Multipart Latvian Singing
Teikšana or saukšana (translated: saying or calling) is an ancient form of traditional Latvian vocal polyphony, sung a capella, that has been preserved in some regions of Latvia and now rejuvenated and highlighted as a unique form of cultural heritage. This style of singing has also been remade, modernised at various times – as choral music, rock, ethno jazz – making it known to different generations and audiences, which may not have an interest in traditional folklore.
The unique element of multipart singing of Latvian folksongs – or dainas – is that emphasis is on the text, not the melody; it could be also termed “melodic speaking”, or looking from a different angle it could be termed as an ancient form or “rap” music. The verse is “spoken”, or “called out” by the lead singer (the teicēja), who usually has a wealth of songs in her repertoire. The same text is then repeated by another strong and capable singer (the locītāja), often in a lower tone, accompanied by drone or burdon singing a long, uninterrupted vowel sound – either “ē”, followed by “ā” or alternatively, “ī”, followed by “o” which is voiced by the other singers, called the vilcējas (literally translated as “pullers”, who are pulling the sound). The English translation of the French word for burdon – bourdon – is “bumblebee” an apt description of the monotonous, humming drone sound of the vilcējas.
This format lends itself to inclusiveness, as the vilcēja’s part could be sung by anyone taking part in the occasion with or without a cultured or talented singing voice. As this type of singing is often performed by middle aged or elderly ladies, and the quality of their voices is usually no longer in its prime, then naturally emphasis is more on the content, not the musicality of the sound produced. The whole musical scenario, particularly at weddings or other family occasions, requires a quick wit, creative mind and improvisation skills on the part of the teicēja, who would often need to be able to quickly make up the words in a spontaneous manner.
Teikšana is a unique traditional Latvian style of singing, primarily heard in annual seasonal rituals and traditional family rites celebrating or marking births, christenings, weddings, funerals as well as during summer farm working bees and other occasions where groups come together for collective agricultural work. The region that it covers is primarily the south of Kurzeme (Nīca and Bārta parishes) and Northern Latgale. These areas were long-established Catholic enclaves in regions where Lutheranism was predominant, and for this reason they remained quite secluded and retained steadfast traditions much longer than they were kept alive in other regions.
Some folklore groups involved in polyphonic singing have become rather famous in Latvia among these are Saucējas, who have rejuvenated singing from the Sēlija region from the southwestern part of Latvia and, in particular, rotāšana, which is a form of polyphonic singing ending with the refrain “rot”. This type of singing has been characterised by 19th century composer and folklore researcher Andrejs Jurjāns as “the most beautiful songs ever sung by Latvians”. These songs are best sung in the open air for maximum vocal projection.
The other well-known polyphonic singing group are Suitu sievas (translated as: “the Suiti women”) from the Suiti region. The Suitu sievas are renowned for their witty and light-hearted, ad-libbed verses, with the purpose of poking fun at others’ flaws, which is later glossed over, admitted by the singers as being sung merely in jest. An international burdon festival is held in the Suiti region of Latvia once every four years.
A similar style of polyphonic singing still exists in a few other places in Europe the Balkans, Northern Caucasus, Belarus, as well as the Southern Caucasus Georgia in particular. Latvian polyphonic singing can be classified as part of indigenous folk singing which predates the emergence of polyphony in professional music in Europe.
Ko dziedāšu ko runāšu [skaņuplate]. (). Performed by Alsunga parish singers. Latvija: Bellacord Electro. National Library of Latvia, the Audiovisual Digital collection "Latvia's Historical Sound Recordings".
Dziedi līdzi Suitu sievām: Kurzemes radio raidījums [CD]. ([20–]). Izpilda folkloras grupa „Suitu sievas”, raidījumu vada Dainis Pilskungs. [Latvija]. Latvijas Nacionālās bibliotēkas Audiovizuālais krājums, Fcd/11390.
Informatīvais pielikums projektam „Latviešu teicējas Ziemeļlatgalē” [videokasete]. ([20–]). Režisors Raitis Vulfs. [Latvija]: Projekts Vizuālā Latvija. Latvijas Nacionālās bibliotēkas Audiovizuālais krājums, Fvk/360.
Zemgales dziesmas = Songs from Zemgale [CD]. (2004). Izpilda folkloras kopa „Dimzēns”. [Latvija]: Tautas mākslas centrs. Latvijas Nacionālās bibliotēkas Audiovizuālais krājums, Fcd/11124.