VISIONS OF ZHIVA IN VILNIUS
Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnelė, and the River Vilnelė has the right to flow by everyone, states the first article of the Užupis constitution. This formerly run-down district of Vilnius is now covered in graffiti and overfloats with quirky bars and artsy venues. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the removal of Lenin statues left many pedestals empty and people were keen to test their newly found freedom. The inhabitants of Užupis selected Frank Zappa as their patron and rallied to have his statue erected, and so the bemused authorities complied. In 1997, the jolly bunch of bohemians that Užupis people are decided that being part of independent Lithuania wasn’t enough and declared a republic of their own. Though it hasn’t been recognized by any government, this tongue-in-cheek act remains a long-lasting celebration of the absurd and attracts like-minded spirits from all over the world. The Užupis constitution enshrines rights such as:
Everyone has the right to appreciate their unimportance.
Sometimes everyone has the right to be unaware of their duties.
Everyone has the right to look after the dog until one of them dies.
A cat is not obliged to love its owner but must help in time of need.
While Užupis continues to be the creative heart of Vilnius, the laissez-faire atmosphere has spread further into the city. People seem to be comfortable with their own selves, they don’t try to be anything else (compared to Riga and Tallinn which came across as a bit tryhard in my opinion). The reasons for this might be rooted in history. Whereas the latter two were rich Hansa cities back in the day, it happened several times that people of Vilnius woke up to be living in another country than they went to bed in. Last such occurance was as late as 1920 when Poland annexed the region. Kaunas then became the temporary capital until Vilnius returned under the sovereignty of Lithuania in 1939. In that time, only about one percent of the population was Lithuanian – the city was historically split between the Poles, Russians, and Jews. Today the majority is Lithuanian, but the population remains diverse.
Before my trip to Vilnius, I was searching for some interesting Lithuanian bands and someone who would be able and willing to sit down for a drink and explain the particularities of the independent music scene in the small Baltic republic. I stumbled across an insider’s guide to Vilnius in the Guardian which turned out to be relevant still despite having been published three years back. I reached out to the author – an Englishman in Vilnius called George East – and I received a prompt reply. He’s not in the music business any longer but he’s keen to meet up and tell me all about the Lithuanian music scene. We were joined by his mate Mark Adam Harold who has been living in Vilnius for years and happens to be the director of Music Export Fund – an NGO which helps young musicians to jumpstart their career.
Our conversation centered around Lithuanian music history and the contemporary independent scene with the focus on rock because that’s not only the default genre for George and Mark but also the genre that continues to be hugely popular in this Baltic republic – there’s even an English language Wikipedia article on rock music in Lithuania. We talked about rock music as a means of dissent against the Soviet regime, about the sometimes awkward dialogue between the older and the younger generation and the obstacles young musicians in smaller countries face. We agreed that changes are underway – but some issues have roots so deep it will take a long time to pull them out.
Though we touched upon it several times, our conversation leaves out electronic music. It too has a long tradition in Lithuania, as homemade electronic tracks were less of a concern to Soviet authorities and the solitary nature of making electronic music suits the introverted nature of Lithuanians. Nowadays, Vilnius has a blooming techno scene – you can read about it here for example. The dynamics there is obviously different. As Mark puts it: “If you’re playing in a band, you are probably influenced by British and American music, if you’re doing electronics, you are probably influenced by Berlin. Roughly speaking.”
Bellow is a shortened version of our conversation which has been edited and divided into subtopics for clarity. Let’s begin with another genre that has a long tradition in Eastern Europe – jazz.
THE CRAFT OF PLAYING AN INSTRUMENT
George: The jazz scene is Poland is absolutely phenomenal. That stems back from like the 1930s and even during the communist occupation of Poland that was thriving so obviously when independence came, once again it was massively flourishing. We did an interview with a Polish band Jazzpospolita – which I think is a hilarious title. Here as well I believe there was quite a jazz scene, with Litvaks (Lithuanian Jews).
Mark: There’s definitely more jazz that I would have expected, it is an Eastern European thing. Also learning the craft of playing an instrument is very well respected which in London it’s not. In London, if you play the violin it’s like whatever but here if you play the violin you can also be a DJ.
George: I will probably get shot down for saying this but there is still this Soviet tradition of harnessing musical talent, not just electronics. You go to a conservatory and you learn how to play and you play the fuck out of something until you master it. And I think that’s really, let’s say positive. Not everybody can do that.
Mark: It’s a filter.
Mark: Taking the example of not being there much connection between Prague and Germany, is that because people don’t realize it’s that close or they don’t want to because it’s the East and that’s bad?
