Something’s at the edge of your mind, you don’t know what it is Something you were hoping to find, but you’re not sure what it is Then you hear the music and it all comes crystal clear
The music does the talking, says the things you want to hear
The world is full of compromise, the infinite red tape But the music’s got the magic, it’s your one chance for escape
Turn me on, turn me up, it’s your turn to dream A little magic power makes it better than it seems
I’m young now, I’m wild now, I want to be free
– Triumph from Allied Force
Song has been an integral part of Lithuania’s culture since ancient times. People connect the “Singing Revolution” with folk and national songs, but there is an equally important less noted component.
Rock & Roll n’ Revolution
It was 1988 and a carnival atmosphere permeated the concert grounds. As the bands prepared for their performance, people of all ages danced and sang folk songs, some greeting each other by waving the flag in their hand. As with any other concert anywhere in the world, the reporter talks to a member of a punk band to get a story. The musician stands with his bandmates in their punk clothing, holding a cigarette and waits. “So what are you thinking?” the reporter asks. He hesitates saying he doesn’t really want to say what’s on his mind. The reporter encourages him to speak.
“I don’t want to wind up in Siberia” he says.*
This is not a normal concert day anywhere. It’s 1988, it’s the Lithuanian SSR, and the national anthem and flag of independent Lithuania have been verboten since the second Soviet occupation. The fledgling independence movement has gained momentum and the rock and roll festivals are one of its most important components.
Mixed in with the euphoria is an element of fear.
Both the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards and Vaclav Havel (a big fan of the Stones) ascribed the disintegration of the Soviet Union to jeans and rock and roll. It was much more complicated than that, and it involved the participation of many different groups, people, and leaders, from the underground press, to political groups. As Andre Jimenez says, “Away from the fantasy world of easy-to-understand, black-and-white, single-story views of a conflict lays a world of complexity, depth and uncertainty. With the embrace of complexity we are able to discover that the way we seek to approach and work within a conflict must be incredibly flexible and diverse.” (Waging Nonviolence).
I’m sitting in front of over 300 articles, several books, and only a few of the interviews on our agenda for the portion of our film that covers rock in Lithuania and its influence on the independence movement. So much information, so little space. The blog format does not lend itself well to a thorough study of this subject, but we will bring you greater details about each decade and each band in subsequent blogs. This is just meant as an introduction to a major component of Lithuania’s independence history. Lost in this fact is the incredible talent, and ingenuity of the musicians and bands, and really great music created under difficult conditions… well, and there are some interesting paradoxes…
But don't let me convince you in words, listen to the music and see for yourself. The links are provided below this article. Also, research resources for this article and attributions are listed at the end of the blog.
So this summer, I had the opportunity to sit down with the lead singers of FOJE (Andrius Mamontovas) and Antis (Algirdas Kauspedas), two of the interviews we have on our agenda with influential musicians and bands. Both told me about their histories with music and the eventual roles they played in Lithuania’s independence movement in the late 1980’s, solely through their music. The interviews were lengthy, over two hours, and both p. Mamontovas, and p. Kauspedas were patient, genuinely nice people, and very interesting interviewees. In fact, each person we have interviewed has been patient, generous with their time (in spite of heavy schedules) and helpful in so many ways. In his book “Lithuanian Rock Pioneers, 1965-1980” (the most thorough study, with great interviews, especially for the 60’s to 70’s), Rokas Radzevičius talks about how one interview leads to so many others, and it’s hard to stop. Each is an important piece of the puzzle, and we are thankful to everyone that has helped us and continues to help us along this road.
Everything “new” has a historical foundation and roots. This is true of the Lithuanian independence movement, and of Lithuanian rock music as well. In his 1988 article for Metal Hammer about Lituanika 88 (to which he accompanied the German band – die Toten Hosen, and about which he gives a precise political analysis – more about that later), Edgar Kluesener says about Katedra “…these local matadors are technically and musically tops and better than 90% of their western colleagues (sorry boys but it’s true)…”. This was also true for bands like “Foje” and “Antis”. How was this development possible, for bands inside the Iron Curtain?”
