb. 10. One of the signatures of Latvian winter celebrations, ķekatas are people in costume going from house to house, barging in with loud dances and songs, demanding food, and basically making a lot of noise and a big ruckus, sometimes even causing trouble (think Halloween, Mardi Gras or English mummers).

Overall, I’ve been very pleased with UPE Recording Co.‘s “Latvian Folk Music Collection.” But the album Kalado, which features all previously recorded material by various folklore groups, kind of bugs me. And what bugs me most is that I just cannot put my finger on exactly what it is that bothers me.

It begins with a beautiful, gentle song by Iļģi, but the song really has nothing to do with the winter solstice. The second song jars you awake with an energetic rendition of “Nerejati, ciema suņi” by the group Auri. It’s fun at first, but the song just won’t stop, and quickly becomes annoying. The beginning of the third song, “Svātki gōja, svētki gōja,” sounds almost Middle Eastern. Then you hear good old Skandinieki singing “Ziemassvētki sabraukuši,” which is much more like what I’m used to hearing at winter solstice celebrations. “Es čigāna dēliņš biju” is a catchy tune about ķekatas. “Es bej vīns kuplys līps” is a dance game that unfortunately does not make me want to get up out of my chair, while “Vylks dora olu” and “Čigāniņi, bāleliņi” do just the opposite. I like the question-answer lyrics and “kalado” drone of “Ej peleite zerņu zogtu.”  The album ends with a complex arrangement of “Sidrabiņa lietiņš lija” (performed by Rasa) and a meditation on the “kalado” refrain.

I find it hard to get a consistent feel for the album. The beginning leads me to expect music as calm as a Christmas snowfall, but the bulk of it is impatient, nervous, restless and even frenzied. The end of the album is again calm and meditative. Maybe this is what bothers me. The beginning of the album throws me off, and I never quite seem to find my footing after that.

In a way, though, this is appropriate. Solstices and equinoxes in all cultures have been times of the year when everything is on edge. They are often socially acceptable times to “let loose.” The borders between worlds blur, and the earth stands still for a moment while the sun and earth figure out which direction to follow. One must be very careful for one’s self until things fall back into a normal cosmic rhythm. Kalado definitely evokes this skittish and jittery feeling of unrest (in Latvian, nemiers). After all, one never knows what the ķekatas will do. Will they eat up all the food and leave us to starve? Will they steal something? Will they scare the children? Or will they be friendly? Who are they, anyway?!

On Kalado you’ll notice repetition of the lyrics within a song and from song to song, and you’ll also notice that the melodies tend to be quite narrow in their range. If you’re in a large gathering (such as a solstice celebration) where everyone wants to sing along, lots of repetition is necessary. Simple melodies and repeated texts make for easy learning and participation. The repetition can even become intoxicating—like a trance—when you take part in it. But on a recording one can grow tired of it after a very short time.

Taken alone, there are some wonderful arrangements on Kalado. I know and appreciate the artistic exploration in these ensembles’ music, but in a recording like this—which I assume is devoted to introducing people to winter solstice songs and traditional Ziemassvētki celebrations—I’d like to hear simpler and less exotic arrangements. The music at the solstice celebration I attended several weeks ago sounded little like this album (except, of course, the selections by Skandinieki and Rasa, who stick to very traditional renditions of folk songs), and therefore I expected Kalado to sound less polished and complex.



Latviešu tautas mūzikas kolekcija

UPE Recording Co.,  2000

UPE CD 022

One thought on “Solstice album sounds too polished

  1. I have now had this CD for four years, and it only gets played when im putting up my decorations. I love it. Given to me by a friend it has become very much part of my Christmas , and I wait with anitcipation to play it each year. Maybe its just really good if you arent Latvian, which I am not – and therefore you dont have any problems with the specific aspects of songs and recording. It has a festive feel unlike anything else I know. I actually put this music on at party in London and everyone went completely crazy and there were no latvians in sight! I rate it along side Phil Spectors A Christmas Gift for You as essential festive listening!

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