What comes when folk fades away
Jurij Dobriakov: What Comes when Folk Fades Away (Music Export Lithuania)
It was a golden age when, in the era of traditional ways, folklore was an integral part of life, governing, structuring and enriching the essential everyday cycles and rituals. Back in those days it was at least clear that folklore was not a placebo or a simulacrum of any kind, since it grew out of vital practice organically. It was part of reality as authentic as harvesting barley or making bread.
Things are not so simple anymore, for better or for worse. Technically speaking, folk music is not necessary anymore, except some remote cultures that have retained the old ritualistic ways. There are not so many of those left nowadays, however, and it may be argued that the scenes for folkderived or folk-related music forms (dubbed habitually as post-folk, neo-folk, free folk, etc.) are much more developed in the countries that have progressed far beyond the traditional cosmology that once was the governing principle underlying all creative activities.
So why would one need folk music at the beginning of the 21st century in a fairly advanced country like Lithuania? And what happens to folk music when it becomes a thing in itself, detached from its primary function and freed from its 'orthodox' forms, serving as just one of the myriad elements that comprise the kaleidoscopic lifestyle and attitude of today's urban, alternative-minded individuals?
Nostalgia for the utopian past
It is hardly deniable that nostalgic sentiments play a certain part in any revival of traditional forms. What does folk music stand for in the minds of its revivalists, re-interpreters and reformers? First and foremost, it brings to mind things like patriotism, heroism, the glorious past, ancestry, authenticity, pagan mythology and ethnocentrism. One shall also bear in mind that in Lithuania, the term 'folk music' is predominantly used to refer to ethnic musical tradition, unlike, for example, in North America.
From the practical perspective, however, all 'new folk' is 'authentic' to the same degree as any other music, since it is not an essential structural element of its listeners' everyday life. Thus, it assumes a rather decorative quality (this is not to suggest that new folk music may not possess certain spirituality, emotional depth and musical density, which may be characteristic of any contemporary musical form as well).
Speaking of the Lithuanian post-folk scene, the diversity of forms here is quite impressive: from close-to-the-original recreations of historically known archaic ritual folklore (the prime example would be Kūlgrinda, the ritual pagan folk collective known particularly for their renderings of the old Lithuanian polyphonic sutartinė song form) to modern industrial and post-industrial music that incorporates little or no actual folk material, relying on archaic, pagan imagery and atmosphere instead (such acts as Girnų Giesmės, Lauxna Lauksna and Oorchach).
Yet even the most careful renderings of the surviving ethnographical records, boosted with neopagan attitude, should not be taken for granted and viewed as 'pure' or 'authentic' folk (let alone the electronic, experimental and polystylistic free-folk manipulations). Rather, it is what today's folks think 'authentic' archaic folk music should sound like. Most post-folk performers are far from being escapists and outsiders; they take part in today's world just as all other people. It is logical to assume then that they are united by the specific nostalgia for the utopian pagan past that is perceived as 'better' than contemporary reality – fairer, purer and, ultimately, more real. The surrounding world was veiled with mystery, the deities were always at hand, and strong, virtuous people lived in concord with the Mother Nature. Such is the mythical pure primal universe that many people feel vaguely nostalgic for every now and then – nostalgic, but not unable to live in the present.
It seems that many of these artists wish to reinvent the past they have never experienced, rather than to relive it. As such it is an aesthetically curious and appealing phenomenon. If they are not to become peculiar anachronistic simulacra or mere impersonators, the key thing for post-folk musicians, it seems, is to maintain a bit of a critical distance and avoid falling into the trap of simulated authenticity and unreserved identification with the glorified pagan lifestyle, as attractive as it may be. Post-folk is perhaps best understood as a brand of contemporary music inspired by traditional forms.
Closer to the living tradition?
One principal thing that distinguishes Lithuanian folk music tradition is its continuity. While in most of Western Europe folk music is something hailing from the era of wandering minstrels and troubadours, in Lithuania, like in a number of other Eastern/Central European and Baltic countries, it was preserved in a relatively pure form by rural communities well into the early twentieth century.
That passage about Western Europe is an exaggeration, of course. But it is still an actual fact that Lithuanians are the last pagan nation of Europe (which seems to have never really abandoned the old religion altogether, incorporating its elements into the newly introduced Christian faith or, in some cases, secretly observing old pagan rites) and, therefore, 'remember' their folk roots slightly better. Even the strongly promoted 'fakelore' of the Soviet era, meant to become an ideologically safe substitute for the traditional folk culture, did not manage to erase the knowledge originating from proper ethnographic research carried out earlier.
Therefore, while West European post-folk often has a connection to older traditional culture whose presence can be felt within the imagery employed, its Lithuanian counterpart seems to be making better use of whatever evidence and knowledge is left of the actual archaic (pre-Christian) instrumental and vocal forms of folklore. This makes the Lithuanian variety of post-folk (and especially the reconstructed ritual folk music) sound fairly authentic, as if it were really performed in that precise way for ages (surprisingly enough, that holds true even when distinctively modern instruments are thrown in the mix).
