The Baltics are known to be a land of songs. In the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, when ethnographers were collecting and documenting folk songs, tales, and proverbs, almost everyone was a singer. Today the Baltic States hold a vast collection of folklore, and a living folk singing and music-making tradition prevails.
Archaic polyphonic songs called sutartinės are the national pride of Lithuanians. In the 1930s they grew to symbolize the national culture, even though they were only mastered by a handful of elderly female singers. After the Second World War sutartinės went almost completely extinct but were brought back to life again in the 1960s by the wave of the folk revival movement. They were no longer the music of the distant past, heard in remote villages and backyards, but were increasingly performed in the capital city, the streets of its old town, magnificent churches, the iconic Gediminas castle, and next to numerous heritage sites, including the historic Bastion. In 2010 sutartinės were added to the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and information about them became widely available online. Gradually, a virtual community of lovers of sutartinės has formed, and today these folk songs often serve as inspiration for Lithuanian and foreign composers alike. The current compilation features such works, including a composition by Martynas Kuliavas with the Ūtara ensemble, as well as Abraham Brody’s recording with sutartinės singers Trys Keturiose.
Today’s audiences are exposed to many types of music, including folk, but only a handful are capable of performing traditional songs. To master a folk song and to become a true guardian of authentic practices requires more than a mere affinity for the genre; the study and preservation of singing extends beyond a short-term fascination and means adopting its lasting values. Within the new generation of singers who studied traditional songs and mastered traditional vocal techniques, Agota Zdanavičiūtė, as well as the ensembles Obelija and Rana deserve a mention. Their individual interpretations of traditional performance nuances result in a unique personalized sound. The best-known all-male ensemble today is Ugniavijas, whose members perform a rich repertoire and confidently present traditional singing techniques. A master of traditional instruments, including various shepherd idiophones, Saulius Petreikis teleports audiences from concert halls to the idyllic countryside.
In the 1960s, the residents of Vilnius started longing for pristine, untainted natural sites, and weekend getaways with friends and family became a popular way to escape the pace of the city. Instead of visiting cafes, folk movement activists traveled to the countryside, meandered through the woods and spent time by lakes, often meeting local musicians and singers, who were sometimes regarded as spiritual gurus. Among them was Petras Zalanskas, from the Dzūkija region and known for his extensive knowledge of the traditional song repertoire, as well as a unique emotional attachment to nature. His former student, the queen of songs Veronika Povilionienė is featured here in the piece by Žalvarinis. Recently, the young composer Saulius Labanauskas, known by his stage name Saulius Spindi, became interested in Zalanskas’ life and music, and combines recordings by the legendary chanteuse with his own electronic works.
Folk music is still alive today thanks to many different artists, including rock and jazz musicians, visual artists, documentary filmmakers, and theatre actors. Here, Uprising Tree makes an unexpected debut on the contemporary folklore scene. Singer and actor Giedrius Arbačiauskas surprises with an unusual composition in which he recites a moon charm, which, according to traditional beliefs, makes the new moon grow round and full, while guaranteeing health and youthfulness for people. Similarly, Sen Svaja’s mesmerizing piece explores charms, incantations, and the magical powers of words and music, while Indrė Jurgelevičiūtė, collaborating with the Merope ensemble, sings softly, as if trying to remember a song from her childhood.
Various Lithuanian jazz musicians combine traditional and jazz genres, including Andrej Polevikov, whose marriage of folk tunes and jazz harmonies creates stunning effects. The list of composers who seek inspiration in folk music keeps growing as well. Famous Lithuanian composer Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis contested the view that Lithuanian folk songs were dull; he loved their peaceful pace, sorrowful tone, and melancholy mood. Juta Pranulytė captures that peaceful flow in her composition, weaving an archaic chant into contemporary choral textures. Other heart-felt interpretations presented here include works by the ensembles Kamanių šilelis, OKATA, and Undan, as well as by folk artist Žemyna Trinkūnaitė.
The rapid urbanization processes of the 20th century in Lithuania raised concerns about whether rural culture would survive, and whether there would be a place for traditional dialects, rituals, folk songs, instruments, and dance in the information and traffic-heavy landscapes of cities. Today, thanks to those who found interest in preserving traditional art forms, folk music not only has found a place in the hearts of contemporary urban audiences, but has also become a distinct element in the diverse cultural fabric of the modern city.
Tracks selected by dr. Austė Nakienė, Dovydas Bluvšteinas, Žilvinas Švarplys, Abraham Brody and Linas Paulauskis.
Text editing: Chad Damon Stewart
Graphic design: Jurgis Griškevičius
English translations: Vanda Gaidamovič
Mastering: Artūras Pugačiauskas
Producer: Radvilė Buivydienė
Supported by Lithuanian Council for Culture and Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Lithuania.