This day one year ago we had just arrived in Vilnius, Lithuania, for Griežynė, an ‘international festival of instrumental folklore’. Sounded exciting but we had no idea what we had let our selves in for… I kid you not, the quantities of food, drink and ridiculousness described in this diary are not exaggerated. One of the best and most surreal experiences of my life!
Wild Troupe Tour Diary pt.2: Griežynė
The second gig (or rather set of gigs) on the tour did not take place in geographical order but instead involved another lengthy drive back down the road to the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. Somehow through email alone we had managed to get on the bill of an ‘international festival of instrumental folklore’ called Griežynė (meaning ‘fiddle’, as in a violin, in Lithuanian). Now, we aren’t an instrumental band but we do have a few instrumental jigs and reels (that would probably be grand), we are international and we do like folklore so we were rather excited to be involved. They were even giving us hotel accommodation and meals so it sounded like a tidy deal. The festival ran from Wednesday through to Sunday with us instructed to play a 30-40 minute set on the Thursday and 10-15 minutes on Friday, Saturday and Sunday – a slightly strange structure but we assumed it would become clear when we got there for the welcome events on Wednesday.
We set off from Tallinn at approximately 7 pm on Tuesday with the intention of getting at least half way down Latvia that night and leaving about 3 hours of driving for the following day. It was nearly 10 pm as we approached the Estonia-Latvia border when Aoife suddenly said “I hope I don’t need my passport, I’ve just realised I left it at the hostel”. The first reaction from Georgina and I was obviously “You total idiot! You’re so careless…” but we were cut short with the realisation from Georgina: “Oh wait, actually we left ours at the hostel too”. Lesson one about life on the open road: never turn back, unless you forget your passports. After our last escapades on the Lithuanian border we didn’t fancy taking any chances and threw a U-turn. The kettle was put on and a coffee was made on the go. At midnight we arrived back in Red’s and Sean (the night-shifter) told us they had noticed we had forgotten them just after we left, but Aoife owned no mobile phone and no one had our numbers so they couldn’t let us know. So, once again we set off from Tallinn and found a service station to stay overnight in north of Pärnu (about 2 hours less down the road than we had hoped to be before the following day’s drive). We had the joys of a shortened sleep (due to driving later into the night and needing to leave 2 hours earlier in the morning) with 3 of us for the first time, and the services were actually shut so it was time for Georgina and Aoife to practise their wild peeing. Georgina has a phrase when someone is annoyed or in a foul mood – ‘They’re stinking of piss’ – well, that was an appropriate time to use that phrase.
The following day saw some long miles covered with a few relatively uneventful stops along the way to buy Rimi cheese twist pastries, in road works traffic and to get fuel (which I think might have been red diesel). We never needed the passports in the end. The final drive into Vilnius was the most memorable: we had seen a fair share of Soviet architecture in Tallinn, but this was dwarfed by the concrete fangs of tower blocks that rose up all around the main road into Vilnius. There were so many of them, often with little balconies sticking out like warts from the grey sides. After several miles(!) of tower blocks we disappeared through a belt of trees and down a steep hill which revealed a very different sight. Directly in front of us the sun was slipping low in the sky, illuminating a small group of glass skyscrapers with the river and the spires of the old town behind. It was very much the contrast of what we had just driven through. When we got to Ecotel Vilnius (which had secure parking – happy days) we realised we had no idea who Arūnas (the lad we had been in email contact with) was, whether the hotel would know anything about Griežynė or if the whole thing was a big ruse and we had been stood up (wouldn’t be the first time in my life it has happened). The folks at reception seemed to vaguely understand who we were and handed us a goody bag.
As they passed us the keys they said the rooms were in twos, and gestured one to the girls and informed me I would have someone else sharing with me when they arrived later. We thought it would make more sense if Georgina and I had one room, but we started questioning if the organisers might be the strongly religious types that like to keep the temptation of the opposite sex in different rooms. It also seemed that Aoife might soon be joined by an eastern European gentleman – nice! We thought we would cross that bridge when we got to it. We went up to the rooms to check our goody bag. Inside we found loads of CDs, maps of Vilnius, a festival poster, a program and a participants’ itinerary. Nervous laughter turned to mild disbelief as we read the itinerary.
