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Putting some soul into the music business

  • 2009-12-17
  • By Philp Birzulis

Juris and Daina Zalans promote the sounds of traditional folk music.

RIGA Despite Latvia’s pride in being “the nation that sings,” the country’s rich musical traditions remain obscure to all but a small band of enthusiasts. However, this is not for lack of effort by some enterprising folklore fans. If groups like ‘Auli’ or ‘Laiksne’ ever make a bigger name for themselves, a big chunk of the credit will go to the Lauska record label. Founded five years ago by Juris Zalans and his wife Daina Zalane, this tiny operation has recently released the third volume of ‘Sviests,’ a compilation CD of songs by contemporary Latvian folk performers.

Zalans has no illusions that it will make him rich. Only about 2,000 copies have been released, and with about a quarter of those handed out for promotional purposes, there’s not a lot of cash left to divide up between the organizers and the 22 featured artists. Still, these facts of life didn’t stop him leaving his full-time job a year ago, at the start of the economic crisis, to concentrate on Lauksa. “There’s never a time that isn’t risky, because you never know what’s going to happen in Latvia more than two months ahead,” he said. “Regarding the crisis, you don’t live according to what’s written in the newspapers, in Latvia it’s what you do that matters.” However, he doesn’t deny that it would be nice to have more money to further develop the many ideas he and his friends generate.

Lauska has recently released a CD of poetry readings. Another new project is a book about the kokle, an ancient Latvian wooden harp, which Zalans says has been little written about over the years despite being a national symbol most Latvians would strongly identify with. The Latvian music market is tiny on an international scale, and is made even smaller by fragmentation between different tastes. The musical offerings on Latvian TV are mostly show programs whose brassy style doesn’t sit well with folk performers. Commercial radio stations play mostly Western pop tunes, while Latvia’s three state-run stations don’t give much airtime to folk music. Zalans says that trying to change this attitude is difficult. The lords of the airwaves say they will only play music that is popular, but without constant repetition of their material it is hard for acts to get noticed. However, Lauska and its friends are finding innovative ways of marketing themselves despite the lack of media support. For some years an Internet broadcaster called ‘Radio Oira’ has been devoted to Latvian folk acts. There are also signs of change in the music policies of Latvian nightclubs, which have for years followed a similar philosophy to the radio stations.

A folk music club called ‘Ala’ opened a few weeks ago on one of the main streets of Riga’s Old Town. Zalans hopes this will allow tourists to discover local folk musicians. Some of the more established groups are also developing showtype elements to their performances which could attract more young fans. Zalans said that he would ultimately like to see gatherings being held in Latvia similar to the annual Viljandi folk festival in Estonia. As for foreign exposure, Zalans says this is also a tough sell. The Lauska team has visited world music festivals abroad to generate interest in the label’s groups, but with limited success.“We’re small, not like say Spain, which has millions of people and a serious home market,” he said. “Freaks playing Latvian kokles are of interest to those who are looking for that kind of thing, but we’re not really commercially viable.”

But he added that interest in the label’s discs is slowly growing around the world, and feedback is highly positive. And there have been some successes, regardless of being a tiny fish in the global pond. The previous volume of ‘Sviests’ featured songs performed by former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who was a renowned folklore expert before entering politics. Although a huge leap in sales did not eventuate, the novelty earned media coverage and airplay in Western countries. In Zalans’ view, Vike- Freiberga’s act was received more positively in foreign countries than in Latvia, where anything connected with a politician is treated skeptically. He is confident that all of the hard work has not been wasted. Pop music is all well and good, he believes, but the songs are completely forgotten a year after hitting the charts. “For us, sales may be small, but the interest of those who are interested doesn’t diminish over time,” he said.