One must stay at least somewhat sober though, as the only real factor enabling such continuity is the oral heritage passed on from generation to generation, which, even if one assumes it is passed on in uninterrupted succession, is bound to be distorted in one way or another. Even so, the magnetism of this pseudo-authenticity is undeniable.
On the darker side
Most of Lithuanian folk music (speaking about the ethnographic renderings) is characterised by a fairly minor mood (some of the traditional sutartinės, especially as performed by Kūlgrinda, even have a somewhat psychedelic, darkly ethereal quality). That might be the reason behind the fact that post-folk is predominantly associated with the dark music scene in Lithuania, even though the actual sound might not bear any resemblance to dark music whatsoever (as in the case of Atalyja, a world music-influenced folk-rock band).
There are some other reasons, too, that might explain this phenomenon. During the mid-to-late 90's upsurge of interest in the old pagan culture, the majority of those rediscovering it were previously or simultaneously involved in the heavy music scene – mostly metal and industrial. Later on they began organising pagan-themed events and festivals (Mėnuo Juodaragis – translating as The Blackhorn Moon – being the most important one, set to take place for the 11th time the coming summer), to which they invited ritual pagan folk collectives and folk-rock bands, alongside the more radical industrial, post-industrial, and folk/pagan metal acts. The latter trend of post-folk music was just another result of the metalheads' taste for the old, largely martial folklore.
Especially dark-themed are the sub-styles that fuse folk influences with industrial, post-industrial, metal and dark ambient sound – the already mentioned Lauxna Lauksna and Girnų Giesmės, Vilkduja, Donis, Zpoan Vtenz, Andaja, etc. These demonstrate the somber or, in some cases, war-like nostalgia for the past heathen world (so characteristic of the most of Lithuanian postfolk) quite vividly, some in an abstract and others in a more direct, literal manner. For example, the music of one-man project Girnų Giesmės, a.k.a. Oro! Oro!, is purely electronic, yet it somehow manages to express a strangely cosmological, archaic quality, being different from the majority of similar electronic acts in an almost ineffable way. There are several notable exceptions to the abovementioned trend, however. One is the recently revived 'improfolk' collective Ženklas X, which incorporates folk-derived sonorities and rhythmic structures into a seamless stream of improvisational music, free jazz, world music elements and sonic experiments. Another example is the appropriately named Keisto folkloro grupė (The Weird Folklore Group), whose last album features a number of traditional Lithuanian Advent songs rearranged in a way that makes them sound almost like Eastern mantras – through the use of 'exotic' instrumentation and particularly slow meters.
To a certain extent, the mentioned folk-rock band Atalyja, which combines the elements of funk, rock, jazz and Oriental music, falls out of the dark folk 'circle' as well, even though it appears at the dark-themed neo-pagan events once in a while. The same can be said about Liberté, an adventurous neo-folk band whose melancholic sound has many 'exotic' features – again, with some reservations. Žalvarinis, the folk-rock band that was originally a collaboration between the female members of Kūlgrinda and the metal band Ugnėlakis, also sounds considerably lighter than most other Lithuanian acts that fuse electric guitars and folk elements, not avoiding a touch of jazz and blues.
Still, most of those are released or distributed by the same labels that normally deal with more esoteric neo-folk, pagan/folk metal and folk-tinged industrial music (most prominently, Dangus Records, the organiser of the Mėnuo Juodaragis festival), which makes precise distinctions impossible. In Lithuania, it seems, there is a certain (and wide enough) circle of people interested in the old traditions of ethnic culture and open to very different interpretations thereof – from Ženklas X' abstract improvisational avant-folk to Kūlgrinda's recreations of archaic rites to Vilkduja's dark folk-flavored neo-cabaret.
The rise of a different concept of folk
For some time already, the monopoly on the use of the word folk itself is being challenged in Lithuania. There are increasingly more musicians (and listeners) who begin understanding folk music not only in terms of traditional ethnic culture, but also in the more North American way – as a singer/songwriter type of acoustic (or semiacoustic) music to be performed in an intimate and informal setting. Such musicians often refer to themselves as 'bards' and classify their music as 'sung poetry' – a genre that is presently very popular among Lithuanian urban youth.
Alina Orlova, the recent discovery, is a good example of the quirky acoustic folk music closer to the so-called 'freak folk' of America, exemplified by the likes of CocoRosie and Devendra Banhart, than to Lithuanian ethnic music. Eglė Sirvydytė (and the like) plays more in the vein of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen, even though an occasional bard-style rendering of a traditional Lithuanian folk song is also possible. Obscure singer/songwriter Lukas Devita is perhaps the only one leaning towards the 60's/70's folky psychedelia and 'outsider folk'.
The type of music that is still practically nonexistent in Lithuania is the contemporary psychedelic folk that has developed vibrant scenes in the U.S., Japan and Finland – championed by the bands like Six Organs of Admittance, Pelt, Kemialliset Ystävät, Fursaxa and many others. Maybe this brand of folk is yet to come: imagine if Lithuanian bards of today became weary of their melancholy and lyricism and tried something more daring!
© Jurij Dobriakov
Lithuanian Music Link No. 16