© Valdis Muktupāvels

The Singing Tree


Though instrumental music is quite an original part of the Baltic culture, it displays more common features with the neighbouring lands than the vocal music. Baltic traditional musical instruments are mostly the same as around the Baltic sea and in Eastern Europe. One can find goat-horn, whistles, flutes, reeds, violin, sqeeze-box, zither in all Baltic lands. Yet other instruments have more specific distribution: bagpipe in Estonia and Latvia's protestant part, hammer dulcimer in Lithuania and Latvia's catholic part, hiukannel or bowed harp in Estonian islands. Most of historical musical instruments can be seen in Historical and Open-air museums and in state or private collections.

Kankles/kokles/kannel is quite a unique Baltic instrument. It is a kind of board zither with 5-12 iron or natural fibre strings. Its history can be estimated with some certainity for at least 3 thousand years; its Baltic names have supposedly originated from proto-Baltic word *kantlēs with the original meaning "the singing tree": Finnish kantele, Estonian kannel, Livonian kāndla, Latvian kokles, Lithuanian kankles. According to folk beliefs, the tree for the instrument must be cut when someone has died but is not burried yet.

Traditionally kannel/kokles/kankles is supposed to be the God's instrument. Fairy-tales tell about a youth who helps greybeard; the old man turns out to be God himself and he presents the good-hearted lad an instrument - the kokles. So the Apollonic heavenly aura and the fine, deeply touching tone quality have decided kokles to become a sort of symbol of national music as for Estonians as well for Latvians and Lithuanians. Unfortunately the playing of the traditional kannel/kokles/kankles  has almost vanished. In the beginning of the 20th cntury kokles developed into a multi-stringed (25-33) zither- or harp-like instrument; a consequent "modernization" of it during the Soviet time resulted in a soprano, alto, tenor and bass kokles family. Folk song arrangements and compositions of questionable musical qualities were played; in fact, this kind of music was used for the official presentation of the national music. It can still be heard in music schools, conservatories, Radio and TV, song festivals. Basically middle and older generation recognize it as a "real folk music".

The wave of folklorism of 70-ies and 80-ies restored the interest towards the traditional musical instruments. Many of them like bagpipe, kannel/kokles/kankles, jew's-harp, whistles, flutes, reeds, horns, clappers and rattles are made and played in mostly unformal way. They are used by enthusiastic individuals and in most folklore groups. Nowadays one cannot imagine celebration of calendar fests, folk-dance parties, folklore festivals without traditional musical instruments. The most important are summer and winter solstice celebrations; such festivals as "Baltica" in all three Baltic republics, "Skamba, skamba kankliai" in Lithuania, children's and youth's folklore festival "Pulkā eimu, pulkā teku" in Latvia and some local festivities should be mentioned as well.

When in Lithuania, one must find a possibility to listen to sutartines - endless sonoric meditation, both vocal and instrumental. Recently being almost extinct this unique ancient polyphony style is revived in Lithuanian folklore groups. The instrumental version of sutartines is played on kankles, panpipes, trumpets or horns.

The primitive musical instruments are usually made by the players themseves; the more advanced like kannel/kokles/kankles, bagpipe, flutes, violins, accordions, zithers are made by yet few skilled masters. Being highly demanded, those instruments are not easy to obtain, though at fairs and folk crafts festivals one can find them and besides a good variety of bird-, devil- and animal-shaped clay whistles, usually blown by children all around the place.

The popular music instruments in Baltic are accordion and, of course, guitar. They are played mostly at family celebrations, informal parties. After it is not illegal to busk any more, they are the most usual to be heard in the streets, sqares and tunnels; though some fascinating cases like French-horn quartet can be met.

Catholic and lutheran churches mostly have their organ, pretty often with rather distinctive musical characteristics. Few of them like the organ of Riga Doms are recognized world-wide, while those in the rural areas can have their own unique charm. Chiming can be heard on Sundays. Quite peculiar is the chiming of Kaunas carillon.

Riga, December 19, 1992