In the 1960s, western Europe was swinging. But in eastern Europe, it was a different story. Here, Toms Zariņš takes us back in the USSR to reveal the music industry of Latvia and introduce us to some of its most popular female singers of the time.
Politics and war had divided Europe in the preceding decades. However, even within the communist eastern bloc, the situation varied. Countries such as Czechoslovakia and Poland had retained their independence – up to a point – while Latvia and its Baltic neighbours, Estonia and Lithuania, became republics within the Soviet Union.
Large deportations of native Latvians to Siberia in the 1940s and the arrival of a significant Russian minority meant that Latvian culture was slow to develop in the post-war period.
All industry and culture in occupied Latvia – and indeed across the Soviet Union – was government controlled. Until the 1960s, new songs were cut mostly in the state radio station’s recording studio. There were many record labels and factories in the Soviet republics, all of them government owned. Latvia had its old pre-war factory Bellacord-Electro, which had been established in 1931. In 1940, it was nationalised and was renamed the Rīgas skaņuplašu fabrika (Riga record factory) a year later.
In 1958, a recording studio was built and the factory was renamed Rīgas skaņuplašu fabrika Līgo (Riga record factory Līgo). But just six years later, all recording studios and factories in the Soviet Union were consolidated into one large record label, Melody (Мелодия, in Russian). The label had five big factories in the USSR – one of which was located in the Latvian capital of Riga.
Though practically unheard of in the West, this record label was the biggest in the world, releasing 135 million records a year. It had a monopoly on record releases in the USSR. From 1965, the label started to manufacture LPs, and from 1971 it moved from mono to stereo recordings.
There were no sales charts and no singles. EPs usually had a different artist on each side, or even two different artists on each side. And LPs featured no less than two, but no more than five, artists – but one composer would write all the songs on an LP. This meant that LPs were vehicles for composers more than for singers. Usually, it was a portrait of the composer, not of the singers, that appeared on record covers. And so it remained, even until the mid-1970s.
The closest Latvia came to having a sales chart was the Mikrofona aptauja (Microphone survey). It started out in 1968 as radio show, trying to pick the best song of the year. In 1970 it was held on the stage and also shown on TV. People voted for the best song by sending in letters. The Microphone survey proved so popular that Communist party leaders came to see it as a potential threat, though the songs were mostly lightweight ditties that wouldn’t madden the masses. Nevertheless, it was prohibited from 1972 to 1975. It resumed in 1976 and continued until 1994.
A number of female singers found success in Latvia in the 1960s.
Margarita Vilcāne was born on 16 December 1940. She started singing as part of the REO, the Rīgas estrādes orķestris (Riga open-air stage orchestra), in 1962. At that time Latvia had no popular music of its own, so singers, including Margarita, mostly sang covers of popular Soviet songs. Then, as new composers arrived on the scene, singers began performing their songs.
One such arrival was composer and director Ģederts Ramans. Margarita recorded his Princesītes dziesma (Princess’ song) and it became her first hit. She consolidated her success with another of his songs, Man šodien 18 gadu (I am 18 years old today), in 1964.
That year, Raimonds Pauls was appointed conductor of the REO and started to compose very actively. He would go on to become considered Latvia’s top composer, from the late 1960s onwards. As a soloist for the REO, Margarita was one of the first singers to record his songs.
In 1969 he released his first album, Tev, mana labā (For you, my darling), with the songs he had written from 1965-69. The album made Margarita extremely popular, although all three songs she performed on it were duets with Ojārs Grīnbergs.
Pauls’s second LP, Tik dzintars vien (Only amber), issued in 1970, proved just as popular. In fact, the songs became Latvian classics of 20th century. Latvian songs of the period were very lyrical and played a special role in lifting the spirits of the oppressed native Latvians. The album included two songs sung by Margarita. One of them, Baltā saule (The white sun), enjoyed great success and was voted song of the year in Microphone survey. It remains one of her best known songs.
In the 1970s, Margarita worked with different composers, as part of a group and as a soloist. Tāls Parīzes radio (The far radio of Paris) was one of her most popular songs of the period. It was typical of much of her material: serious and complicated. Her stage image was the same – long, beautiful dresses and elaborate haircuts. That’s why Margarita was soon called the queen of the Latvian stage.
