Strumming the heartstrings
Archived Articles 12 Jan 2007  EWR
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Siilikesed / Ezisi / Hedgehogs. Estonian-Latvian folk music ensemble of Indianapolis. Hedgehogs, 2004, 66:48

Estonian folk music and the instruments used to play them strike a special chord for many of us born and living abroad, far from the places where both the melodies and the melody makers are still prevalent. The recent Toronto performances of kannel virtuoso Kristi Mühling rekindled an appreciation for not only the music and the instruments of our folk culture but also for those who keep this vibrant heritage alive.

The kannel is, as anyone who has tried can attest, not an easy instrument to play, never mind at Mühling's level. In folk music ensembles the kannel is often but not always the key instrument, entrusted with keeping the melody line. In recent times such foreign instruments as the accordion and guitar have become popular due to their great range of notes. Bagpipes, woodwinds and percussion instruments round out the traditional ensemble.

Many Torontonians no doubt recall the folk music ensemble assembled and led by Oskar Haamer decades ago which made numerous public performances. Under Haamer's tutelage even the clumsiest, ham-handed kannel-strummer did not have to lose heart. There was always the jauram, a curious looking percussion contraption known as either a devils' drum or bottle-cap rattle stick to play, and thus contribute to the skills of the kanneldajad.

Ain Haas of Indianapolis is a kannel enthusiast who not only builds the instruments and plays them very well but is, like Haamer was, a champion of our folk music, doing much to keep our heritage not only alive but authentically so. Ain's passion was no doubt the driving force behind the founding of Hedgehogs, the Estonian Latvian folk music ensemble of Indianapolis, in 2000. Their debut CD is a delightful treasure.. No coincidence that ever since Mühling's visit underlined once again the joys of listening to folk instruments played with emotion and skill, that this recording has been a frequent selection in my CD player.

Ain's liner notes serve as the best introduction to the group of Estonian, Latvian and other musicians in Indiana. The goals of the Hedgehogs "are to help preserve and to spread the awareness of the folk music of the immigrant communities from the Eastern Baltic area, to promote mutual appreciation of musical traditions across ethnic boundaries, and to inspire people to make and play old-style instruments. Our specialty is the presentation of medleys of similar or at least compatible tunes from different nationalities of northeastern Europe."

Why Hedgehogs ? The name recalls "rarely seen but fondly remembered creatures of our old homelands. These little animals can protect themselves by rolling up into a spiny ball. Thus they aptly symbolize Estonians' and Latvians' talent for self-preservation without being aggressive and dangerous to others."

The Siilikesed CD has 35 cuts and the recording's goal of reproducing the original sound of the acoustical instruments as closely as possible was realized without special effects or any enhancements. The sound is sublime, closing one's eyes makes it even more so. Here again Haas, who served as recording engineer and sound editor, shows his passion for the material and fidelity to the original culture.

The booklet accompanying the CD, in three languages (Estonian, Latvian, English, text by Haas and Iveta Asons), is a gem. Meticulous in documenting the ethnography and origin of the instruments and melodies, the text is complemented by a splendid selection of photos — once more, by Ain Haas— and illustrations by Ain's daughter Vaike Haas, who also designed the booklet.

This labour of love that strums on one's heartstrings comes highly recommended. It is available at the Toronto estore. Alternatively, contact the undersigned as intermediary for getting in touch with Ain Haas.
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