The delightful Latvian seaside town of Jūrmala has been a recherché summer destination for the rich and famous since Tsarist times. Situated only 25 kilometres from Riga, Jūrmala has undergone several transformations in its often turbulent history. Idle Russian grand dukes were eventually replaced by Bollinger Bolsheviks such as Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev. Later, lesser Communist Party comrades were rewarded with holidays at this beautifully forested resort on the Gulf of Riga.

Egari © Kaspars Balamovskis
© Kaspars Balamovskis

Nowadays furtive Russian oligarchs emerge from enormous semi-fortified Newport Rhode Island-style mansions to rub shoulders with egalitarian Latvians, voluble German tourists and their mildly bibulous Baltic neighbours. From the outset, social life in Jūrmala was centred on the local swimming club, which in 1878 raised money to build the town’s first outdoor concert venue in the Dzintari district. This was no aquatic a cappella ensemble but rather a civilized clique of culturally aware music lovers who were looking for something more than Écarté in the long summer evenings. Orchestral concerts were most favoured.

The original premises have long since gone, but the tradition of summer music remains and this year’s six day Jūrmala Festival presented an eclectic potpourri of music and theatre ranging from dramatic renditions to Italian opera and hits from Broadway musicals. An early offering in the impressive Tanglewood-like open-sided roofed 2,150 seat auditorium was the ethno-jazz ensemble Egari from Georgia which really redefined “boy band”. The age range was probably well over 35 years, and included a father and son combination. Age certainly didn’t weary these talented musicians – the energy level from all performers was electric and the wildly enthusiastic audience responded with equal voltage.

Jaba Margvelani playing the gudastviri © Kaspars Balamovskis
Jaba Margvelani playing the gudastviri
© Kaspars Balamovskis
Georgian folk music and songs were played on traditional instruments such as the gudastviri (a porcine-looking bagpipe without a drone); choghuri (a fretless 3-string plucked bouzouki-ish creature with an additional drone string); chromatic panduri (a ubiquitous three-stringed strummed highland instrument) and salamuri which is an antideluvian avian-sounding Georgian flute with a remarkable range. Most of these unfamiliar instruments were deftly played by the band’s leader Jaba Margvelani. He also made a number of introductions in Russian which a considerable portion of the audience understood and appreciated.

A cappella polyphonic singing plays a big part in Georgian musical life, and there was certainly a lot of that as well. It was regrettable that there was no translation of the texts for non-Georgian speakers in the audience but the sense of exuberance or melancholy was certainly palpable. There was also no programme for the concert which was even more lamentable as more information about this unique ensemble and their individual genre of music would have been welcome. A kind of casual rough and ready matey atmosphere on the stage belied the taut musical cohesion of the ethno-jazz band.

Supplementing the exotic instrumentation and virtuosic single violin were two electric keyboards, an electric bass guitar and an assortment of traditional ‘dolis’ and drums, brilliantly played by Saba Khizanishvili. This immensely talented percussionist not only kept impeccable time in the complex rhythmic changes but showed great sensitivity and subtlety in the quieter slower passages.

This was music which combined the authenticity of traditional Georgian folk songs with the improvisational skills of modern jazz. Rhythms were particularly eclectic ranging from Bob Marley-ish gentle syncopation  and what could be best described as ‘Georgian flamenco’ to heavy thumpy 4/4 marcarto. The blend of Caucacus folkloric with contemporary extemporised melodies and electronic amplification was indeed singular and the fusion was infectious. Adding to the fun was veteran dancer David Skhirtladze whose rapid staccato steps and occasional dagger throwing were a visual treat to compliment the exceptionally accomplished musicianship.

Unlike many outdoor venues where uncomfortable wooden bleachers or rock hard plastic chairs make even an average-length symphony something of an ordeal for both posterior and posture, the better seats in the Dzintari auditorium are actually extremely comfortable padded leather armchairs... much nicer than the pillories in the Royal Festival Hall.

The opportunity to listen to extremely original music making whilst enjoying the adjacent vista of verdant forests in the gentle light of an endless Baltic Abendrot is yet another reason to celebrate this remarkable Festival and its unique, 'bucolic by the beach' setting. Those idle Russian grand dukes certainly knew quality when they found it.