Larisa Mondrusa was born on 15 November 1943 in Kazakhstan but her step-father was Latvian and the family settled back in Latvia in 1945. As a child, she was told she used her voice to draw pictures. Soon she began creating images for each song, and later, she was billed as an “actress of the stage”.
After finishing school, she was introduced to various composers, including the head of the Riga open-air stage orchestra. In 1962, she passed an audition to join the REO as a soloist.
Among her first songs were two Latvian covers of Soviet songs, Zvaigznes konduktora somā (The stars in the bag of the ticket controller, originally Звёзды в кондукторской сумке) and a well-known political children’s song, Lai vienmēr būtu saule (Let there always be sun, originally Пусть всегда будет солнце). The latter was also recorded as Gabrielle by Swedish group The Hootenanny Singers in 1964.
In December 1963, the REO played on a Latvian TV programme that also aired on Central Television (United Television of Soviet Union). This exposure led to invites for Larisa to sing for two of the most powerful Soviet orchestra conductors. Both offered her a job. One of them was Eddy Rosner, who has been compared to Louis Armstrong, and Larisa started to sing in his orchestra as a soloist.
In 1964 she married REO conductor and composer Egils Švarcs and moved to Moscow.
Within a year, she became one of the country’s top stars, and appeared in a new year TV show, that was watched by people from right across the USSR. Unlike any other singer on the Soviet stage, she had very much her own style – one that was a little naïve, erotic and very ‘western’ at the same time. In many ways, it proved the key to her success.
While in Moscow, political and lyrical songs proved popular, Latvians preferred jazz in the early 1960s before moving on to covers of English and Soviet songs later in the decade. This was largely because of a lack of local material. Among Larisa’s most popular songs were two sung in Russian in Moscow, Милый мой фантазёр (My beloved dreamer) and Юмореска (Humoresque), both in 1965. Her cover of Italian star Domenico Modugno’s Addio sold well too.
Larisa had a gift for languages, which helped when she took part in international festivals, as her pronunciation was clear. One of her foreign-language recordings was a song that she had performed on East German television and in concert in Rostock, 1969’s Der Sommer vergeht (Summer is fading). Invitations to sing abroad came flooding in but they were all kept from her. The problem was that she refused to sing the political songs expected of her. As a result, international festivals became out of bounds for her and she was also not allowed to perform solo concerts.
In 1970, she covered a song by Latvian composer Raimonds Pauls, Zilie lini, in Russian as Синий лён (Blue flax). It proved one of her last hits. Its release coincided with the appointment of SG Lapin as president of the National Committee for Radio and Television. He started to censor artists he didn’t like – and Larisa soon found she was no longer allowed to perform in Moscow. Instead, she had to take part in long, hard tours of Siberia, singing around 50-60 concerts a month.
Larisa and her husband found this unbearable and began to plot leaving the Soviet Union. At that time, the government was allowing Jews to leave the country to go to live in Israel. So, the couple pretended to be Jewish, got all the necessary documents and, in 1973, left the USSR.
Neither expected to secure a future in the music industry in the west. They arrived in Munich in 1974 with about $100 in their pockets, but by the end of the year Larisa had released an LP and had a five-year contract with Polydor. Her stage name became Larissa for the West German market, and she continued to record until 1982, when she gave up performing to have a child.
In these eight years, she cut five LPs, and in 1980 she was included in the pick of “100 stars of world scene”, along with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra.
Nora Bumbiere was born on 13 March 1947 in Jelgava. Her life wasn’t easy – after falling pregnant at 15, she left school to bring up her baby. Its father was ten years older than her and left even before the baby was born. She went to work in Jelgavas Keramika, a ceramic factory in Jelgava, and also started to sing in different amateur collectives, which were in every company and organisation.
At the end of the 1960s, she won the state amateur singing contest. Composer Raimonds Pauls received a call about her and drove to Jelgava to listen to her. He offered Nora a place in the REO vocal ensemble, but he insisted that she finish school first. By the end of the year, after finishing her studies at night school, she began performing on the big stage. Her songs of heartbreak captivated audiences. As well as singing with the ensemble, Nora also sang some duets with Ojārs Grīnbergs.
Raimonds Pauls composed her debut solo recordings. They included 1970’s Lietus lāses (Drops of the rain) and the expressive Zib mūža rats (The wheel of life is spinning).