Nat: Not necessarily bad, surely not for the young generation. I think it’s more the case that people don’t understand the language and they don’t have any approaching point, anywhere where to start.
Mark: Does it make any difference when the band sings in English?
Nat: I don’t think the language the band sings in makes a huge difference. I would say it is more the matter of Germans not realizing they could go eastwards, they generally aim westwards – the Netherlands, France, the UK. From the Czech side, I think there’s this habit of looking up to the English speaking countries, so it doesn’t occur to many to have a look at what’s going on in Germany. With electronic music, it’s a different story of course. But for bands, Berlin is not the place to be.
George: From the Western angle, I believe this comes from the idea that this part of the world only produces Eurovision crap.
Mark: It’s probably the only time anyone has ever seen Czech, Lithuanian, Hungarian, Slovak band.
George: There’s a Lithuanian and a Latvian band who have been featured on BBC Radio 6 Music in the UK. The Lithuanian, Garbanotas Bosistas, whom I would describe as West Coast psychedelic rock, they are fucking brilliant.
Mark: The Latvian band produced a really high-quality video, they are called Carnival Youth, and I believe the song is called Never Have Enough.
“I WOULD RATHER CARRY THE VILNIUS FLAG”
Mark: It’s the hundred years since the post-WWI independence so we did a playlist of one hundred songs from the past one hundred years of Lithuanian music. And the culture ministry loved it and pushed it. I thought it would be hard to find a hundred but it was actually hard to choose when you start digging. The best thing was when we released it Lithuanians were really surprised – even they didn’t know what they have, let alone thinking of exporting Lithuanian music.
I also played the first ever DJ set of only Lithuanian music. Like 25 tracks mixed into a set at a festival. There was that kind of weird feeling that a foreigner did that. Even some people were angry that I’m promoting Lithuanian music cause I’m not Lithuanian. I just do it anyway.
For Easterners it is also hard to believe that a Westerner would be interested, it is a surprise. Why are you listening to Lithuanian music? You don’t understand the words!
George: Do you have an agenda? (laugh)
Mark: Why would you do that? You come from London, you have a lot of music. Why do you need our music?
George: That suspicion I think is very understandable. You’ve been occupied for 50 years. Some guys come along and start promoting your music… It’s a “who the hell are you” kind of thing. But that’s starting to die off now because younger musicians, they didn’t grow up in the USSR. The grew up in the European Union with the internet, it’s such a different country. There’s Schengen and for them it’s normal. It’s not to me, but probably for people who never experienced Calais ferry border control it is. No one even reminds people they are going into a different country.
Nat: It is all the more surprising there’s not more cooperations… but then I guess it takes time.
George: Sure, you can’t just flush away 50 years of occupation. But that’s why we now talk about cities. We’re not trying to expand into Ukraine and Belarus but to Minsk, Kiev, Lviv because we see Europe, even non-EU Europe, as a collection of cities. And the ones that are under a million inhabitants are even more interesting because there is a lot to discover. So if we could make that network of cities I would really like that. Because I love Vilnius, it’s not so much about Lithuania for me.
Mark: No. Not for me either.
George: I would never want to live in any other city in Lithuania. If I was to carry a flag I would rather carry the Vilnius flag than the Lithuanian one. I don’t think these musical movements come from the country, they come from the city.
Nat: I guess Lithuanian music scene is mainly Vilnius? How much of it is outside?
Mark: Urkmergė is a city of rock music, a big rock star was born there and they rebranded it Rockmergė and they did concerts with only bands from there.
George: It was like oh wow, now we have like Liverpool and Manchester, amazing (laugh). Anyway, these towns are small. Vilnius is half a million, the next city is like 350 thousand. But that city has almost no gigs at all so it’s hard to believe somewhere in the countryside some movement is gonna happen. People have to get together and play together, drink together, fight each other, live together, and that only happens in cities.
Mark: And of course people want to play. There are very few opportunities even in Vilnius compared to London or Berlin. Hardly anything. So if you’re in Ukmergė, there’s one bar that has gigs. I mean, how many times can you play your six songs? You would have to write songs every week. And you have to get five people in one room, not drunk.
George: And that’s quite difficult to do.
Mark: So we’re just looking at cities that are half a million to one million. If Paris wants to join us, that’s ok.
George: But we’re not going for that. Maybe they don’t need our help (laugh).
THE FOJE LEGACY
George: I am a rock music lover – I can show you my iTunes, it’s shocking – but I would say that there is a strong rock music movement here and I believe that comes from… There’s a band called Foje who were, let’s say one the leading lights of rock music, even during the Soviet occupation.
