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Playing music

In the Land of Suiti, as for centuries it has been one of the most conservative regions of Latvia, not only folk customs and beliefs, but also the many aspects of musical art were preserved for longer, than elsewhere. Traditional musical instruments could still be found here in the 1930s, as were people who knew how to tune and play, for example, kokle. Also the music of bagpipes, once known throughout Europe, was still alive here. Some people still knew how to blow the horn. The older generation still know how to make pipes and shepherd’s horns. Another thing worth mentioning here is the trideksnis – an ancient percussion instrument whose task is to emphasize the rhythm when singing or dancing. In the spring of 1924, the playing of these ancient instruments was still so alive that the Suiti were able to surprise Riga, virtuosoly eliciting from these ancient instruments the agile and soft sounds both when playing and even singing.

Trideksnis is a very old instrument. It was made of metal, usually iron, as a vertical stick with a wooden shaft. On the trideksnis were fixed copper plates strung in several layers, which jingled when tapped. The trideksnis was mainly handled by women.

The popularity of bagpipes in Latvia since the 16th century is confirmed by many written sources. However, they are believed to be played here much earlier. Bagpipes were made from roundly skinned and dressed skins of lamb or a yougn goat, which were turned inside out. The end bandage was made tight like a bag. At the end of one of the forelegs, a blowing pipe – a mouthpiece – was attached, and the other – a so-called patterned pipe with 4-7 sound holes for playing melodies. Instead of the hind legs, one or two larger pipes were attached, which gave a low steady sound. More often, however, they got by with only one thick pipe – the bass, which was fixed in the neck hole. The air blown into the bag runs the pipes, as the players push the bag in their armpits with their elbows. In the past, bagpipes were a favorite instrument at ceremonies, especially at weddings, both for solo playing and also together with other instruments, such as kokles, horns and violins. Their function was related to the accompaniment of dances.

The heyday of bagpipes was in the 17th and 18th centuries. Playing bagpipes in a natural environment was preserved in Alsunga for longer than in the rest of Latvia. In the second half of the 19th century, Suiti bagpipe players had the honor of playing for the heir to the Russian throne, Nicholas himself, when he visited Liepāja. At that time, the ensemble of Suiti players consisted of seven bagpipers and eight men with horns. Jurjānu Andrejs and Emilis Melngailis recorded most of their bagpipe melodies in Alsunga. The disappearance of bagpipes was facilitated by the development of choral culture, as well as the introduction of more modern instruments (mainly violins) into folk life.

A blowing instrument made from the horns of domesticated animals is usually called bukurags. Most often it was made from a ram’s horn. Its length was on average 15-20 centimeters. Blown – a small indentation for the lips was cut in the upper edge of the narrower end. 3-5 sound holes were cut on one side of the horn. The amount of melodies was quite small. The sound is strong, hollow and can be heard far away. To blow the horn, you needed good lungs, so it was played by men. E. Melngailis assessed the bukurags melodies heard in Alsunga as very old (archaic). Bukurags is primarily a solo instrument, only occasionally played with bagpipes. It was also used to be chanted during field work and shepherding.

Horns are the most mentioned musical instrument in folk songs. However, their musical capabilities were relatively limited. Cups were made from different materials. They could be made from two split and carved alder, spruce, hazel, maple or pine wood pieces, wound with hoops or wrapped with birch. At the narrower end, a recess for the lips was cut at the top or a mouthpiece was attached to it. To make the sound better, the instrument was soaked in water for some time after making it. Horns were also made from conically wound birch bark or alder bark. Such horns were straight, 0.6 – 1.5 m long, or curved, and they resembled a horn in shape. The 5-7 cm wide bark needed for making the horn are torn from a new tree in the spring. Unlike bukurags, horns did not have special sound holes. Therefore, only their natural range of sounds could be blown from them. The horn was primarily a signaling instrument. Horns were also used in weddings to make more noise.

Drums as a signaling device and a rhythm instrument have always played a significant role in the life of the people. The skins of dogs or goats were usually used to make drums.

String instruments are gnerally younger than wind instruments. Latvian folk music cannot be imagined without the kokle, just like Lithuanian, Estonian and Finnish folk songs without the similar kankle, kannele or kantele. There is an opinion that kokle was originally a musical instrument of baltic peoples. It is reliably mentioned in written sources from the 16th and 17th centuries. The kokles of Courland were carved from a single piece of wood and covered with a thin board with sound holes cut into it. Originally, strings were made from gut. The edges were decorated with incised signs. In Courland kokles are 50 – 70 cm long, 10 cm wide and 4-6 cm high, rounded in shape. The ends of the wood are slightly curved upwards. The string pegs are embedded parallel to the wider end of the kokle, close to it. At the narrow, straight-cut end of the instrument, the strings are most often wrapped around a fixed metal rod. A hole was sometimes drilled so that the instrument could be hung. The strings were free, they were not supported (which cannot be said about modern creations), so their sound was relatively quiet, but long-lasting and rich in timbre. Over time, the number of strings increased up to 17.

