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by World Music Network May 16, 2011


The Music of the Baltic States

Independence for the three Baltic States was first achieved in the 1920s. However, from1939-40, Soviet troops invaded, followed a year later by Germans, who were ousted in 1944 by returning Soviets. As such, countless Baltic people were deported or killed. Many more fled to the West, depleting the home population. In September 1991, independence was regained; mass singing festivals ceame a focus of national consciousness. The “singing revolution” began in 1988 at the Eestimaa Laul (Estonian Song) rally, where the Estonian Heritage Society demanded independence.

There are considerable national and regional differences between – and within – the three countries; but they share a continuity of culture. All have folk song-poetry of the runo-song type and they use traditional instruments, notably Baltic zithers.

All three countries saw the creation of Soviet-supervised folklore troupes and  separate folklore revivals. Now, some folk musicians are attempting to create traditional musical forms and textures that connect with the present day. The full effect of European Union membership has yet to be seen. But all three states are experiencing music the Soviet ear would never have been tolerated.


Estonian song types include runo-songs, swing-songs and setu-songs. In runo-songs, regilaul, lines have eight beats; melodies rarely span more than the first five notes of a diatonic scale; and short phrases tend toward descending patterns. Many regilaul texts have been collected, largely from women, and reflect a stoic sadness. Estonia’s epic, Kalevipoeg, was constructed in the 1860s from a collection of runo-songs. In the twentieth century, other European forms overshadowed runo-song. Villagers sang more ornamented swing-songs while sitting on communal swings that made their own rhythmic demands. The songs of the Setu people have seen a recent revival. An eight-syllable runo pattern is often interrupted by extra syllables and refrains. And unlike other Estonian vocal traditions, they are polyphonic.  

Old pastoral wind instruments – animal horns, birch-bound trumpets, willow overtone whistles and bagpipes – may have lost traditional context but are used by modern musicians. Fiddles, accordions and long-bellowed concertinas are used in couple-dance tunes, including polkas. Polkas also feature the kannel, the Estonian Baltic zither. Players may have perished but the instrument survived in exile. And, visits from Finnish kantele players have stimulated new interest. Leading Estonian kannel players include Tuule Kann and ethnomusicologist Igor Tõnurist.

In Estonia, there’s a range of board-zithers or chord-zithers. These aren’t true kannels/kanteles but are closer to factory-made zithers made in Germany. Also, the antiquated bowed lyre, hiiu-kannel is finding a role again in modern folk bands.

Whether part of the Soviet-supervised groups or separate folk revivals, there were many ensembles considered “ethnographic” (drawing on localized traditions, e.g., the choir Leiko) or “folkloric” (drawing on nationalized traditions, e.g., Leigarid). Regional ethnographic groups and young city-based ensembles also formed, including Leegajus and Hellero.

Five volumes of Eesti Rahvalaule Viisidega (Estonian Folk Songs) were published by 1965, followed shortly by the eight-volume anthology Eesti Rahvalaulud.The first anthology on LP, Eesti Rahvalaule ja Pillilugusid (Estonian Folk Songs and Instrumental Music) was released in 1967.

Mass singing and folk festivals continue, including the All Estonian Song Festival, Viljandi Folk Music Festival, Laulupidu, the Setu Leelopäev, Viru Säru, Baltica, and Maa ja Ilm festivals. Many of the performers are alumni of the new Estonian Traditional Music Centre.


Dainas are short non-rhyming songs of one or two stanzas, one or two lines in length. Dainas feature mythology – the sun a dominant image – and aspects of village life. Krišjānis Barons (1835-1923) collected dainas and published the six volume Latvju Dainas by 1915. Other styles include German-influenced zinges, melodious dziesmas, and three-voiced balss.

Sadzives music – village dances and songs – use instruments including kokles (zither), dūdas (bagpipe), taure (wooden trumpet), stabule (whistle), rata lira (hurdy-gurdy), trideksnis (rattle-stick), vargas (Jew’s harp), gigas (trough fiddle) and – more recently – violin and accordion. Of these, the Baltic zither, kokle, has the greatest national status and renewed interest since the folklore movement of the 1970s. Janis Porikis, the strongest revival influence, made instruments and organized performances. Valdis Muktupāvels, Latvia’s leading player, champions the instrument. There are a variety of citara (chord-zither), unrelated to Baltic zithers. Though, hybrid forms between citara and kokles are called citarkokles.

Latvia hosts festivals including the national song festival, Baltica, and Porta world music festival. It has local and regional folklore groups and ethnographic ensembles, most of them vocal ensembles. Then, there are “post-folklore” bands playing traditional music and instruments in new ways, including ethnomusicologist, kokles player and bagpiper Valdis Muktupāvels, and the band Iļģi. These artists and other Latvian-rooted musicians are on the UPE label, owned by Ainars Mielavs. At a time when almost no recordings of Latvian traditional or post-folklore music were available, Mielavs gathered post-folklore musicians and began a series CD projects.


There are thousands of collected Lithuanian dainos– some shared through tradition, others improvised. In the early twentieth century, many women had large repertoires of dainos – singing solo or in groups, in unison or parallel chords of thirds, fourths or fifths. Aukštaitija, Lithuania’s northeastern region, has a distinctive tradition of duophonic songs — sutartinės.

Lithuania’s Baltic zither, the kanklės, differs regionally in playing style and number of strings. Old round dances (rateliai) were traditionally accompanied by singing, although instrumental ensembles commonly play newer dance forms. Instruments found in these ensembles include lamzdeliai (wooden or bark whistles), fiddles, basetle (three-stringed bass), accordions, bandoneons, concertinas, balalaikas, guitars, modern clarinets and cornets. In the northeast, sutartinė tunes were played on skudučiai – dismantled pan-pipes. Wind instruments include švilpas (overtone whistle), goat-horns and sekminiu ragelis (single-drone bagpipe), with tabalas (a flat piece of wood used like a gong) and drums for percussion.

Folklore ensembles formed in the early twentieth century, including Skriaudžių Kanklės Ensemble and the state folk song and dance ensemble, Lietuva. A strong choral movement developed, drawing on folk songs arrangements. These coalesced in huge song festivals, such as Dainu Švente (“The Feast of Songs”). A back-to-the-villages movement began in the 1960s; folklore ensembles sprang up in towns and cities alike, along with folklore camps, competitions and festivals, including the Skamba Skamba Kankliai and Baltica festivals.

Historical costumes maintain a sense of identity and even performers taking new steps – such as singer Veronika Povilionienė or the band Sutaras – often perform in costume. Progressive bands, such as Atalyja, combine tradition with rock. Beyond folk-rock stretches a spectrum of post-Soviet, pan-Baltic, bands from “ritual folk” to “folk-metal”, and more.