In 1970, Nora was introduced to composer Imants Kalniņš when she was visiting the city of Liepāja. He offered her a song that became very popular, Dūdieviņš (Grey wagtail). The song wasn’t really about the bird, but the mystical being. It had an unusual text and people would wait eagerly to hear it on the radio. Dūdieviņš was different to all the other songs of the time and remains popular today.
Already by the early 1970s Nora had staked out a place among Latvia’s greatest singers. Even now she is considered the best female Latvian singer of all time.
Nora was Raimonds Pauls’s chief singer – during the time of her fame, she sung mostly songs composed by him. Highlights include 1970’s Kāpēc? (Why?), 1971’s Atvadas vasarai (Farewell to the summer) and Divpadsmit asaras (Twelve tears) and 1972’s Vientulība (Loneliness).
In 1971, Nora started to sing with Viktors Lapčenoks. Their voices worked together fantastically. More than three LPs were released featuring only their songs, and they recorded soundtracks for films, the theatre and the stage. They were stars, both individually and together. From 1974 until the end of the decade, they were also married.
Nora also represented the USSR at various song contests in eastern Europe, and continued to sing Pauls’s songs until 1977, when differences between the pair meant that they could no longer continue to work together. This also marked the end of Nora’s success.
She died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1994, aged just 46.
Aino Bāliņa was born on 5 May 1935 and is an Estonian singer who found fame in Latvia.
In the 1950s she studied English at the Institute of Pedagogy of Tallinn. As well as singing in the institute’s vocal ensemble, Integrals, she became part of its gymnastics team. When she went to Latvia to take part in a gymnastics competition, she came away with no medals but with a boyfriend instead, a Latvian musician who was studying architecture.
After giving birth to his daughter in 1956, she stayed in Latvia and, a year later, began singing for a club of medical workers. That year, Raimonds Pauls set up the REO and invited her to audition for it.
She won a place in the orchestra, where she stayed for four years until relations with some of the musicians and other singers became strained. However, she returned to the REO in 1964 for a couple of years before being invited to sing in Oleg Lundstrem’s orchestra in Moscow. She remained part of the latter until 1970. In 1979 she returned to the Estonian capital of Tallinn.
Aino’s most popular song is cover of Patty Pravo’s La bambola, Lelle (A doll). Other highlights of her career include Janušeks (a song about a Czech girl who’s been waiting for her boyfriend for three hours and is ready to jump off a bridge if he doesn’t show), and a Latvian cover of the Lennon and McCartney-penned Ob-la-di, ob-la-da. Less well known are her English-language songs, such as The shadow of your smile.
Valentīna Butāne was a female singer who became popular after the second world war. She started in 1950s and sung until the early 1960s. Her most well-known songs include Rīgas bulvāri (Boulevards of Riga), Vecpilsēta (Old town) and Rudens rozes (Roses of autumn). She also sung duets with various male singers, such as Edgars Zveja. Their duet, Silavas valsis (Waltz of Silava), is one of Valentīna’s best known.
Singer and composer Lolita Vambute became particularly popular in the 1970s. One of her most popular songs of the period is Es neesmu burve (I am not a sorceress). She started out in the 1960s with her sister Regīna, performing duets such as Kur tu mīti? (Where are you living?).
In early 1980s she ran into problems with officialdom, when she refused to become a spy for the secret services. As a result, she was no longer able to perform publicly and quit Soviet Latvia for West Germany.
From the 1970s to the present day
Nora Bumbiere and Margarita Vilcāne remained popular throughout the 1970s, while the 1980s saw the rise of various ensembles (groups) and ‘singing actors’.
After the collapse of the USSR, music in Latvia became similar to that in western Europe – with charts, music prizes, concerts and big stages. The country won the Eurovision song contest in 2002 and hosted a lavish final in Riga the following year.
Among a host of pop singers and groups Latvia has some world-renowned artists, such as the band Prāta vētra (known as Brainstorm outside Latvia). Their most recent concert in Latvia drew an audience of 40,000 people – not bad for a country of just two million inhabitants. Classical music conductors (Nelsons, Krēmers) and opera singers (Garanča, Opolais) have also received worldwide acclaim. Plus, ‘folk composer’ Raimonds Pauls remains well known, both at home and abroad.
The country continues to enjoy its traditional song festivals, and the next one will take place in 2013.