The Singing Land

The variety of shapes in which contemporary folk music (or post-folk, for that matter) comes in Lithuania is truly amazing. The spectrum ranges from close reconstructions of authentic traditional folklore to highly adventurous experimental interpretations and augmentations that use folk material very liberally (albeit to a very intriguing effect). The principal inspiration source to all the subscenes is lively folk music culture in Lithuania, supported by the village singers and musicians, folk music bands spread all over Lithuania, numerous folk music festivals as well as municipal and state institutions.
On the authentic end we have a host of singers and ensembles who collect and reconstruct authentic folk songs and instrumental music. Unique polyphonic singing sutartinės is a special treat (just listen to how the sutartinės singers Trys Keturiose render it with their impressive voices). All regions of Lithuania also have their own longstanding traditions of monodic singing – especially known for its love of songs is the region of Dzūkija, with its famous representative Veronika Povilionienė. Not less remarkable is the instrumental music, performed by village musicians as well as city bands, such as Griežikai or Sutaras ensembles. Still others, like Kūlgrinda, have a distinctive pagan ritual bend and make various traditional festivities even more spectacular with their breath-taking chants that sound like voices from the depths of time.
On the experimental end we find a growing community of like-minded artists (whose background is often in heavy industrial music) who use folk as an inspiration to build their brave visions upon. Folk elements find their way as processed samples and intricately interwoven effect-treated vocals into the experimental and ambient electronic music of Donis, Girnų Giesmės, Lauxna Lauksna and others. These inspired experimenters offer a new sonic cosmology that has archaic roots but uses the musical language of today. And can it be any other way if folk music is supposed to be performed and listened to by today’s folk?
Between these two poles lie many other vibrant and innovative scenes. Especially interesting are the hybrids of folk and rock of various ‘weight categories’. Folk-rock and neofolk bands like Atalyja and Liberté fuse folk with a variety of world music influences. Things start getting a bit heavier when Žalvarinis, a heavy folk-rock act, takes the scene. The really intense experience, however, awaits the listener daring enough to explore Lithuania’s strong and flaming pagan metal scene, the grands of which are Obtest, Zpoan Vtenz and Andaja.
Does jazz and folk sound like an unlikely combination for you? If yes, don’t hesitate to listen to a Lithuanian jazzfolk project like (the delicious fruit of creative collaboration between the Vilnius Jazz Quartet and Sutaras folk ensemble) or music by Skirmantas Sasnauskas (who plays both jazz and traditional instruments with equal virtuosity) and see for yourself how organically the two seemingly unrelated styles can be intertwined.
The pop scene also comes closer to the folk material, searching for more authentic and pure forms. The fresh duo Rasa & Jonas, with their accessible and light interpretations of Lithuanian folk, is a prime example of that. Somewhere near that, albeit with a more new age twist, come the crossover stage shows initiated by composer Linas Rimša, Sutartinės Party and ZAP. The Four Elements.
It is incredible how strong the collaboration ties between these various subscenes are, even the most ‘traditionalist’ and ‘radical’ ones. A traditional folk singer contributing vocals on a ritual darkambient or pagan metal record isn’t too rare an occasion. Alternative culture festivals like Mėnuo Juodaragis feature both experimental projects and authentic folk bands, which seem to perfectly fit together. But then, isn’t that precisely what folk music is all about – communion?
© Jurij Dobriakov