All photos by Justina Lukošiūtė. Video’s by Zarraza Filmai.
Some festivals are a scene onto themselves. Those are the festivals that have their own, distinct vision and care little for trends, politics and other wavering things. Kilkim Žaibu is one of those festivals to have a truly unique vibe of their own. We went there to experience it and it was definitely a great, though very wet, experience.
Kilkim Žaibu takes place on a lake near the town of Varniai in northern Lithuania. The part of the country named Samogitia for its ancient tribes. Samogitia has a particular contrast to it. The landscape is littered with churches. For Varniai it’s their biggest building even, but the town has been the centre of the church in Samogitia for 600 years. Banners line the streets to celebrate this fact, but just a few kilometres away a pagan fire still burns.
Lithuania’s Northern part was the last pagan region of Europe and the land is filled with hills and lakes, rich with legends. Even the Christian tradition shows some peculiar pagan traits here and that makes this remote part of Europe such a great location for a festival that celebrates the old traditions as well as some great metal music. Kilkim Žaibu aims to look back at the past and find its reflection in the present. This makes for a unique festival, with rituals old and new. This year it also means a very direct experience with the elements.
On Thursday we enjoy the folk program. The smaller stage, named the ‘Pikuolis Stage’ after the organisation behind the festival, is the only one of the two stages in use today to host a diverse line-up of folk groups. Soon it turns out that it rains and doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon. That is bad news for a lot of the program, which is a fire ritual and bonfires. Over the terrain you find various re-enactment groups, ready to show you their crafts and wares. Various stands offer a variety of food and Lithuanian breweries offer some nice drinks.
Early in the evening the group Obelija from Lithuania starts the festival. The group consists of four young ladies, dressed in traditional garments, who sing Lithuanian folk songs from the various regions. Explanations are offered to the themes and origins, which in the small Baltic country are surprisingly important to the people. The music is purely vocal, with singer Eglė Česnakavičiūtė banging a simple drum for the purpose of rhythm (later also the kankles, a traditional Lithuanian instrument). Though the visitors are often engaged in chatter at the start of the set, the ladies manage to capture the attention with jolly tunes, but mostly melancholic singing that touches the heart strings, even for those who do not know the language. These timeless songs have the quality to convey their meanings across those boundaries, especially when performed with love.
Following the ladies is the Latvian collective Delve (which translates as ‘bear’s paw’). The group plays various traditional instruments, but the curiosity of most visitors drives them around the festival grounds to settle for a chat, look at the beautiful constructions (such as three sword hilts made of straw, sticking from the earth for a later bonfire). The group plays sweet and soft songs from the daily life of ancient times, also dressed in traditional clothes. They invoke the Livonian times in Latvia, but unfortunately don’t manage to grab my attention.
The group Romowe Rikoito is a strange one indeed today. Again, some history is necessary to explain why. There are three Baltic languages, of which one is extinct. Lithuanian, Latvian and Prussian are the three, of which this is not the German Prussia in which the old Prussians slowly merged. Though bits and pieces have been preserved, it is not entirely certain how the language would sound. This group around singer Glabbis Niktorius tries to retrace the ancient roots of the Prussians on their most recent two albums Undēina and Namawar.
The dark voice of Niktorius is surrounded with the sounds of nature from ancient dwellings of the Prussians and percussion instruments on the album. Those live recordings are an attempt to really feel the lost folk. Live he is accompanied on drums and vocals by Alwārmija. On the sides we find musicians playing guitars and cello. Though this takes away the connection to nature, there’s enough wind and rain to fill that void and the band also is very direct in their way of addressing the crowd. There’s something incredibly sad about a dead language and hearing those forgotten words spoken with conviction and force is a magical experience. Though some of the visitors seem to be more in a jolly mood, the band delivers in a solemn and respectful manner their experimental expression of the Prussian pagan past. Maybe it’s also this location, in the rain, that makes it even more touching.
There’s a sternness to the performance and delivery that is very much a part of the dark sound that Romowe Rikoito offers. The language and pronunciation itself has a fascinating shape and warble to it, that is musical in its own right to listen to. Little is offered in the way of banter from the stage. I for one would have liked to know more about their music, but this almost ritualistic approach is incredibly beautiful and touching, so I’ll hold my peace.
Skyforger is mostly known as a folk/pagan metal band, but somewhere back in time they did release a folk album, titled Zobena Dziesma (Sword Songs). Every now and then the group repeats those performances. Having seen various line-up changes through the years, singer Peteris Kvetkovsis and bass player Edgars Grabovskis have gathered a talented bunch of singers around them. The band members are seated, playing traditional instruments today. Most of all they’ll be singing to us though.
For this performance they go through a long list of amazing songs. One of the classics is ‘Sen dzirdēju, nu ieraugu’, originally released on the first demo, but later recorded as a folk song. Each of the members has to sing a solo part. The new drummer Artūrs Jurjāns does get visibly nervous for his solo singing parts, but pulls it off very well. Like most Baltic songs chosen by Skyforger, the topic is war and the grief it brings to the families, loved ones and young men taken away to fight. So when they play the upbeat, energetic ‘Zobena dziesma’ people instantly start moving and clapping along. The back-bone of the folk set often is Edgars Grabovskis, who has a deep sonorous voice that reverberates like thunder when he chants the words of ‘Pār kalniņu Ūsiņš jāj’. Such a tremendous force comes from that man’s vocal chords. Thanks to the great playing, because any mistake could be pointed out now, the band demonstrates to be a great folk group as well.
Surprisingly, the group plays a cover by the band Vilki, a tribute to that highly influential group from their own native Latvia. The music of their song is a lot more playful and merry, which is a nice moment in the set. Singer Peteris shows he can also play the flute on this song. The set comes to a close with fan favorite ‘Migla, migla, rasa, rasa’. People carrying torches come out and the re-enactors climb the stage to join the band for one final song to end the first night with a powerful spectacle and some sword waving… and this is only day one.
We would therefor almost forget that Swedish Grimner is playing after Skyforger to a crowd that seems to be pretty loose now. More folk would really have been too much probably, so the Viking metal by this gang immediately hits home. It probably helps that singer Ted Sjulmark keeps encouraging the visitors to drink and pretty much mentions drinking every time he can. The band sort of plays as if they’ve had their share and sounds a lot more rowdy and feisty. Fitting, because that is the general mood as drinks flow freely and drinking horns are being raised repeatedly. This is going to be great.