UPE is a Latvian music label founded in 1997. It looks like the first CD we received from these folks was Dudas Latvija back in the summer of 2001. That magnificent collection of bagpipe music led us to Ilgi, a Latvian band that plays traditional material about the same way Garmarna does in very contemporary arrangements, folk well-laced with rock sensibility. When I started to write the review of Laimas Muzykanti, I discovered that we hadn’t ever reviewed Ilgi, so I thought I’d start with an overview of that band, which definitely deserves the attention.
According to their Web site Ilgi was founded in the early 1980s by violinist Ilga Reizniece. Although they began as a traditional folk ensemble, they have evolved into a genre they characterize as post-folk. The first Ilgi CD we received from UPE was the incomparable Kaza Kapa Debesis (translated by the band as ‘a goat climbed up into the sky’). When it first arrived, I remember that we played it over and over and over again. It’s that good. Ilgi has five regular members, including three vocalists; one female (Ilga) and two males. They sing together on some cuts (occasionally reinforced by guest vocalists), solo on all or parts of others. Instruments include a violin, bass, guitar, and drums, as well as the more traditional dudas (bagpipe), kokle (Baltic psaltery or zither) and giga (a two-stringed fiddle). Although it’s not credited, a photo shows one band member playing a standard-sized accordion.
Kaza Kapa Debesis features thirteen tracks, with titles like ‘The Morning Dew Falls,’ ‘Low-branched Oak Tree,’ and ‘Sowing Money into the Sea.’ Although the arrangements are pretty lush (a veritable wall of sound), they have a traditional sensibility. The songs are also very consistent in sound, not to say repetitive, just unified. The only complaint I have about this CD is that it’s too short, just forty-three minutes long! Surely that’s one of the reasons we play it over and over and over again! Wanting more, we have been slowly, over the last couple of years, tracking down some of Ilgi’s more recent CDs. Speleju Dancoju (UPE, 2002) is an adaptation of a musical play composed by Latvian poet Janis Rainis in the early twentieth century. Vienu Dienu (UPE, 2006) is a compilation of traditional Latvian wedding songs. Although hypothetically the net makes this kind of music accessible no matter where you live, we have not always found this to be the case. The best source we’ve found is the marketplace attached to the German division of Amazon.
At last, we are ready for Laimas Muzykanti. According to the UPE Web site, Orkla Bolss (The Voice of a Plough) is the second studio album from this ten year-old band, whose members hail from the Latgale region in eastern Latvia. The CD is forty-nine minutes long, with twelve audio tracks plus a rather tasty music video, ‘Silver Sun is Rising.’ In this outing, the band includes eight regular members and another four guest artists. The primary vocals are done by two women, Kristine Karkle and Inga Zeile. One of the male band members, Arturs Uskans, also sings and plays nearly a dozen different instruments, including several that are used in traditional Latvian arrangements.
What distinguishes Laimas Muzykanti’s sound from that of Ilgi is the presence of an electric bass and two rock drummers, all mixed pretty well forward. I’m afraid the result is less than pleasing, at least on most of the tracks. I kept thinking of one of those seventies metal bands, the kind that make your ears hurt. Mind you, not all of the tracks are this difficult to listen to. At least two, as well as the music video, feature the female vocalists. The melodies on these tracks are haunting, the arrangements less heavy than some of the other pieces. The single word I would use to describe the overall sound of this CD is ‘uneven.’ You can sample tracks at the UPE website.
UPE’s packaging is the same on both these CDs – cardboard cases with hinged front covers. Liner notes are in little fold-out booklets stapled to the inside of the cover. On other UPE CDs, the liner notes are tucked into a little pocket on the inside of the cover. For both CDs, the liner notes include brief information about the bands (primarily personnel and instruments), song titles and lyrics, somewhat roughly translated into English. This resource enables me to determine that the theme of both CDs is, well, pastoral, as the titles would suggest. Let me put it to you this way: if Ilgi wanted to tour in the New England region of the United States, I’d try my best to find a local venue for them. That way I would be sure of a chance to see them live!
(UPE Records, Ltd., 2003)
(UPE Records, Ltd., 2006)