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Tur Kur Mīti
Spēlēju. Dancoju. Dejoju.

Artist release (
Review by Lee Blackstone

Listen "Osi"
Tur Kur Mīti
Listen "Ļauns vakars! Velns palīdz!"
Spēlēju. Dancoju. Dejoju.

Formed in 1981, the Latvian band Iļģi have been busy for over thirty-five years, releasing consistently interesting and diverse albums. Ilga Reizniece, a classically trained violinist, initiated the collective; joined by Māris Muktupāvels, a bagpipe and kokle (a Baltic stringed instrument of the zither family) player, excursions began across Latvia to immerse themselves in folk songs and their traditions. While band members were getting their boots muddied on the ground, one cannot overlook the socio-political context in which their folkloric research was embedded. Latvia, as with many European countries, underwent its own ‘National Awakening’ in the 1850s; however, Latvia was eyed by the Soviet Union, and the country experienced conflict with Soviet Russia in 1918. After repelling the Soviets and declaring its independence, Latvia had its own constitution by 1922. World War II, however, found Latvia being forced back into the Soviet Union in 1940; in 1941, Nazi Germany invaded, only to lose the country back to the Soviets in 1944-45. The ‘Singing Revolution’ – a peaceful movement begun in 1987 across Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania – culminated in Latvian independence in 1991.

Such dramatic historical events naturally affected the lives of Latvians, who found themselves under the yoke of authoritarian regimes for decades. For folklorists such as the members of Iļģi, folk music activity was monitored by the Soviet authorities and assessed according to state ideology. Concerts, for instance, might find themselves not advertised if they ran afoul of party politics. However, Iļģi were not deterred from exploring Latvian music, mythology, and traditions. One could argue that the experience of life under the Soviets led Iļģi to take a new and different approach to their music: something that became manifest, in the band’s terms, as “post-folklore.”

What, precisely, did “post-folklore” mean as a manifesto? Looking back to 1993, when Iļģi released their first full-length cassette entitled Latvian Post-Traditional Music, one finds the band writing in the liner notes about their approach to music, rooted in Latvian identity. Iļģi’s intentions are worth quoting here at length, because it shows the group moving full-speed ahead once Latvian independence has again been achieved:

“We do not know if what we play today can be classified as folklore, because we work with folk music much more freely than tradition allows. We tend to call it ‘post-folklore.’ When we play, the truthfulness and sensation of the moment is more important than the sound created and enjoyed long ago…We have always felt closely tied with the ancient stratas of folklore – mythology, the rhythm and order of traditional life, and its coexistence with the rhythm and order of nature…But rather than precise authentic imitations, musically we are interested in the manifestation of creativity stimulated by traditional music…Some may call this the destruction of the folk song, others – the evolution of it. For us it is a conversation; a conversation between ourselves, and in the presence of others who lived and sang here hundreds and thousands of years ago.”

On the band’s website, Ilga Reizniece reminisces about those early days: “From the very beginning, we were interested in musicianship, not only the actualization of folklore, which was the basis for folklore ensembles. It was so ... dualistic: on the one hand, it was necessary to give back to the nation, to fulfill its folklore mission, to recall the forgotten heritage, but the other thing was that we just liked to play music…So it went hand in hand until we finally released/realized ourselves…at the beginning of the nineties."

The taste of freedom meant that the Iļģi project opened itself up to further experimentation, and the group evolved to consistently balance ancient inspiration and traditional instruments with contemporary sensibilities and technology. Gatis Gaujenieks moved to Riga from New York in 1997, and he joined the band to play on electric bass and ģīga (a two-stringed, bowed Latvian zither). In 2001, Egons Kronbergs was brought in on guitar, and in 2008, percussionist Martins Linde rounded out the ensemble.

One of the trademark features of Iļģi was that albums would often be arranged around a theme. Hence, the group has recorded straight-up Latvian folk dance albums, but other recordings have ranged across wedding songs, the ritual washing of the body in the Latvian pirts, and the dance and music utilized to observe the solstice. The two latest Iļģi releases, Tur Kur Mīti and Spēlēju. Dancoju. Dejoju., delve into both mythology and dance music.

Tur Kur Mīti can be translated as “Where Myths Dwell.” The word Mīti can be either a verb (to dwell, or exchange), or a noun (myths): the title fuses the meanings. Iļģi’s words from 1993 still resonate with this 2016 album, which is redolent with mythology, nature imagery, and community. The poetry of the album is strong throughout. Leadoff track “Laima” conjures the Latvian divinity of luck and good fortune; the tune sways to a loping beat, bringing to mind American country blues with its twangy guitar rippling through the song. Lines such as “Good luck and bad luck/Walk across the same bridges/You go first, my good luck,/Push the bad luck into the water” lend the abstract nature of luck physical force. It is also the first song of four on the album to mention silver.