Lithuanians never really resigned themselves to the occupation.
The early years of this time period were exceptionally difficult. Deportation and arrests continued, and the societal and economic fabric that had been woven between 1918 and 1940 was destroyed and replaced – private farms were converted to collectives owned by the state, private enterprises closed or nationalized and the entire political system subverted. Every endeavor was state controlled and only what the state permitted was allowed. This included music.
Jazz began appearing in the 50’s, mostly spread via the underground through bad recordings and bootleg records. As youth began to listen to western music via Voice of America and Radio Luxembourg, bands began to form and mushroom throughout Lithuania. Whereas in the west bands could learn from each other and collaborate and were free to create, even if not always accepted, they did not have to fear being carted off by the KGB at any given moment because of their allegedly anti-soviet lyrics. Such an arrest or a ban had deep repercussions in every way not just for the person, but the entire family and friends circle.
Some bands became more prominent than others, such as the Antaneliai (named after the head of the band), Gintareliai (the Ambers), Eglutes (the Firs) and were able to travel. Note that they were not known by these names officially since band names were believed by the authorities to have the ability to instigate revolt, they were called ensembles from x town. Outside of the USSR (satellite countries) they could sing what they wanted, but “subversive” lyrics were not permitted to be sung within it. Some bands went along with the system and had no issues, being allowed to create and perform was already positive, yet others could not go along with the system. Their lyrics were more rebellious and they also sang folks songs to the modern music (not permitted). They found ingenious ways to record, to create what they could not buy, such as guitars, and to leverage talent and creativity to such an extent, that they were able to create great music without the exchange of ideas with the west except at a very minimal level, if at all.
Prior to 1972 the USSR allowed an outlet for the new youth music, in fact some bands, including some that were more anti-Soviet, were members of and supported by philharmonic associations.
Things changed in 1972. Leaders felt things were getting out of hand in this area USSR-wide, and in Lithuania the self-immolation of Romas Kalanta inspired youth protests which led to a greater crackdown. This is well depicted in the gritty film Children from “Hotel America” (1990) from Raimundas Banionis. Taking place in Kaunas of 1972, it tells the story of a group of kids who listen to western radio stations and are able to hear some of the music in spite of the Soviet scrambling of these stations. They decide to organize a Woodstock like festival, but their dreams are cruelly annihilated by the authorities.
Still, the groups persevered during the 60’s and 70’s and formed the foundation for what was to come. Although much of their music and history no longer exists there are some recording, especially of the more prominent groups and I have provided a number of links to these on You Tube and elsewhere, below this blog. Its great music and worth listening to.
Western music, especially rock music, was not available commercially to the public at large. Records and tapes of western bands like AC/DC, Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones, Beatles etc. were shared via bootleg copies or records that were smuggled in. Rock music was generally feared and disliked by the regime because it promoted free thinking and the idea that one could express their views freely in public. The Party tried to mitigate this influence by allowing this music if it toed the party line. However, with the advent of Perestroika, the restrictions loosened somewhat, not because of the party or Gorbachev, but because the bands cleverly interpreted the loosened restrictions to mean what they needed them to mean. Tongue-in-cheek texts, and lyrics with double meanings led to overtly subversive music. The genie was out of the bottle, and although the authorities would try, and the bands would courageously resist, it would not be put back again.
One has to understand that previously one had to sit at a regime approved concert and just listen quietly and leave. When I sat down with lead singer Andrius Mamontovas, he told me that it was incredible just to be able to see people dancing at the concerts, something that really never took place at concerts before. For Andrius, the dancing and participation on the part of the people showed that change was already happening. In 1986, the film “Kazkas Atstitko” (Something Happened), featuring the groups “Foje”, “Antis”, and Vytautas Kernagis with “Artele” was played to packed audiences in theaters. It was the first time thousands of people could see a concert film, and not only was its popularity surprising, but the way it was produced was unusual. By some miracle the producer was able to get permissions from Moscow, and the Lithuanian film studios moved forward with a “musical” film. Because audiences were expected to behave like robots when in an enclosed space, it was decided to use an external environment.
