The most famous world music band from Latvia Iļģi celebrated their 25th anniversary on April 21, 2006. The group started at the Cultural Centre of Iļģuciems in Riga where Ilga Reizniece, a professional violinist, founded an ensemble of Latvian folk music. She had just graduated from the Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Academy of Music and was an active member of two prominent folk music ensembles Bizīteri and Skandinieki of the time.
At the beginning Iļģi was an ensemble of authentic Latvian folk music. They visited remote parts of Latvia in search for unrecorded folk songs, studied the traditional performance, as well as sewing their own traditional costumes and building their own instruments. They also performed wherever they could find willing listeners and pass on the knowledge they had acquired as befitted an ensemble of folk music. The studies of the authentic music led to interest in the ancient history, archeology, ethnography, mythology and traditions. Unfortunately these fields of interest held a lot of information considered dangerous by the Soviet regime ruling in Latvia at that time. In the eighties, the folk-lore studies in Latvia held a bespoken element of dissidence. The oppressive communist regime applied the same measures of control to the ethno-musicians as to rock groups – each performance had to be approved by a committee of communist party officials in advance and in the case of non-compliance it was forbidden. From the very beginning Iļģi found it hard to adjust to the musical language and understanding prescribed by the communist ideology. The superficial and sickly sweet officially proclaimed image of traditional culture was unacceptable to many artists at that time. For a long time Iļģi as well as the group of friends of folk-lore Skandinieki were banned from being mentioned in the media due to their uncompromising interest in the most fundamental and sacred layers of folk-lore – the traditional values, the traditional cycles of life in harmony with nature, family celebrations and the ancient mythology.
The serious research was the foundation to the development of the ensemble beyond the boundaries of traditional music. Ilga Reizniece reckoned that they have always acknowledged the dual purpose of the group: on one hand they dutifully studied, preserved and taught the authentic performance and tunes, on the other hand all the members of the group were professionals yearning to fulfill their creative ambitions in music. The listeners had to wait ten long years to get acquainted with the group’s creative endeavours - till the communist empire had collapsed and imposed no more restrictions on the musicians joining the world music scene. Ilga Reizniece: «I think from the very beginning we were different from the authentic music ensembles in the traditional sense. We have always been interested in music as art, not just the folk-lore aspect of it. There always has been a dual purpose of the group: we had to fulfill our mission in preserving the Latvian heritage, return the forgotten lore to the nation, but at the same time we really enjoyed just playing the music. I am a professional musician after all. We did both things until finally we could let ourselves loose, however that happened about ten years later, in early nineties.»
The search for new means of expression in music inevitably led to recruiting new members in the group. Ilga Reizniece has been there for all the 25 years – from the very beginning of the group. Māris Muktupāvels, the piper and kokle player, has been there for 24 years. At present they are joined by the following musicians: Egons Kronbergs, the guitar, who also plays in the band The Hobos and duet U.K.; Gatis Gaujenieks – the bass, the producer, the director of sound, who also owns a recording studio. He is the former lead singer and bass of the USA based group Akacis. Ilga and Māris met Gatis Gaujenieks while playing in the rock band Jauns mēness; The drummer Vilnis Strods.
At different times the group was joined by skillful and well known Latvian musicians - Juris Riekstiņš, Biruta Ozoliņa, Zane Šmite, Māra Kalniņa, Guntars Gabranovs, Gints Sola, Arnolds Dāle, Jānis Abens, Arnolds Kārklis, Juris Kroičs among the many. Their creative input has helped shape the ten albums produced by Iļģi: Rāmi, rāmi (MC; 1993), Bāreņu dziesmas (1993), Riti, riti (1996), Saules meita (1998), Sēju vēju (2000), Agrie gadi (2 CD; 2002), Spēleju, dancoju (2002), Kaza kāpa debesīs (2003), Totari (2005), Ne uz vienu dienu (2006).
A lot of Iļģi music is aimed for children and teenagers. Ilga has been a music and folk-lore teacher for many years. She has delivered countless courses and lectures on Latvian folk-lore for children and grown-ups alike as well as taken part as a tutor in widely known retreats, like 3X3, in Latvia and abroad. The group loves to perform at schools. In 2004 Iļģi produced a CD Rāmi un ne together with the winners of the singing competition of the childrens’ folk-lore festival Pulkā eimu, pulkā teku (PEPT). The project, concieved by Ilga, drew much needed attention to the annual event.
For years Iļģi has taken part in creating a series of CDs Latviešu tautas mūzikas kolekcija (The Collection of Latvian Folk Music) by the records company Upe. The series contains traditional records as well as modern interpretations of Latvian folk music. In 1999 the second CD of the series Latviešu danči (Latvian dances) was compiled by Ilga and Māris to promote the authentic Latvian folk dances. The album received The Great Music Award in 1999.
The mood of Iļģi music ranges from reflective, almost meditative calm, empowering the listener to overcome the sorrows and troubles, to unstoppable, bubbling vitality. Different moods create a musical entity, multi-faceted as life itself, true to the eternal cycle and rites of human life.
Throughout the early nineties the instrument choices and the creative pathways of Iļģi music were dominated by the reflective, solemn mood. At the end of the decade it was surpassed by boisterous vivacity instrumented with a set of drums and electric strings. The choice of repertoire shifted towards adaptations of traditional music more suitable for a rock band. This led to the group’s self-proposed label to the style of music they played – post-traditional music. In a wider context Iļģi music could be described with the term coined by the British during the eighties world music. The shift in creativity was brought on by Gatis Gaujenieks joining the group in a capacity of a musician as well as sound artist and producer. Their first joint effort, the CD Saules meita, won The Great Music Award and The Annual Award for the Best Record. Vilnis Strods, Iļģi percussionist, pointed out that the modern sound was more appealing to young listeners and helped to make authentic folk music more popular among those age groups as well as acquainted the younger generation with the traditional values. Saules meita and the following CDs by Iļģi ensured that the traditional Latvian tunes took a permanent place in youths’ music libraries alongside the ubiquitous Western pop music.
Iļģi marked their 20th anniversary with a further expansion of the means of musical expression. The musical version of Rainis play Spēlēju, dancoju brought not only electric guitars, but samplers, keybords, even orchestra to conveying the ancient Baltic melodies. However the last CD Ne uz vienu dienu – a compilation of music from traditional wedding ceremonies from various parts of Latvia, differed from previous records with a very limited use of rock percussions. According to Ilga Reizniece this trend was likely to persist in future to pave way to more nuanced harmonies of string instruments.
While employing the modern musical themes and instruments in their records Iļģi also incorporated the influences of ethnic music from other countries. Their previous work asserted the Celtic and Slavic influences in Latvian music. Ne uz vienu dienu continued this process by incorporating the performances of Samite Mulondo, a well known musician from Uganda, and banjo player Marks Feders.
From 1989 Iļģi have taken part in numerous music festivals in neighbouring Estonia and Lithuania as well as in Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Great Britain, Switzerland, Australia, USA, France, China, and gained both the sympathies of the listeners, and raving reviews from the press. The fact that Iļģi is an integral part of the music world wide was confirmed again in July 2006 when Ne uz vienu dienu was voted the 2nd best European world music recording by the experts of World Music Charts Europe (WMCE). This was their best achievement so far and it has not been surpassed or equaled by any other group working in similar genre from Latvia.
By Mārtiņš Zviedris, Translation by Ilze Druka