FolkWorld Issue 34 11/2007; Article by Eelco Schilder

A Decade of Folk A Decade of Folk

A Decade of Folk


In this anniversary issue, FolkWorld publishes a poll with the most important folk artists of the past ten years. A list which reflects the personal opinions of the FolkWorld participants and is a great start for a good discussion. In my opinion there will be no discussion about the fact that Ilgi is on the list, as they are the first group from the Baltic States that exported roots rock far beyond the country borders. Especially for this edition of FolkWorld, I shall give a short introduction to the group.

Ilgi was formed in 1981 as a traditional music group, the members of which played home-made instruments and wore traditional Latvian costume. In those days the musicians were politically motivated to play traditional Latvian music and their
interest in playing this kind of music arose from a special interest in Latvian history. An interest with many restrictions, imposed by the communist government that ruled the country then.

In those early years the band collected information and songs by visiting elderly people throughout the country and asking them to share their (musical) memories with them. Soon, the musicians felt that they didn’t just want to reproduce the traditional styles, but would like to experiment with different rhythms. They even decided to use an acoustic guitar, which could be considered as a small revolution in Latvian traditional music at that time. They no longer called themselves a folk group but a post-folklore band. Until today traditional music has been the basis, but the band take the liberty of interpreting it their own way.

The band use several traditional instruments. The kokle, a 15th century instrument which is a mixture between a kantele and a cither, plays a central part in their music. This instrument has six to nine strings, although modern versions sometimes have more. The kokle is played with both hands, the right hand plays the melody while the left hand covers the strings the player does not want to use. The instrument also has a bass string, which is played continually and gives a droning sound. Not only the sound of the kokle, but also that of the dudas, a Latvian type of bagpipe, is characteristic of Ilgi.

Especially the founder of Ilgi, Ilga Reizniece, has contributed a lot of the band’s material. From the beginning, it was she who roamed the countryside to visit farms and hear what music was still remembered. In those days Reizniece, together with Măris Muktupăvels, often went on pilgrimages to the countryside searching for Teicejas women.

In the vocal tradition Teicejas women play an extremely important role. In Latvia there are many vocal groups consisting of female singers only. For centuries these women have passed on the tradition to new generations. These women have good lungs and are absolutely devoted to their music. Their singing must be loud, because the people on the surrounding farms also have to know what they are singing about.

Discography (selective):
Saules meita (Upe 1998)
Seju veju (Upe 2000)
Speleju dancoju (Upe 2002)
Kaza kapa debesis (Upe 2003)
Ne uz vienu dienu (Upe 2006)
The songs tell about life itself, about birth and death, about the seasons and harvests and the escapades of the gods. They use the seasons as symbols for life in general, with a central role for the sun, which is responsible for us having the seasons. Their songs about the sun actually are about women and songs about the moon tell us about men. It is important to know this, because otherwise you might misinterpret the lyrics. Reizniece and Muktupăvels wanted to locate these women not only to learn their songs, but also to learn their singing techniques. In addition to their own fieldwork, the band also use material from Krisjanis Barons, who has compiled the most important collection of traditional songs in Latvia.

Since about ten or twelve years the band have used electric instruments. When I interviewed Gatis Gaujenieks some time ago, he said that they started to use electric instruments to break the myth that traditional music was only interesting for old people. Ilgi wanted to interest a different, younger audience in their own cultural heritage. Even after they had started using electric instruments, it took the band a few years before they actually reached this bigger audience. After the Berlin wall fell young people were only interested in one thing: music from the West. But after having heard the ‘western’ sound for a few years, people focused on their own background again. The cd Saules meita was a milestone in the Latvian history of music. For the first time a group playing and interpreting traditional music reached a large audience and Ilgi were asked to perform in the major national concert halls. Their first cd was also noticed abroad. The cd tells about the inner strength of women and is a first step towards folkrock. The kokle and bagpipe, together with the mystical female vocals, make this cd typical of Latvian traditional music.

The next cd, Seju veju, has the man as its central theme. It tells about the hard life in the countryside and, especially, about how difficult it is to find a suitable bride. During the recording of this cd, fate hit the band in a hard way: singer Mara Kalnina died unexpectedly. Gaujenieks talked about her in the interview mentioned before: ‘Besides being one of the musicians, she was also my wife. I do not have to explain to you what a traumatic experience this has been. We launched the cd at her birthday and, for us, this cd will always have a strange atmosphere hanging around it.’ The listener, who is unaware of the tragedy, will probably only notice the change from mystic female singing to earthy male songs and music. On the cd’s that follow, Ilgi also sticks to this theme. The band recorded a 45 track musical journey inspired by the Latvian poet Rainis and on their latest cd Ne uz vienu dienu they recorded traditional wedding songs.

At the time I was writing this article, they were touring the USA. Ilgi’s star seems to be rising even higher and their music is becoming internationally known and appreciated more and more.

Eelco Schilder is living in Malden, Netherlands. He is a member of the FolkWorld editorial board, had been editor in chief of the Dutch folk magazine New Folk Sounds, and just started a monthly radioshow on Dutch national radio.

Photo Credits: (1) & (2) Ilgi (from website).

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