The voice of a nation preserves traditions

  • 2001-10-04
  • Tassos Coulaloglou
VILNIUS - The name Veronika Povilioniene is one that stirs great emotion and inspiration for all Lithuanians. To the younger generation she is a hip, approachable folk singer who can synthesize her sound with even the most contemporary of young artists. To the older generation she is known as a part of the resistance against Soviet domination and a preserver of the national folk tradition. But everybody knows her as a national treasure, the Queen of Lithuanian Folk Singing.

She was born Veronika Januleviciute in 1946 in the small village of Kareivonys, a district surrounded by thick forest in southern Lithuania near the border of Poland and Belarus. Her ties to this land and its people would remain strong and influential throughout her life and career. Veronika even admits: "When growing up I wanted to be a forest ranger and my husband an organist." This would prove to be more than just her childish imagination and instead a rare insight into her future life path.

Her family were country folk. Tragically her mother and baby sibling died in the birth process when she was just a small child. Her father remarried soon after. Her stepmother began to take Veronika to church at the age of 3 where she sang old country hymns and original Lithuanian folk songs with a religious fervor. But her real education as a singer was from her father and close neighbors. "My father was fond of telling stories and singing folk songs," Veronika recalls with a hint of nostalgia in her voice, "it was he and my neighbors who were my first teachers." Her surrounding and humble beginnings among common countrymen would serve as her musical education, the final result a uniquely rustic and natural sound.

She recalls her first concert with raucous laughter. It was a Christmas celebration in which every student had to give some performance. Her part of the event was to sing a song, and as she alighted the stage, she "bowed and received an applause, promptly forgot everything, bowed again and quickly ran off stage." Directly after, she returned again to even louder applause and performed the piece perfectly.

She moved from her small country village to the capital city in 1964 at the age of 18 to attend Vilnius University. Surprisingly, Veronika studied Lithuanian literature, not music. But it was here that her raw musical talents were first noticed. Professional musicians were taken aback by her natural and instinctive voice. Her lack of formal musical training left her untainted by the classical European style of singing. These new teachers tried to isolate her from outside influences, realizing that they had stumbled upon a "rough diamond." Until that point traditional Lithuanian folklore and singing was unpopular. Veronika was the first of her generation to quite literally sing its praises. With her began the rebirth of folklore and music that would send shock waves throughout all the Baltic countries.

It was also at the university that she met her husband, Vidmantas Povilionis. A student at Kaunas Polytechnic Institute, but more importantly a resistance fighter, he was part of an organization akin to the boy-scouts known as the "hikers."

Knowing that active resistance against the Soviets was futile, they waged an intellectual battle. It was an "intensive gathering of memories," Vidmantas explained, which Soviet authorities labeled folk traditions and non-progressive art. They thought them best forgotten. They would have come close to succeeding in suppressing Lithuanian tradition and myth were it not for this group of so-called rebels.

She and her husband vividly recall this period of folk renaissance and resistance during the 60's. Every summer on the solstice (St. John's Day), she and fellow members of the intellectual resistance met in the hilly outskirts of Vilnius. It was a collection of freedom fighters that comprises some of present-day Lithuania's most respected citizens - including artists, ambassadors and MPs. They sang and recited poems and mythic stories, all in an effort to keep their memories and the traditions of the past alive. Although pagan celebrations are normal at this time of year in the Baltic and Nordic countries, word of this group's annual meeting spread throughout Lithuania inspiring others to organize gatherings as a day of remembrance, too. By the late 1960's, the government had gotten wind of these assemblies and outlawed such events, but she and her cohorts never forgot those days or the memories they had of their rebellious youths.

After this, Veronika traveled around the country to schools, teaching youngsters folk traditions and songs in a continued effort to resist. She and her husband came under heavy surveillance by the KGB and Vidmantas was even jailed for two years for his anti-Soviet actions.

Veronika was not allowed to leave the country or associate abroad, something she herself attributes to her "anti-Soviet spouse" who she jokingly calls her "bad husband." Her music, labeled resistance music, was banned from radio and television, as were her opinions.

Since independence she has traveled the world giving concerts and participating in music festivals. She has worked with the famous Lithuanian jazz saxophonist Petras Vysniauskas and their first collaboration took place just weeks after independence.

Veronika recalls traveling together to Norway for a national independence day celebration hosted by the Norwegians. They met on the ferry and started to improvise together. What resulted was a new sound, a folk jazz melange which has lasted ever since and is constantly evolving.

Her husband became a member of the Lithuanian Parliament on the eve of independence and later transferred to the Foreign Ministry. In this later capacity he served three years in Poland and for the last three-and-a-half years has been ambassador to Greece. During this time Veronika has not stopped traveling and has even made music with the most unlikely of musicians.

On Christmas Eve in 1998, she recorded a song with the Lithuanian rock group ZAS. The song shot to No. 1 in Lithuania almost overnight and her popularity among the younger generation became even greater.

Not surprisingly, this talented singer is not only a musician but a mother as well. She and her husband have three children, a daughter Rima aged 25, and two sons, Skomantas and Tautvilas, 23 and 22 respectively. Her daughter has even accompanied her in a singing group.

Although unable to read music or play an instrument, Veronika's astonishing voice alone continues to carry on the tradition of Lithuanian folk music.

Her contribution to the vitality and rebirth of folk music is immeasurable. She has never strayed or forgotten the days when her family and neighbors passed down their common heritage, culture and traditions, and she has even recorded an album singing in the forest in a tribute to this life.

While only gaining nation-wide recognition around 1988, her obvious authenticity swept through the country as an example of Lithuanian national pride and heritage. Her original songs and natural style created a rebirth in folklore that was threatened by the Soviet ideology. Today this legacy has helped to ensure the continued existence and delight of Lithuanian folk music for generations to come.