Mark: Very linked to the independence movement.
George: Their frontman, Andrius Mamontovas, wonderful gentleman…
Mark: We disagree on that.
George: We do disagree. I believe Foje was created in 1983 in Antakalnis, which is a district of Vilnius. In his biography, Mamontovas recalls chucking stones through the Soviet army blocks window. They were very anti. Very rebellious, which fits rock.
Mark: Rebellious techno, I’m sorry, is not gonna happen.
George: Maybe you’ve seen the list of banned music in the USSR and a lot of it was rock music, but somehow Foje managed to slip under the net. Maybe because it was just subtle digs, it wasn’t full on “fuck you USSR”. And Manotovas since then has become a massive inspiration for rock musicians. If you ask young musicians who are your inspirations, idols, they would probably say Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Andrius Mamontovas. So that’s quite an interesting thing.
Mark: The problem is that there are too many bands trying to sound like him.
George: Well, that’s the thing. There will only be one Mamontovas. It was 1997 when the band Foje break up, but their final concert in Vingis park got 197 thousand people in the audience. Considering the city is 500 hundred thousand and the population is three million, that’s a fair portion. Even people who didn’t like them went there.
Mark: If you scale that up to London, there’s like twenty times bigger population. So we’re talking about a million people at the gig.
George: He has a massive influence.
Mark: And he has supported young musicians.
George: He has and he’s done it well.
Mark: The reason why we disagree is that has done it more like continuing his legacy, whereas it should be more about bands who think he is shit and they want to do something new. It should be, it’s rock’n’roll. He was rebellious, he didn’t copy some twenty years previous master, he just did his own thing. And now he maybe needs to encourage people to do something he doesn’t like. But that’s just me, I’m not him. For the independence fight reason, he’s untouchable. But sometimes I think we’re still in that period, same elsewhere in Eastern Europe, that transition period between old and new. And there’s a little bit awkward conversation between the old and the new. Because the new guys don’t really want to say everything old is shit – because it wasn’t, it was the independence fight for the country, you can’t really say it was shit. Whereas in the West you can say, 1985 – that the fuck, that old shit. But 1985 in Lithuania that is automatic respect.
George: In the UK there wasn’t an independence fight they had to go through.
Mark: So they can totally diss the past, they can say: The old men are shit and we are the new generation.
George: The Beatles were shit up to 68. I can go on record with that.
Mark: When did they split up?
Mark: It took that long? (laugh)
THE ROLE OF LANGUAGES
Mark: That’s bands. If we compare the electronic scene, I think it’s easier to say that the old stuff is shit because there wasn’t that much of it. And they aren’t attacking national heroes if they say we are doing something new, it’s not disrespecful to the older generation. But in rock every single vocalist who opens his mouth sounds like the old school. It’s maybe respectful for the old school but it’s not music, it’s not healthy.
George: I’m gonna go with Mark on this one. One big problem I have is when Lithuanian musicians sing in English. It’s because I am a bit of a linguistic freak anyway so I like foreign languages. But it just comes across as a bit too try hard. I know you like Pink Floyd, I know you like Nirvana, I know you like Fleetwood Mac, stop trying to sound like them. And find this authenticity when people sing in their native language.
Mark: That you understand more what he wants to get across if he’s singing in a language he’s comfortable with rather than trying to sound like an English band in 2005. But if people say wow, you sound like that thing that I really love, that works really well locally. And we have to do a lot of talking to people like, you might be doing really well locally, but that’s three million people. And now the answer they found is that a lot of them go to China. Because China will pay a lot of money for an European boys playing guitars. They don’t care if you are from Vilnius or London, but that you are from Europe. You might be singing English, they don’t understand anyway – like I don’t understand Radiohead lyrics, it doesn’t matter. And that is working out, there is a really big export angle. And they don’t want to talk about it much, I think they are a bit embarrased to say we went to China to play a gig and it was really easy, we got money and everyone was really crazy for us. It’s too easy, like they want this suffering or something. But they should do it, they should get money from China and invest it here into a studio for example.
Nat: Speaking of languages, I see young musicians who grew up with the internet and English is natural for them.
George: Again, I will refer to rock music because it’s my default genre. The Latvian indie rock scene is very healthy because they sing in their own language, they are like, if you’re from Western Europe fuck you, I don’t care. They sing in their own language and it just comes across better, it’s more authentic – I mean I have no idea of Latvian at all.
Mark: You don’t need to. I found a statistics somewhere saying that 80% of people who listen to English language music don’t speak English.
George: Of course, it’s the world.