First up, we had missed today’s activity because we were later down the road had planned. The next day we were meeting at 10 am to go to the ‘Teacher’s House’, and we were instructed to “bring our instruments and performance costumes”. Good one. On the Friday we were to do a presentation on our instruments and the nature of playing in our country’s musical tradition in a seminar with the other artists, hosted by a doctor of ethnomusicology at the University of Vilnius. Wonderful. We were also to play two short sets (not one) on each of the last two days, and it was also now apparent that the focus was quite strongly on the instrumental folk music, great news when you currently have about three jigs in the set list. The program also gave us information on the other acts we would be sharing the stage with: accordion laureates, instrument makers, music teachers and ‘masters’ of instruments we’d never even heard of. No pressure then. To top it all off, our free dinner was in half an hour in a bar on the other side of town, so we had to drop everything and go before we locked ourselves into the hotel room in fear. Our main glimmer of hope was that we were playing our first (long) set in the “beer bar” (a.k.a. Šnekutis), which sounded like a nice relaxed setting. We were due to have our meals there too with the Polish band that was on the line-up. Probably should have practised more at the toll booths on the way over.
We made it to Šnekutis about half an hour late. It was a cool rustic looking bar with a healthy vibe and bartenders who spoke very limited English. After poorly attempting to say “Griežynė festival” we were directed to a large table down the back where our Polish friends were already eating. We made our introductions to Mateusz, Piotr, Robert and Ola who claimed to speak little or no English. We reassured them it would be better than our Polish. Mateusz did the talking for most of them at first but gradually the others pitched in too. They were actually pretty good! The bar staff came to collect their soup bowls and bring second courses to them, and gave us menus. We asked for soup also and some beers (with a simple choice of light, dark sweet and dark bitter) and started looking at the menus. Soup came some time later and we broke the news to the Polish friends about the ‘performance costumes’ and instrument presentation. They looked equally surprised/confused, so at least we wouldn’t be the only ones winging it a bit. After a long wait with the empty soup bowls sitting in front of us we realised that table service wasn’t how the bar worked and in fact we were meant to order at the bar (we had just been lucky at intercepting the staff before). We went up to order mains only to find that the healthy vibe in the bar had put in lots of orders and the kitchen wasn’t taking anymore before it closed. Sweet, a small bowl of beetroot soup was our dinner. Mateusz sweet talked them into replacing our main meals with beer instead – a suitable enough compromise. Once we had redeemed all of our free drinks we decided to head back to the hotel. We planned to get a Subway while the Polish friends would get beers from a supermarket to drink in the hotel lobby. The supermarket was shut, but after being falsely led to believe they would accept euros (they were changing from Litas in January and all the prices were listed in both) at least we got our Subway. Aoife ended up having no roommate, which she was rather pleased about: it was the first time she had had a room to herself in months. A good night’s sleep was had.
The following morning, our missed dinner was remedied by a very large breakfast. A quick practice in the back of the van allowed us to brainstorm some more instrumental song ideas. We gathered our instruments (but left our performing costumes) and headed into town. We were then given an hour or so of free time to explore Vilnius before lunch (a quick meal turnaround). We went to the square by the town hall and got a pint in the sun – solid. We met back up with the Polish friends for lunch at Šnekutis and ordered a pint and two potato pancakes each. Thanks to the language barrier that meant we actually ordered two portions, each of two pancakes, so rather embarrassingly we had to send half back as they were very heavy going!
Our next stop was at a workshop round the corner with a folk artist and instrument maker. We managed to be late to that as well because it was pretty tricky to find. The place was cool – lots of wood sculptures and some hand crafted instruments and the craftsman was describing his work (through the means of a translator). We got to meet Arūnas and Algirdas for the first time here (who looked slightly like Brains from Thunderbirds and a sheriff respectively). They seemed really genuinely pleased to meet us (also through a translator). Today was going reasonably well so far, time for a celebration. The craftsman led us into the next room which had several bottles of liqueur and many shot glasses sitting on a handcrafted table. A whiskey coloured drink was poured and offered straight to us. Unsure whether it was a sipper or a shooter we just knocked it back. It tasted strange and we asked what it was: “I make it myself”. Nice. So he had a collection of poitín flavoured with oak pieces, cranberries, barley and other things floating in the bottles. Naturally we had to try them all – pretty good going, given it was only about 1 in the afternoon.
Next up we had a guided tour of the museum of music, theatre and cinema, which was reasonably interesting at the time – but not much of it stuck in my mind. The most exciting thing was that the seminar host ethnomusicologist came along to contribute and help with translations. We headed upstairs for a performance of Lithuanian violinists. A small but well filled room, with a crowd politely watching different (mostly old) people play music that sounded pretty similar. We got to see Arūnas and Algirdas play (concertina and violin respectively) which was cool – they were tight. Aoife also yawned directly at the ethnomusicologist lady during her performance, who apologised for keeping the audience awake, which was rather awkward. By now a good three hours had passed without food or alcohol so we were sent back to Šnekutis with the Poles for dinner and our performances.