The problem was getting the equipment and the help they needed. It was an open secret that one could get Russian soldiers to provide and do anything for bottles of liquor. And so, as Margarita Starkevičiūtė (see attribution below) describes, they got the equipment and the help. When over a thousand people arrived, the soldiers helped to cordon off the rather unstable stage, as the fans, like fans everywhere, began to rush the stage to hear better and get closer. One of the most famous Soviet concert organizers, Artemy Troitsky, who later included Antis and FOJE in festivals taking place in the USSR and the West, had come to observe one of the first such films being made in the Soviet Union, and made the following observation “You Balts are true Westerners that you can allow yourselves such a thing in the Soviet Union. That kind of freedom does not exist in Russia.” That was it exactly. Lithuanians were allowing themselves the right to freedom, a right which they did not have to ask for. But would have to fight for.
Although opinions differ between bands and experts as to the degree of the political nature of the festivals and concerts that took place between 1986 and 1991 (and we will cover these in much greater detail and analysis in upcoming blogs), those of observers do not, not just Trotsky but others as well. By 1986, with the emergence of the Lituanika concerts, which included both bands within and outside of the USSR, rock music had exploded onto the scene in Lithuania, and not just any kind of protest rock music, it was primarily political, however subtle or intentionless. Kluesener writes in Metal Hammer “…when some Komsomol members wanted to organize the first show in 1986 they were faced with bitter resistance from within the Komsomol and the Party. Some of the bands were designated as anti-Soviet and banned from playing. ..The organizers did not allow this to stop them. The result was that the entire project was considered anti-Soviet. It took place anyway.” (With great success). Kluesener writes further “Lituanika also stands for Lithuania, for a strong national movement.” He goes on the explain the history of the occupation(s), the reason for the freedom movement, and adds, “The festival had a political dimension from the beginning, which was evident to all including the participating bands… [This] showed where Lithuania was going. The train was moving in the direction of freedom. Where it would end up was not clear at all.” Knowing this, the bands who played had a lot of courage to get up on stage, sing the forbidden national anthem acapella while holding the forbidden flag, and then go on and perform, knowing that they could be arrested on a whim.
In fact, you can see the discomfort of rock band leaders with regards to the authorities and their traps, and the feeling of walking a tightrope, in the following two videos: 1) Foje’s leader Andrius Mamontovas is being interviewed on a youth music show in 1988. Between the pretty words, the host basically asks him if his song’s lyrics result from something “missing” in his life. He asks him if he thinks he’ll find it, and the songs will change, if he doesn’t feel that this “something missing” won’t create a problem down the road for his music. The implication is that he has a problem, and perhaps the host is trying to elicit a more political response. The extremely popular “Foje” was performing in the Roko Marsai and Lituanika concerts during this time. Mamontovas remains in a defensive body position throughout the interview, with his arm across his chest tightly holding on to his other elbow. He does not relax until he gets on stage; 2) in the documentary “How We Played Revolution” the group “Antis” is invited to the USSR music TV show the “Music Ring”. The show’s format contains a Q&A portion, and the band’s leader, Algirdas Kauspedas, is asked why he sings in Lithuanian. The audience member goes on to say that everyone is Russian there and they can’t understand what he is singing about or against, and maybe he is singing in Lithuanian because the songs are no longer relevant. And then he asks Kauspedas the zinger question, and it becomes clearly obvious that the question is politically loaded. He is asked if he is a “nationalist”. So there they are, in Moscow, on one of the only two TV channels, being seen by 250 million people, in the hornet’s nest. Kauspedas uses a classic non-violence tactic, he disarms his opponent by addressing him as “friend” and then goes on to ask him to define “nationalist” saying that this is a complex term. The audience, who whistled and booed at the question, claps and Antis goes on to their number “Ša, Inteligente” which contains some of the most openly system-critical lyrics:
The subsequent Lituanika concerts were equally, if not more, political and pro-independence, and even more successful, because the music was really great – something that is missed when one considers these concerts only in a political and historical context.