Mark: It’s seven billion people, not many of them understand English. Especially not well enough to hear rap lyrics or Radiohead songs. So no one really cares.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING ABLE TO LAUGH AT ONE’S OWN HISTORY
George: There’s this guy Šventitis bankuchenas which means “celebratory Baumkuchen”. It’s a Lithuanian tradition to eat Baumkuchen at Easter.
Mark: I think he’s being ironically patriotic by naming himself after a foreign thing that people think is Lithuanian.
George: Some two years ago he created this rap track, in Lithuanian, about the history of Lithuania from like the dot. All the dukes and kings, perestroika, occupation, everything. And the amount of people I have sent that to – just my friends, I haven’t done it on a commercial level – they were absolutely thrilled. They were like: Oh my god, this is fucking brilliant. I don’t mind that I don’t speak Lithuanian, it sounds great.
Mark: The reaction was generally: I want to know more. We did the subtitles for it in English. It’s done with cartoons and the figures from history are all like kind of hipsterish. It’s cool. And I think there’s gonna come a time when people are more relaxed about making fun of history, and that’s coming now. Young people who don’t have so deeply embedded this respect for history. So they can put a national hero on a skateboard and it’s ok. But ten years ago that would be viewed as insulting the nation.
George: Like, how dare you put him on a skateboard? That’s historically inaccurate! (laugh)
Mark: I always tell people we are very lucky to come from a country that had Monthy Python in the sixties who took the piss out of the British Empire, took the piss out of WWII. In the sixties – can you imagine that in Germany? That was not happening in Germany. We had that period, they made it ok. Seventy years ago we started taking piss out of ourselves. Lithuania three years ago released one thing like that – a long way to go.
George: Long way, but we will get there.
Mark: You need to certain amount of confidence in your future before you can laugh at your past. And it’s totally understandable that Lithuania doesn’t have that yet. It is understandable that Germany doesn’t have that, they have a long way to come back from.
DON’T DO IT ALL YOURSELF
Mark: Last ten years have been so much about do-it-yourself. Screw major labels, screw globalization, we just need a guitar and internet connection. And none of those bands are doing very well.
Mark: We never recommend musicians to do everything themselves. We recommend getting professional help here, here and here, taking it seriously. And a lot of them don’t want that and a lot of them actually want to suffer. That’s a big problem.
Nat: Do you reckon that has to do with Eastern European mentality?
Mark: Not even just that, it’s the same in England – unless you’re suffering and struggling against the system you’re not doing art. And if someone comes along – oh, I can fix your accounts and get you on Spotify and you can make more money – then it’s not artistic.
George: There is that bohemian thing that sort of hangs through.
Mark: But I’m sure it’s going away now. So many people have seen their friends fail with that system so they are not doing it. There are now actual managers who started to work here. It used to be zero. Or it used to be only the pop professionals. Now there are managers that are really good at supporting the musicians. And if more of that happens and they are successful the trend will change to: I am a real musician, I have a manager.
Nat: That’s another thing, in the Czech Republic, music is generally not considered a career. People who are in a band usually have a job and they are also in a band.
George: That’s the way here now as well.
Mark: Do they want to stay like that or do you think they want to make living with music?
Nat: For some music really is a hobby, not a desired career path. For some it might be what you said, they feel they would sell out or not be artistic enough if they played music professionally. But I think that’s fading away, there’s a lot of young people who do want to succeed.
Mark: When I was doing dance music parties there was this whole underground thing and there was a lot of people who didn’t want success. They were afraid of trying to be successful because they might fail so therefore they would rather make a little party and say this is a cool party because it’s small. And then they also say our music is brilliant and we need to show everyone our music but we will not make flyers because that wouldn’t be cool. That is… stupid. You think you’re underground, but you are in a bar with an alcohol license. The staff are paid and you are not paid, don’t you think that’s weird? Why shouldn’t you be paid, you’re part of the economy. That’s the next level that I think is happening right now and I think especially if we help people we will get there because it makes sense.
George: There’s enough talented people, there’s enough smart people, there’s enough self-believe now. That even when I came three years ago wasn’t there.
Europe is easy to travel but her cultures are hard to access if you don’t speak respective national languages. On similar grounds, it is not easy for musicians to reach listeners beyond their country of origin. Visions of Zhiva is an English speaking zine presenting artists from Central Europe to broader audiences.
Zhiva is the anglicised spelling of the name Živa (also Živena, Siwa). The Slavic goddess of life and fertility was worshipped in the region of today’s Poland, Germany, Czech Republic and Slovakia before the arrival of Christianity.