LATVIA: Lai Masina Rotajas - Auli & Tautumeitas
Updated: Mar 6
A superb collaboration that elevates the bagpipes from an object of derision to a stunning sounding instrument
The humble bagpipe is often mocked and maligned in the UK and the USA. It is popular in Scotland as its national instrument, and indeed to many people around the world, when you hear the bagpipes you think of England’s ginger-haired neighbours to the north. Often used as the butt of a joke, its unusual, plaintive sound is often compared to a cat’s howl, or worse. To be fair to the bagpipe haters, a badly played bagpipe does sound awful. But, to give the instrument it’s fair due, in the right hands, it can be a beautiful instrument, and it so happens that the right hands belong to Auli, a Latvian bagpipe ensemble. Latvian bagpipes, I hear you cry out? Yes. Latvia has a long history of bagpipe playing, where they are known as dudas, and it is part of the folk music tradition of the country. Auli, a ten-piece modern folk ensemble consists of several bagpipe players, alongside electric bassists, Jew’s harpists, drummers, and players of the shawm, a conical medieval woodwind instrument that has a piercing sound similar to a trumpet. This mixture of ancient musical instruments and modern ones has informed their musical aesthetic, which they name ethnotrance. This album Lai Masina Rotajas! is a collaboration with Tautumeitas, another Latvian folk revival band, consisting of six female vocalists and instrumentalists. Formed in 2015, this 2017 album is Tautumeitas’ first studio work, and their vocal style combines perfectly well with Auli’s reworking of folk music for the modern day.
“Auli manage to exalt the bagpipe to the extent that it is able to be considered a versatile and interesting instrument, being able to carry uptempo melodies and define the nature of a track.”
The one thing that can be said for both groups is that they are both masters of their respective crafts. The six members of Tautumeitas are all excellent singers, all singing in perfect harmony in a manner very reminiscent of folk gatherings. Combined with the bagpipes and drums of Auli, it often has an unusual way of sounding old-fashioned and new at the same time, flicking between the two often in the space of one song. Furthermore, though bagpipes in my mind, and certainly in the mind of any British readers, are associated with Scotland, the album certainly does not sound like Scottish bagpipes. It certainly has a Baltic feel, drawing from its own musical traditions in a refreshing manner that is accessible and entertaining. The best example of this might be the first song Mana Lopu Ladara, which sounds modern in its production and beat, but is clearly harking back to the past with its traditional folk vocals and instrumentation of violins and bagpipes. Auli manage to exalt the bagpipe to the extent that it is able to be considered a versatile and interesting instrument, being able to carry uptempo melodies and define the nature of a track. The bagpipes are notoriously difficult to play and as such, while listening to this album I am certainly left in awe of their skills, as well as Tautumeitas’ vocal skills, which add a great deal to the album. It could get boring just listening to bagpipes and drums, and as such, their voices add a whole new layer to the album, often adding an ethereal, otherworldly tone, like on Dej Eglite.
Lai Masina Rotajas! is first and foremost a fun album. Dispel any notions of boring folk music, Auli and Tautumeitas are there to ensure you have a good time. Auli’s live concerts in particular seem like raucous affairs, with the crowds often spontaneously breaking out into traditional folk dancing. To me, their work in general but specifically on this album seems like a way to preserve traditional Baltic music culture while also updating it for the modern day, to acclimatise to modern tastes while keeping what is important about folk music – the spirit of community and enjoyment. Folk music was not designed to be a way to be important and boring, it was the cornerstone of communities and events in the various regions from which it sprung. It was meant to be a way for a people to express themselves and to enjoy themselves, and for Auli and Tautumeitas to do what they do, bringing Latvian folk music to people who might initially think bagpipe and drum music is not for them, and to revitalise interest in that music, is a noble exercise, and this album is a perfect example of such an endeavour.