This evening we were at a table right at the front, and we had the Sheriff with us organising proceedings. By now the bar men were getting pretty sick of us and our lack of ability to speak Lithuanian and constant requests for free food and drinks. We were still full from our potato pancakes at lunch so we opted for just some dumplings and garlic bread to share. The garlic bread was black, dense, cooked in garlic oil with raw garlic pressed all over it. It would physically take the skin out of your mouth and it lingered for days. Through a very strange coincidence a Californian-Chinese guy we met in Tallinn also happened to be in Šnekutis – he had one night in Vilnius and he chose to spend it with us. You might call that pure chance, but I say it was fate. Then the music started; the Polish band was on and so we had our first experience of Polish polka music – some of it was very fun. They also had a Lithuanian girl on a strange bodhrán /tambourine thing – an instrument we were going to become more familiar with as the weekend went on.
It was time for our stinky (garlicy) performance. Unfortunately they had no microphones, either they couldn’t do it for logistical reasons (we were being hurried off the stage at a strict curfew when a basketball match was starting on the screen behind the stage: Lithuanians love basketball apparently, and it was a world cup match) or they thought microphones were not necessary for instrumental bands. Anyway, we did what we could without them, shouting as loud as possible. We ran a few medleys for the first time to increase the number of instrumental jigs included in the set. It was a bit nervey but we got there and the others seemed to enjoy it. The Sherriff kept asking was everything okay for us, seeming a little concerned that either we were outraged that we didn’t have mics or that we were underfed, but we just kept asking if we (and our performance) were okay for him. Apparently it was, and they gave us more free pints and taught us ‘eesvigata’.
The following morning we had more free time before the activities started. On the bus to the Teacher’s House the Sherriff asked the Polish band if they would perform on Lithuanian national television, on some sort of Graham Norton style chat show. We were sitting behind Mateusz and co on the bus and we were outraged that they didn’t seem keener about the idea – I would have retired from music a happy man being able to say I was on Lithuanian TV! He tried persuading the Sherriff to have us instead and grumbling that it wasn’t in the contract, but the Sherriff insisted (they were a lot more traditional, and only used stringed instruments in the spirit of the festival, so we weren’t too annoyed). In our free time before lunch instead of more pints we decided to go up the university bell tower. It was a beautiful day and the tower had glorious views over the old town and its hundreds (or at least seemingly so) of red roofed church spires. We were then back to Šnekutis again for lunch with the Poles (still complaining the TV show wasn’t in the contract); luckily the bar staff had changed so the same lads didn’t get even more sick of us.
Next we were back at the Teacher’s House for the ‘presentation of instruments’ seminar, so what we were going to bullshit our talk with occupied most of our chat over lunch. We wrote down a few pointers: that we play mostly Irish folk (really, we only play about 50% Irish folk), often it tells a story so we do a lot of singing (does it really?), everyone learns it at the pub hence we aren’t all music students (this is kind of true), Aoife is to deal with all technical music/instrument related questions by saying lots of words and if all else fails rope them into some ceili dancing (this bit seemed fine). Sorted. That was pretty much what we did – or rather Aoife did because once she started talking it was hard to contribute a word! We were around the fourth group to present and so far we had heard about extinct medieval instruments, Hungarian dance halls and people whose grandfather basically shaped their local folk music. There was a hurdy gurdy and bagpipes and a Latvian guy called Erik whose voice was louder than bagpipes. Maybe the host took it easy on us with the questions as clearly the technical content of our presentation was a bit light, and perhaps being native English speakers meant she couldn’t make sly jabs at grammar/vocab errors which she seemed to do a little with some of the other bands (who were doing really well given they don’t normally speak English) but we got off pretty easy – and the dancing was a bit of a laugh too.
After we escaped from the seminar we had a bit of time in the courtyard of the Teacher’s House and a photo of all the bands taken together out the front. We used the chance to practice our newly formed mega set of 6 or so songs all together. We wanted to get this one right, as we hadn’t dazzled anybody yet between Šnekutis and our ceili dancing waffle. We headed up to the main hall to find a stage time listing up in the backstage area. Apparently we were on last – not sure if we could really call that headlining but we decided that was the case. Just the simple task of following the professionals and folklore laureates. Everyone else looked very serious in their performance costumes. Some of the music was good, some was interesting, some was pretty heavy going, but the hall was big and the crowd was pretty large and receptive. It was basically like the folk music version of Eurovision and we were the UK representatives, amongst Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Belarussians, Hungarians and Poles. When our time came round, we were introduced in Lithuanian (hopefully they said something nice): “Wild Trop!” The set went down well with only a few slip ups on our part, and the reception was good and we were asked to play one more (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0xzyO7a6zmg). The Irish Washerwoman/Paddy on the Railroad combo saw the evening out in style (the Sherriff had said he liked that one the night before).
