Saules Meita
(UPE, 1998)

It begins with a bawling, reedy sound and a guttural moan. Then the rest of the band joins in, and you realize -- this is happy music.

The music has to speak for itself on the album Saules Meita by Ilgi -- unless you are fluent in the band's native tongue. The liner notes, tune titles, musicians' names, instruments and lyrics are all printed in Latvian; there's only a brief introduction in English, which explains the group's passion for Latvian music, mythology and culture, and their desire to keep their traditional songs and instruments thriving.

Fair enough. Still, I wish I knew what they were saying.

But a lack of comprehension for the words shouldn't stop you from enjoying the music, which is sung and played with undeniable enthusiasm.

The band consists of Ilga Reizniece, Mara Kalnina, Maris Muktupavels, Janis Abens and Mikus Cavarts. Instrumentation includes box zither, bagpipes, violin, two-string trough fiddle and drums. Vocals are sometimes solo, but usually are in unison. The songs seem to my ear to be telling stories -- but, being completely ignorant of the language, they could be exchanging recipes and I'd be none the wiser -- and the music is made for dancing.

"Skait mamena" is a particularly choice track, with interwoven vocal and instrumental lines creating a lush picture. "Bur man' buri" continues in that vein -- a much more somber tune, performed a capella with evocative vocal layers. "Dieva deli, Saules meitas" is a stirring fanfare, albeit much reedier than the brass fanfares we're more accustomed to in the West. The high-spirited "Mate mani audzedama" has an almost German "oompah" sound to it, enough so I was convinced it must be a popular Latvian drinking song. It's followed by "Tumsa mani tautas veda," a song so delicate it seemed like a lullaby. And "Teku, teku pa celinu" sounds downright mystical.

Granted, listening to this album involves a lot of guesswork and a few leaps of faith. But puzzling out possible meanings is half of the fun -- this music is different enough from my usual listening habits that letting it fade into the background was impossible until I'd given it its fair share of attention first. So, if you are curious about Latvian music or just wish to expand your musical horizons into a new culture, Ilgi might have the ticket you need.

[ by Tom Knapp ]