Listen "Istabā"

“Istabā” (“In The Room”) moves to a bouncing bass and a Celtic-sounding fiddle line, the first ‘rock’-tinged track on Tur Kur Mīti. The lines “Let us in dear mother,/There’s not too many of us!/Only five, maybe six/But for certain less than thirty” are humorous, and give way to singing and chanting in unison, creating the sense of a large group just outside the door. “Oši” (“Ash”) is a folkloric riddle song, posing several questions: “Who can spin the ash trees?/Who can twist the oaks?/…Who is it who could do it,/Make a haystack in the sea?...” The singer excuses himself from the tasks: “I am not the one to do it --/I cannot count the stars/In the dark of night.” Beginning with the sound of a jaw harp and a swirling violin part, “Oši” is a standout track. “Koki” (“Trees”) is another strong, rockish number that has a stomping rhythm, and cracking bullwhip vocalizations that accompany the see-sawing accordion line.

Listen "Māra"

“Māra” refers to a figure that is perhaps the overarching goddess figure in Latvian mythology. While there are many Mothers (Forest Mother, Wind Mother, Earth Mother, etc.), Māra could be considered the counterpart to a ‘Father/God’ figure. The track feels ancient, thanks to the deep male group singing, which rides alongside an accordion figure and what sounds like a banjo. The rocking, oceanic feel of the tune matches Māra, sailing along in a boat “full of orphans.” But it is on the six-and-a-half minute “Junis” that Iļģi shine. Ilga Reizniece asks where Junis, the spirit of the fields, has been all summer, and where has he slept. The tune is lovely, and about three minutes in, the band lays back and broadens out to repeat minimalistic phrases, the jaw’s harp buried in the mix, buzzing about like a dragonfly over the crops, the tune extending like long summer rays. I could listen to that kind of ambiance all day.

The final three tracks on Tur Kur Mīti refer to animals – “Pele” (“Mouse”); “Vilks” (“Wolf”); and “Kumeliņi” (“Steeds”). “Pele” features some incantatory lyrics, and “Vilks” has some lines repeated in a circular fashion. All have a dappled, rustic sound that totally befits Iļģi’s fascination with nature, landscape, and how humans relate to their environment. Why else would the singer make “the wolf a loaf of bread/Full of husks and chaff,” but to implore the predator to take the loaf, and “do not take my kid.” In Iļģi’s invocation of Latvian practices, humans are affected not only by mythology, but by the motivations of the creatures that share the earth with them in an interrelated, sacred space.

Iļģi’s latest, Spēlēju. Dancoju. Dejoju. (“Played. Danced. Danced.”), is a very different collection, arriving in time for the band’s thirty-fifth anniversary. The album is meant for (folk) dancing, and the songs and tunes are noticeably shorter than those for Tur Kur Mīti, with Spēlēju. Dancoju. Dejoju. containing twenty tracks.

Listen "Mīl katrs baltu maizes riku"

Adding another sonic texture to the album is the addition of bagpipes. The opening track “Mīl katrs baltu maizes riku” (“Everyone loves a slice of white bread”) starts off fairly quietly, Ilga Reizniece chanting and the sound of handclaps providing the percussive element. But as “Nesmejieti jūs ļautiņi” (“Don’t you people laugh”) kicks in, we are treated to a low drone from electronics, overlaid with bagpipe and some call-and-response vocals that grow in urgency. The tune alters again, lifting upwards with a flourish, and the percussion and vocals grow louder: the dance, clearly, is growing more ecstatic.

Listen "Nesmejieti jūs ļautiņi"

The key to Spēlēju. Dancoju. Dejoju. is variation; it is not just a dance album, but a reminder that when Iļģi play more directly for dancers, they can produce a pop-folk album without the lengthy jams. The power of the dance arrangements is captured beautifully in this video for “Diždancis” (“The Grand Dance”), from a celebratory concert for Iļģi’s anniversary. The video is in 360-degree mode, so you can move the picture around and explore:

Spēlēju. Dancoju. Dejoju. moves from songs to instrumentals, from rock-oriented arrangements to the kind of glistening serenity that Iļģi can achieve. Traditional rhythms are often at the fore, giving the album a more ‘traditional’ sheen. However, just when you think you have the album pegged, along comes “Ļauns vakars! Velns palīdz!” (“Evil night! Help, devil!”), a song that begins with cackling, some thunderous percussion, deep bass humming, and frenetic violin. The evocation of some deep forest rite is powerful, effective, and proves once again that Iļģi are never afraid to mount the barricades when arranging their music.

These new additions to the Iļģi catalog cement the group’s legendary reputation. The albums also allow us to reassess the notion of ‘post-folklore’: it is not merely an academic exercise, but a vital, living necessity that shapes life itself. Freedom from oppression provided Iļģi with room to breathe, and to incorporate new influences that build upon and expand older traditions. Pre- and post- revolution, the silver thread that runs through Iļģi’s music is the assertion of Latvian identity, and their music continues to shine with enjoyment, invention, and riches. - Lee Blackstone

Find the band online.

Further reading and listening:
Tur Saulite Perties Gaja (2012)
Isakas Nakts Dziesmas (2009)
Kaza Kapa Debesis (A Goat Climed to the Sky) (2003)
The Latvian Folk Music Collection (1999-2000)


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