The light kokles of Courlanders are particularly beautiful and unrepeatable both in their form and their finishing. Their edges are often decorated with wood carvings of geometric ornament. On the other hand, the circles, suns, stars, crosses cut into the soundboard are not only the constructive elements of the instrument, they also show the sense of beauty of the makers. Nikolajs Henķis – once a prominent connoisseur of playing various folk instruments in Alsunga, also an excellent woodcarver (even acknowledged by E. Melngailis), has said that when making kokle, he takes all kinds of wood that he owns or can get from others . It’s good that you know what you want from a kokle. Do you want quiet and cute, happy or loud, or different? N. Henķis has tried wood from different trees for the construction of the kokle body – linden, birch, aspen, but made the soundboard for all of them from spruce. However, he found linden to be the most suitable tree. The kokles in the museums are mainly made of linden, but there are also kokles made of birch, aspen, ash, pine, alder, willow and even oak.

When playing, the kokle is kept on the lap or placed on the table. The instrument is played by the vibration of the strings. The strings vibrate by plucking them either with the fingertips of the right hand or with a special stick, goose feather or piece of leather. Mute the unnecessary sound with the left hand. When walking or riding, the kokle was hung in a strap over the shoulder. Kokle was known both as a solo and as an ensemble instrument. On occasions of honor, kokles were chanted along with pipes, fiddles and drums.

Nikolajs Heņķis (1864 – 1933) has remained in people’s memory even today not only as a very musical and skillful kokle player and bagpiper, but also as a person who lovingly taught everyone the skills of making and decorating kokles inherited from their fathers. And if someone was not really successful, he said: No matter how it came out, don’t break it, keep it. You will also find your love in the song of the apparently or really failed kokle, if it is the right time when you both happen to be in tune. Handicrafts of N. Heņķis – kokles, bagpipes, pipes and wooden horn strung with pegs, richly decorated with wood carvings, are today in the Ethnography Department of the Latvian History Museum. N. Heņķis is buried in Alsunga, in Dzēriņi graveyard.

Neatly finished kokle with pleasant sound can be seen in the Ethnographic Open Air Museum of Latvia. It was made by Jānis Poriķis (1909 – 1992), who took over not only the skill of N. Heņķis, but also the playing technique. J. Porikis was also an excellent watchmaker. Buried in Riga, Jaunciema cemetery.

Our local resident Pēteris Korāts (1871 – 1957) was also widely praised, who in his time also attracted the attention of E. Melngailis both as an excellent master of folk customs and music, and as an expert of playing several folk instruments and a maker of these instruments. And especially as an innovator – instead of the traditional 5-7 stringed kokles, he made 12-24 stringed instruments. In general, preserving the traditional form of Courland kokle, P. Korāts sought a new expression for his instruments. Among the 17 wooden instruments made by P. Korāts, which are now stored in the Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia, the Latvian History Museum and the Liepāja Museum of History and Art, there are instruments with special handles, bent strings and different decorations. There are unpainted, painted cherry red, etched and stained wood. Playing not only with his fingers, but using a plectrum made of linden wood or goose feathers, Korāts himself demonstrated a virtuoso technique. And he enjoyed making music together with a pipe player and a bagpiper. Pēteris Korāts seems to be buried somewhere in the Aizpute area.

The name of Matīs Korāts (1900 – 1978) is also well known to kokle makers of the 1950s – 1970s of the 20th century. The traditions and experience of kokle-making inherited from his father, Pēteris Korāts, allowed the master to create kokles of different sizes with improved technical capabilities, using tuning switches. Several of his kokles, which prove the master’s skill, can be viewed today in museums in Liepāja and Riga.

Violin has has been present in Latvian folk music since the 17th century. But especially its importance grew at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. Violins were played in honors, pubs and market squares. They gradually replaced bagpipes as an accompanying instrument for dance music.

Due to cultural connections, at the end of 19th century the playing of the German zither (cītara) also significantly influenced Latvian domestic music. They have been known in Western Europe since the end of the 18th century. The resemblance to kokle and the quick-to-learn skill of playing contributed to the spread of the zither. The bodies of the zithers are usually made from old and well-dried hardwood – maple or ash. The cover or soundboard is made of spruce – the most sonorous wood. The zithers were played with a thin plate of ash or maple wood, about three centimeters long and one and a half centimeters wide.

If you wanted to get acquainted with the musical life in the countryside 150-200 years ago, you should definitely look into the roadside and church pubs. There, social life was particularly intense. Pubs, as one of the centers of social life of their time, often gathered people. There, the musicians became witnesses of the discussion of the latest events, business transactions and the conclusion of employment contracts.

During the last hundred years, there have been many more well-known and recognized musicians in the Suiti community. Pēteris Šeflers should be mentioned as the last true bagpiper of Alšvanga. Dūdinieku Krišs was famous in Jūrkalne. Cērpu Lūcija was the last kokle player in Alsunga. In addition to the kokle, she also played harmonica. Among the violinists, we should mention Kripa Jēkabs, Bišu Pēteris, Bišu Jozis, both Petrovski, Jēkabs Jaunzemis (who was also a great actor, repaired watches and made rings). Harmonics were played by Kārlis Zvejnieks, Jāzeps Ruņģis and Vangu Ernests. Mārtiņš Raģelis should be mentioned as a the zither player. Alberts Vanags played saxophone, wind instruments and mandolin, while Artūrs Vanags, in addition to making jewelry, made and played banjos.