See for yourself at this link: http://www.discogs.com/Various-Lituanika-87/master/324701
The most prominent bands at these concerts were Antis, Bix, Foje, and Katedra (more about the bands their history in our upcoming blogs). Antis lead singer, Algirdas Kauspedas, Andrius Mamontovas of Foje, Povilas Meskela of Katedra, and Samas Urbonavicius of Bix, organized a unique concert form: The Rock Marches or Roko Marsai of 1987, 1988, 1989. The idea was to bring the concerts to the people, rather than having the people come to a concert to see a group. Most concerts were held in larger cities which people from the country could not attend. The Roko Marsai were traveling shows that not only brought music to the far reaches of Lithuania but the burgeoning idea of independence. The courage of the musicians in carrying and giving out the flag, and singing the anthem with people wherever they stopped inspired people to participate and go to the performances. They risked arrest and worse, but there was no turning back. Footage from the Roko Marsai shows how the young musicians offer the flag to elderly farmers, and ask them “so what do you think of our young folk? Can they sing the national hymn well?” The bands traveled with their families and children and spread the flag with self-confidence, bolstering the courage of the older folk who repeatedly referred to the ban on both the flag, and the national hymn, which the musicians sang acapella, often repeating the lyrics to those they visited. In this way they brought the people together, young and old can be seen at their performances, and helped to unite the nation for what was to come. They had been told that under Perestroika they would be allowed to speak, and they were going to speak.
Although the 1987 Roko Marsas was about expression of freedom for young people and rock and roll it already had a political flavor. The Roko Marsai of 1988 and 1989 were much more politicized in the wake of the formation of Sajudis and the Singing Revolution. Performances were prefaced by the banned national hymn, and during the concerts, the bands called for the closure of Soviet military basis and plants, remembered the fallen partisans and those imprisoned in and exiled to the ends of the Soviet empire, reminded the people about the illegality of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and called the people together. In fact, the latter two Marsai were intertwined with the Sajudis movement, with the lead singer of Antis becoming a member of the founding group of Sajudis (voted in without his knowledge and being notified while on stage) and putting Antis on hold while he became director of Lithuanian Television between 1990 and 1991. The 1989 Roko Marsas in particular was exceptional because Lithuanian music groups came from around the world including the United States and Canada. It was once in a life time. In various interviews in LRT’s documentary about the Roko Marsai, and the film “How we Played Revolution”, lead singers Kauspedas, Mamontovas, Meskela, and Urbonavicius talk about the bands and families being a family, how as they traveled they sang folk songs. The footage shows a relaxed atmosphere. They discuss how freedom seemed like such an unattainable goal at first that they did not believe it could happen and they did not give substance to the dream at first. But then things changed and the marches began to bring the people together, and provide them a place where they could gather. All four express in different ways how the music, the lyrics, and the symbols struck a deep emotional chord within people moving them towards the resistance that would eventually bring independence. In the LRT documentary Mamontovas clarifies, “…the system separated us and the concerts brought us together…people of the same mind who wanted change were no longer alone with their thoughts…when we stand together we cannot be moved…”.
The documentary tells us that no one has studied just how influential the 1987 Roko Marsas was in consolidating the people. Guntis Smidchens writes “Singing, and particularly singing with groups, is an intensely personal experience of bonding with other individual humans. The experience strengthens self-esteem, love, and individual courage. Without individual courage (multiplied by thousands), in 1991 there would not have been thousands of people standing on the barricades in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, unarmed, ready to receive their Soviet adversary’s violence, hoping to awaken their attackers’ conscience. The leaders of the independence movements depended on this show of strength, the “people power” which stood around them.” The bands knew this intuitively, they had repeatedly experienced the effect of music on their audiences, and they leveraged this for independence. They did not expect less of themselves when it came to crunch time. Kauspedas and Mamontovas stood with the people in front of the TV tower on January 13th, 1991.
HOW WE PLAYED THE REVOLUTION (Kaip Mes Zaideme Revoliucija) (Documentary): Giedrė Žickytė 2011 (www.filmai.es)
Lietuvos Rokas: Ištakos ir Radio": Mindaugas Paleckis
Vaikai iš Amerikos viešbučio 1990 Children of Hotel America (Feature Film)