Kokle and Kokle Playing
The kokle is the Latvian version of a plucked stringed instrument, similar to the zither which, together with the Lithuanian kanklė, Estonian kannele and Finnish kantele all fall into the family of Baltic psaltery. The kokle creates the traditional sound that gives Latvian music its ancient, soothing quality – evoking stereotypical images of beautiful blonde-haired maidens in traditional folk dress, dreamily strumming the kokle, singing melodic folk songs.
The instrument differs from the zither, harp and guitar in technique – the index finger on the right hand strums while the left hand mutes the strings that need to be silent by lightly placing one’s fingers on them. Kokle are either placed in one’s lap or laid down on a table.
The history of the kokle dates back 1.5 thousand years – archeological excavations have revealed kokles that date back to the 13th century. Kokles are mentioned in texts dating back to the 17th century and the oldest kokle featured in a collection in the National History Museum of Latvia is the Curonian kokle (kuršu kokle) which dates back to 1710.
At the turn of the 20th century, traditions associated with the kokle had been forgotten and this ancient instrument could only be heard in some regions of Kurzeme and Latgale. The rebirth of the kokle came about during the Latvian folklore movement in the 1970s and 80s when the more ancient instruments were rejuvenated and were a central part of this movement.
Kokle-making was also a craft that was almost forgotten – rejuvenated only in the 21st century. Kokle-makers are highly sought after because there are so few of them in Latvia; to arrange for a kokle to be made you need to book far in advance. Kokle-making workshops, however, have allowed the kokle craftsmen to pass on their knowledge to a wider group of people.
Musically the kokle is unique in that it can be played in a range of interpretations – softly, with a gentle stroke of the strings or vigorously, with great force. The two types of kokle – the etnokokle which is the ethnographic or traditional kokle with a standard 11 strings contrasts with the concert kokle which is more academic, has 32 strings and is usually on legs with the player seated next to the instrument, not with the instrument in their lap.
Traditional kokles are made in two ways – either carved or glued. The kokles that are carved from one piece of wood are considered the most traditional. The glued or zither-like kokles are a more recent variation. They were influenced by the zither and were introduced at the turn of the 20th century.
Ethnomusicologist and composer Laima Jansone, a masterful etnokokle (ethnographic or traditional kokle) player with her unique meditative, soulful style of playing, has brought the Latvian kokle – and the mood it evokes – to the rest of the world. She collaborates with other musicians, showing that the kokle does not need to be a solo instrument but one that can be incorporated into ensembles or have untraditional arrangements where different, usually unassociated genres meet. Consequently etnokokle groups are being founded as this genre gains popularity.
The kokle has long been highlighted during the Song and Dance festival with a whole concert devoted to the kokle – where hundreds of kokle players gather together to play the instrument in a massed kokle orchestra. Kokle festivals are also organised in different parts of Latvia, and the kokle ensemble is a popular amateur activity that young children may take up as an after-school activity or even later on, as adults.
The ancient kokle is said to have had a ritual meaning, associated with funeral rites and the journey of the soul to the aizsaule – “world beyond the sun”. In Latvian memory there is a saying that “kokles are from God”, others say it is an instrument of the soul. These days the kokle is used widely as a part of the national musical heritage and a symbol of the spirit of the singing nation.
Gaismiņa ausa: Latvian folk song [shellac record]. ([19--]). Performed by kokle ensemble lead by Gunārs Ordelovskis. Latvia: Rīgas skaņuplašu fabrika Līgo. Digital collection "Zudusī Latvija", National Library of Latvia.
Kokles solo. (1995). No: Lettonie: musiques des rutes solaires [CD]. Izpilda ansamblis „Rasa”. Francija: Indedit. Latvijas Nacionālās bibliotēkas Audiovizuālais krājums, Fcd/1253 (pieejams LNB tīklā).
Kokles spēle (Alsunga); Kokles spēle (Rikava). (1986). No: Latvijas PSR muzikālā folklora [skaņu ieraksts] = The Latvian SSR musical folklore = Музыкальный фольклор Латвийской ССР [skaņuplate]. [Rīga]: Мелодия. Latvijas Nacionālās bibliotēkas Audiovizuālais krājums, F-3/3613.