The Baltic States Bookmark and Share

We tend to forget that The Baltic States as we know them today (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) have gained their independence only in 1991. In local culture this is usually referred as the ‘Third awakening’ since the Baltic states had brief periods of independence before. But for most of the twentieth century they were a part of Russia (with a period under German rule during WW2). This is another thing we tend to forget, most East European countries were part of the USSR but kept some form of independence, the Baltic States however were Russia. No surprise this colored the music scene of the three countries. Despite the Soviet policy to force the Russian culture the Soviet government began encouraging folk art from its constituent republics in the sixties. The reason why is unknown to us but it could be as a reaction to the growing popularity of rock ’n roll in Western Europe. Considered a decadent and corrupting cultural invasion from the West there is some warped sense in promoting local folklore. This gave some opening for having a local music scene. Underground most Baltic States developed a rock scene which in the eighties was unofficially ‘permitted’. After their independence the three countries openly began to develop a pop & rock scene of their own. Visiting the states our opinion was that they still struggle with the choice whether to copy western Anglo-American pop (and sing in English) or incorporate local folkore elements. It also struck us that although you might think the three countries interlink on a historical social cultural level the influences are quite different with Lithuania having a Polish influence, Latvia showing more heritage from the Swedes and Germans and Estonia having a strong link with Finland.

In Lithuania the first local rock bands started to emerge around 1965 and included Kertukai, Aitvarai and Nuogi ant slenksčio in Kaunas, and Kęstutis Antanėlis, Vienuoliai, and Gėlių Vaikai in Vilnius, among others. Most of these bands did nothing more than play covers of The Beatles and Rolling Stones, sometimes adapting Lithuanian lyrics to these songs. In the seventies the KGB was aware of popculture persecuting organizers of pop festivals and visitors alike. Underground a distinct genre of song formed during this period. Musicians like Vytautas Kernagis and Vytautas Babravičius created intimate acoustic ballads featuring their own lyrics and those of other Lithuanian poets. In the 1980s, rock bands like Foje (Foyer), Antis (Duck), and Bix were able to profit from a more ‘open’ cultural climate. In 1987, 1988 and 1989 Lithuania saw several big rock festivals, such as Roko Maršas (Rock March). Oddly enough after the independence in 1991 the old rockscene suffered from an audience that lost interest in rock in favor of local, often low-quality, pop music which copied whatever was hip in the West. Positive exceptions were found in the folk movement where bands like Skylė created their blend of folkrock. Singer Aistė Smilgevičiūtė is a regular guest of the band but also has a solo career. In the early 2000s, several new names appeared on the scene of which SKAMP and Biplan are still succesfull. Also a folkmetal scene developed with Žalvarinis and Atalyja as the main flagships. Mixing electronics with folk elements is done by young female singer/songwriter Jurga Šeduikytė. Journalist, comedian and singer Marijonas Mikutavičius became popular with his song ‘Trys Milijonai’. If you're looking for a more schlager approach to Lithuanian music Vitaly Katunskytė is your singer.

During the Soviet era Imants Kalniņš was the most important composer of the time, and his songs were extremely popular. In the sixties he established rock band 2xBBM. He also wrote music for the movie originally called Četri balti krekli ('Four white shirts'), later given the title Elpojiet dziļāk! ('Breathe deeper!'), which spoke about the need of freedom and was therefore banned. One of the most important social gatherings of the time was the annual Imantdiena ('The day of Imants (Kalnins)'), forbidden on grounds of interfering with hay-gathering. The tradition continued informally at the composer's house. Most of the members of the group moved on to form another group, Pērkons ('Thunder') later. More tolerable for the regime was the music made by Raimond Pauls who delivered lighter (read, politically safer) music. His muse was Margarita Vilcāne who deleveloped herself as the queen of Latvian light pop at that time.

Kalnins influence was also notable on seventies rockgroup Līvi. In the eighties underground studio-based groups NSRD and Dzeltenie Pastnieki introduced extensive use of electronic instrumentation, while Zig Zag and Aurora brought guitar-based post-punk tendencies (though about ten years after the fact). In 1988, rock opera Lāčplēsis by Zigmars Liepiņš and Māra Zālīte, based on the national epic, became a hit. After 1991 the pop scene developed with Prāta vētra (also known as Brainstorm) as the main group. Another name was Satellites LV with Edgars Žilde at the helm (after 2000 he pursued a solo carreer but started the band again in 2008). Alternative rockmusic was made by Inokentijs Mārpls, Baložu Pilni Pagalmi, Skyforger and Sirke. Mixing metal with folk elements was done by Dzelzs Vilks. In the nineties they were a true metalband but over the years their music gained in artistic quality. Folk was made by the group Jauns Mēness whose singer Ainars Mielavs went solo in 2005. In 2002 Marija Naumova (Marie N) won the Eurovision, she still performs with her mix of pop, musical and jazz. In the new millenium artists like Intars Busulis (intelligent pop), Lauris Reiniks and Dons (both more smooth pop) hit the music scene.

The Finnish link (and maybe Iceland) with Estonia can be found back to the Estonian runo-song. By the 20th century, though, runo-song had largely disappeared from Estonia, with vibrant traditions existing only in Setumaa and Kihnu. That doesn’t mean Estonia always had a very typical musical tradition. Already after the first awakening the first professional Estonian musicians emerged. The most significant was Rudolf Tobias(1873-1918) and Artur Kapp (1878-1952). During Soviet rule folklore flourished with Leiko, a choir from Värska, as the main flagbearers. The first LP of traditional music, Eesti rahvalaule ja pillilugusid (Estonian folk songs and instrumental pieces) was released in 1967. The most notable underground pop (cover)groups of the sixties were Juuniorid, Optimistid, Mikronid, Kontrastid and Virmalised. In the seventies a progressive rock began to emerge of which most notable were Ruja, Gunnar Graps Group, Meie, In Spe and Apelsin. In the eighties punk also hit Estonia with bands like J.M.K.E., Radar, Vitamiin and Röövel Ööbik mostly operating from Finland. Popmusic was made by Ultima Thule (with singer Riho Sibul). The nineties saw the fall of music and musicians from previous decades. Youth, looking for something new as usual, got the first taste of electronic. In the early nineties there were simultaneous small-scale outbreaks of indie rock and metal with Vennaskond and Terminaator. In 2000 singer Tanel Padar brought the Eurovision to Estonia. The girl band Vanilla Ninja are often sited as the most popular band just as the band Kerli. Metsatöll is a folk-metal band combining runo-song and traditional folk instruments with metal. Probably one of the most unique artists from this part of Europe is singer Siiri Sisask whose musical output ranges from metal to pop to jazz to classical.

For more info on Estonian pop/rock see:

And for the famous Viljandi folk festival click here



Like us on
or tter

Your newsletter
Do you want to receive our monthly newsletter? Just tick in your e-mail adress below and stay in touch.

You will receive an e-mail message (sorry, in Dutch) that you have to confirm.

  EUROPOPMUSIC- Central Europe