When you are from a Baltic culture which has miraculously survived centuries of onslaught and foreign domination, it is hardly fair that you should have to remind the world of your existence. Yet, this is exactly the frustrating position Lithuanians find themselves in when confronted with topographical illiterates. It is a cruel fate, indeed, that all ancestral efforts to preserve their distinct culture seem to have culminated in the obligation to explain to yet another foreigner that Lithuania is not, in fact, a province of Russia, nor a nebulous African dictatorship for that matter.[*]
There is, fortunately, a lingua franca that may assist in revealing the finer aspects of one’s culture. This universal language is not English, but art. And music, in its turn, is perhaps its most widely understood dialect. It is also a powerful dialect: musicians who tap into their own cultural roots thrive on centuries’ worth of native artistic beauty—beauty which helped his forebears persevere through the most desperate epochs of history. The folk artist is therefore the noblest of bards; it is through them that a culture’s traits and quirks are monumentalised in a time when Lady Europe is forced into a corset of postmodern meaninglessness.
In the case of the Baltics, an example of such noble artists are the members of Spanxti—a band from the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. Their album Dievo žirgai, laimės ratai (EN: God’s Horses, Wheels of Happiness) combines the exploration of Baltic music traditions with savvy pacing, music-writing, and production, all of which makes it appealing to even those audiences who are not necessarily charmed by the traditional side of folk music.
Album opener “Leliumai” treads on with foreboding patience as a keyboard provides an ambient undercurrent through which singer Ingula Rinkevičienė first reveals herself. Though she is a competent singer on a technical level, it is the warmth, depth, and all-around pleasant tone of voice that make her vocals stand out. This first track also establishes that, with her voice, Rinkevičienė is able to cover a large emotional spectrum: while the inaugural broodiness of the composition calls for a placid, restrained vocal delivery, other instruments (violins, guitars, percussion) eventually join in and evoke a more extravert, commanding voice.
Throughout the rest of the album, the overall mood keeps evolving seamlessly, and Ingula Rinkevičienė adapts likewise. While the songs have many different themes and correspondingly diverse melodies, not a single song appears out-of-place. This is no light achievement: lamentative songs such as ‘Aš pas savo giminėlę’ and the aforementioned album opener can coexist with the more festive ‘Pas leišius alaus gert’ and ‘Oi ką kalba apynėlis’ only at the grace of the consistent aptitude of the musicians, as well as the depth of the compositions which they perform.
Though the aid of standard acoustic guitars, keyboards, and other non-traditional instruments may hint towards neofolk, Spanxti’s music should rather be viewed as a novel incarnation of traditional folk. The lyrics have been lifted from old ritualistic proclamations, and the music—in spite of its strong modern seasoning—is merely meant to accompany said texts and convey the imperishable spirituality and history contained therein. In this light, band leader Vytautas Rinkevičius‘s declaration that Spanxti represents, ‘a creative approach to Baltic mythology and spiritual culture in general’, makes all the more sense.
Dievo žirgai, laimės ratai succeeds because it offers plenty of diversity without spinning out of control. Even after a dozen listens, faults scarcely reveal themselves: while some compositions (the energetic ‘Už kalnelio ežerėlis’) stand out more than others (the brief a cappella ‘Palaukėj pamiškėj’), it would go too far to state there are glaringly dull moments contained within this forty-seven-minute listening experience. As a result, Spanxti has managed to deliver not only a great album, but also a worthwhile cultural document. Dievo žirgai, laimės ratai imparts the beauty of a tiny nation’s heritage and the Baltic musical tradition at large, and can henceforth be used by Lithuanians worldwide to culturally enrich oblivious foreigners—no matter in which part of the United States they might be encountered.
*Both of these examples reflect real experiences of an unreasonably patient Lithuanian friend.
02) Saulė Rieda Dangumi
03) Už Kalnelio Ežerėlis
04) Gailia Gailiai Zylė Verkė
05) Palaukėj Pamiškėj
06) Aš Pas Savo Giminėlę
07) Pas Leišius Alaus Gert
08) Jūs Mano Kūmužėliai
09) Oi Ką Kalba Apynėlis