The all-female ensemble Svīres are giving Latvian music an exciting and eclectic new spin. They’ve just released their first album, and this is only the start of a rich creative journey.
If music be the food of love, as Shakespeare put it, then Latvia is a buffet sagging under plates of goodies. The menu includes renowned opera divas, giant choirs and pop idols like Brainstorm, and intriguing new hors d’oeuvres are adding new flavours.
One such fresh delight is Svīres, a trio of talented young women blending the national folk heritage with classical rigor and a bizarre array of instruments to produce a sound both traditional and unique.
This is a story about a lifelong friendship.
Santa Grigorjeva, Madara Behmane and Zane Jurēvica met at Riga’s Jāzeps Mediņš Musical Secondary School, then attended the Music Academy of Latvia, before each of them began working as a flute teacher in a different corner of the country. A few years ago, they started jamming together in Salaspils, south-east of Riga, the most convenient point for them to converge, and started experimenting.
The flute is just the tip of their instrumental iceberg. Grabbing lessons wherever they can, they have learned to play the mandolin, ukulele, violin and Latvian kokle harp. Shakers and zvanga, a drum crafted from an empty gas canister, give percussion. And to add some exotic woodwind to this compact orchestra, they blow a Chinese xiao bamboo flute and a xun clay whistle.
A melange of classically trained and folk-style vocals contributes to the blend, as does an innovative flute technique called “sing-playing,” in which the names of the notes are mouthed into the instrument to make two tones for the price of one. Now, multiply that by three.
“The result is you hear six of us,” says Santa.
The svīre (common swift) is Latvia’s fastest native bird. It’s a fitting symbol for artists who dart between influences ranging from Mozart and Rachmaninoff to Latvian composers Imants Kalniņš and Raimonds Pauls, with a little Jethro Tull and Renaissance music added for good measure.
“There’s a niche for combining academic music and folk songs,” Santa continues. “What we do isn’t simple, but it is definitely contemporary.”
Box of treats
The resilient Svīres have made the best of topsy turvy 2020. In June, they released their first video with the folk song Kalnā balta ieva zieda (A White Bird-Cherry Bloomed on the Hill).
Their first album was launched in late September. Showcasing more folk songs, its title “Pūrs” (Glory Box) reflects the depth of this musical seam and the diversity of ways to interpret it.
With astonishing generosity, the album is available free of charge on Spotify and YouTube. The group is hoping the exposure will lead to bigger things, and there are plans afoot to release more videos with their original works.
In the meantime, they will continue teaching and playing the occasional concert. They take a zen-like approach to booking gigs too, letting the right offers find them.
Even the Covid period has not stopped the group, "because people are scared of mass events and they’d rather have an intimate evening,” says Madara.
Stay tuned for more sublime sounds.