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Festival for pelican bluesmen of Alcatraz, Riga

  • 2001-11-22
  • TBT staff
RIGA - A long time ago there was a thriving habitat for pelicans about a mile off the coast of San Francisco, California. In 1775, the uninhabited island was given a name - Isla de Alcatreces, or Pelican Island. In 1846, the island was taken over by the U.S.A. for military purposes. Years on, it became famous for its isolated high-profile prison, winning Alcatraz a solid place in the history books.

Since 1979, Alcatraz has gone by the more attractive, if less than thrilling, name of the Golden Gate Recreation Center, and slowly but surely its original inhabitants - the pelicans - are moving back home.

But California is not the only place with an Alcatraz. There's one in Riga, too.

Club Alcatraz lies in the heart of the city (not off the coast), at 88 Krisjana Barona Street. But it differs from other clubs in the region because of the style of music played there and the audience who consider it a regular hangout. It at least feels like an island.

On Nov. 23 and 24, something else unique to the Latvian Alcatraz will occur - the third Annual Blues Festival, where the biggest Baltic blues masters will get a chance to show Riga their stuff at the venue's Pelican Bar.

Estonian blues musicians are academic when compared to Lithuanian blues musicians, who incorporate more folksong elements into their music, and Latvian artists who flow wherever their bluesy tunes take them. All of them perform songs from foreign lands, but they still have a fair mix of their own original work.

Each of the Baltic countries has its own distinct sound - and it has been said that blues specialists can always tell who the freer-flowing Lithuanian musicians are.

The Latvian blues tradition started in the 1970s. Most of the performers were Jewish musicians and by the end of that decade the majority of them had emigrated to America, the dream of stardom burning bright in their minds.

But the tradition didn't end there.

Janis Vanadzins is one of the old blues "soldiers" who was deeply involved in the scene when it first began in Latvia. He told The Baltic Times what things were like in the beginning.

"We organized blues festivals in the middle of the 1980s. It was hard back then, because everything was controlled by the K.G.B. So we had to report every person who bought a ticket to the concerts, where they worked, their phone numbers, stuff like that. At the time, the blues was an expression of freedom for us," he recalled.

Interestingly enough, one Soviet encyclopedia explained the blues as sad and slow music created by black slaves who were bound by chains.

After World War II, blues was an avant-garde music genre. Festivals occasionally journeyed away from the U.S.A. to give European folks a taste of the Delta blues, country blues and city blues from Chicago. At first, audiences were surprised by these old men who could barely walk taking their place on stage as entertainers.

Music critic Paul Oliver once said that the best blues is performed shortly before the death of the musician - this is the only time you can reach the real power of the soul.

Whether that's true or not, the Riga festival is sure to be great, even if some of the performers are youngsters.Six bands are scheduled to play on Nov. 23, starting at 8 p.m. The most highly recommended is the Exclusive Blues Band from Estonia. The leader of the band, Riho Sibuls, is a legendary guitar player and the foot-stomping hero of many a Tartu rock festival.

Other bands playing that day are Still (Lithuania), Maxwell Street Blues Band (Latvia), Blues Cake (Latvia), Mirta & Hot Acoustics (Latvia) and the James Session (Estonia). Gints Zilinskis and Romans Vendins will pound on the piano on the second stage.

The Lithuanian band Arina and Veto Bank open the second day of the festival. This show would be a shame to pass up as Arina is a fine improviser and considered to be the best female blues singer in the Baltics. She started her singing career when she was 15. Fans claim there's a Janis Joplin quality about her voice.

So go see the Pelican blues festival. It will put Riga's Alcatraz on the map.