Kalagrass: A joyful take on traditional Latvian music

  • 2016-02-24
  • Naphtali Rivkin

On most Sunday nights and some national holidays, in Riga’s Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs, a band called #ImantaDimanta and Friends incorporates traditional Latvian poems and lyrics into upbeat original bluegrass melodies. “We call our style ‘Kalagrass,’” says Ingus “Yeti” Purens (Cajon, tambourine, vocals).  

“Kalagrass” is a half-serious made up merger of the words “bluegrass” and “kaladu,” an intrinsically mystical and folkloric word associated with the Latvian traditions of the winter solstice.  The word “Kaladu” is often used in choral meditation, and almost always invokes the Tautas dziesmas that are almost revered in Latvian culture.  #ImantaDimanta and Friends is not the first group to update traditional Latvian songs.  Folk metal bands like Skyforger and post-folk bands like Ilgi have successfully drawn on Latvian symbolism and music for inspiration.
 #ImantaDimanta’s sound, blending bluegrass with Latvian folk songs, might just be the next evolution of that ancient but ever-changing Latvian bard tradition.  “We can’t say we make it (Latvian folk songs) ‘better,’” says Purens, “but we make it ours.”

The band, much like the music, is a blend of styles and nationalities.  Imanta Nigale (mandolin, violin, vocals) is from America, and Purens is from Australia.  Krisjanis Sils (guitar, bass) grew up in Germany, and spent a year in Lexington, VA, where he took a class on bluegrass as a kid.  When they returned to Riga from the Latvian diaspora communities of their native countries, they joined up with Choir Wars, Singing Families, and Eurovision 2014 participant Katrina Dimanta (violin, ukulele, vocals).  “One of the biggest reasons why I moved to Latvia was I felt like I have this passion for these dainas, and if I don’t participate in discovering them and showing them, they’ll stay in their little boxes forever,” says Nigale, the “Imanta” half of #ImantaDimanta.  Many of the band’s lyrics come from the Latvian Dainas, published by Krisjanis Barons in the late 19th century.  “I leaf through a book of the dainas and find the verses I like,” says Dimanta. Imanta says they choose “topics that are more real to us, like boys finding girls and girls finding boys, and then we all collaborate on the music.”

It’s always difficult for artists to innovate while staying true to their roots, and #ImantaDimanta and Friends are especially mindful of their duty as Latvians and artists to perpetuate and popularize the songs they hold dear using the music they like.  “We do this pop/bluegrass mash-up of Aija zuzu,” says Sils. “My grandma used to sing it to me as a lullaby, and it’s a song I associate with a great beauty, sadness, and separation. I sometimes feel that it’s almost blasphemy to mash it up with a Latvian pop song. It’s not rude, but it’s new to me,” he added.  On the upside, mashing up traditional Latvian music with pop songs or bluegrass “helps people get into Latvian folk songs, and that’s amazing,” says Purens.  Similarly, the group’s bluegrass sound might help popularize bluegrass in a country that already loves the borrowed traditional lyrics in Kalagrass.

It seems appropriate that #ImantaDimanta and Friends ply their trade at Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs, which means “people’s club cave cellar.”  Situated in Riga’s Old Town is a set of stairs that leads down into a network of brick-walled candle-lit rooms with low vaulted ceilings and long heavy wood tables for large groups of strangers to get together and enjoy the music.  Ancient pagan Latvian symbolism pervades — on the wait staff, on the posters, backlighting the band on the stage. The entire chandelier is one big Ugunskrusts. Like the name of the bar suggests, it feels like a cave of the Latvian people.  For the #ImantaDimanta shows, the venue is usually packed with a fairly eclectic crowd.  Young and old Latvians dance in front of the stage, tourists can bump into the errant Latvian politician, and on national holidays, parents bring their kids to sing along with the band.  “My parents always wanted us to know the traditional songs, beginning to end,” says Dimanta, who grew up playing in a folk group with her four brothers and two sisters in Baldona.  The energy and joy that #ImantaDimanta and Friends brings to “Kalagrass” goes a long way to ensuring that the little kids who come to see them will remember the words to their national songs.

“It took us a year to get this sound,” says Sils.  “Ask again in a year and we will have more answers” about where this sound and the band are going.  They may end up as innovators in Latvian music or just one of the most fun bands to hear on a weekend in Old Town Riga.  But regardless of what the next year holds, perhaps the four members of #ImantaDimanta and Friends are already a bit of a Latvian success story.  All four band members were born to Latvian parents in different countries, stayed passionate about their roots, and started playing traditional music together in Riga as a way of communing with their culture. Latvia dreams that the diaspora Latvians might one day return to Latvia, bringing with them bits and pieces of their native cultures to reinvigorate the country.  The band of #ImantaDimanta and Friends is a small realization of the Latvian dream, and a huge amount of fun on a weekend night in Old Town Riga.