After the show we went to the ‘solemn dinner’, presumably a mistranslation of ‘formal’ on the itinerary, at a local fancy restaurant. There was more free booze, huge platters of bread, meats and pickles and sophisticated chat with our fellow performers (some of whom were disappointingly boring). We watched the Poles on TV and gave them a hero’s welcome when they arrived, we were given a certificate saying something in Lithuanian about preserving folklore traditions and we watched people eat raw garlic cloves like sweets (which brought back bad memories of the Šnekutis garlic bread). A very solid day was had by all.
The following morning we were set to leave Vilnius to travel north to the Panevėžys district of Lithuania. We had no idea where this was, so we stocked up on another hearty hotel breakfast before being bundled onto a coach and driven off into the countryside. Before too long we stopped in a very small village Upytė at the local community hall/culture centre/school. We had some time to sit on the grass and admire the quiet surroundings and plan set lists before being given more lunch (and shots) in the community hall. We were then driven just outside the village to a traditional craft fair where people were selling really nice looking jams, pickles, breads, cheeses and crafts. There was an amazing wood carver, but we didn’t really have space for a giant carved sculpture in the van. After a brief look around the stalls we were ushered over to the small main building, in front of which a sound man had now put up some mics (an unusual stage). We were each to take it in turns to play another 10 minute set, and we recycled our 6 song medley. By this stage we were starting to familiarise ourselves with some of the other acts and their set lists – the young Latvian group had a ridiculously catchy song called ‘Gari Gari Meži’ which means ‘Long Long Forest’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrBXlHf2iHQ ), the Hungarian duo started every set/10 minute medley the same way but we think varied it after that (although the dynamic was pretty similar with 10 minutes of solid hurdy-gurdy and bagpipes; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eNntj8XgF68) and Rob from the Polish band appeared to hug his cello/bass instrument and only play one note in every song. It was very tempting to have a nap on the grass…
Once the music was done we immediately got back on the bus before being driven further around the countryside. The second stop of the day was in a slightly bigger village called Bernatonys. We were the hired in music to play at a rather happening cheese festival, Sūrio šventė. It turned out there were free cans of beer on the bus so we took a few of those in. We were taken to a building at the back of the park that the festival was being held in where we were offered more free beers and somewhere to leave our instruments. Then, in a back room, we were offered a cheese buffet – all the types of cheese you could imagine, with pickles, cheesey breads and cheese soup. It was good. We weren’t sure if this was meant to be dinner, so we ate as much cheese as we could handle, then went out to watch the music.
The stage was a good size and there was a decent crowd too sitting around on hay bales eating cheese. They even had a smoke machine! There was a band on when we arrived with some old guys dressed up in all the gear with lots of instruments. Then it was the Griežynė Eurovision show time. We were up last once again, but this time we asked if Algirdas the Sheriff wanted to come up and play with us. He had said before that he loved Tell Me Ma and taught it to his violin students so he was game enough. So we decided to play that at the end of the set and he joined us with a kazoo and the locals loved it. We were cheered to play another song; the Sheriff got his fiddle and another local with a bazouki got up on stage with us. We decided that things were going well enough to crack out a non-traditional folk song in the interests of having a good time and closed with Faces by 3 Daft Monkeys which went down amazingly well. We got many smiles and congratulations from the cheese loving locals as we gathered our things and went to the bus. The organisers commended our reading of the crowd and stepping it up for the last song. We were even gifted a wheel of smoked hard cheese which was really stinky (in a kind of good way – but not to have to carry around in your guitar bag for the following day and a half). More cans of beer and back on the bus.
Thank you gift: cheese so stinky it had to live outside the van.
Our accommodation for the night was a hotel/motel/wedding venue with an attached restaurant/bar called Uliūnai in Ramygala mun. It was pretty nice, and we chilled out/showered briefly before being brought down for more platters of food in the bar. Lithuania was in the basketball world cup semi-final against the USA on the TV, so the locals were pretty glued to that. Apparently it is a festival tradition to have a jamming session that evening so we obliged and brought the instruments down. We played Hills of Connemara (by this point though it wasn’t much of a surprise, I think everyone had already heard it 3 times). We jammed a little bit with the Polish band which went alright, but our rhythm wasn’t quite to Piotr’s satisfaction (it should have been 1, 2, 3, not 1, 2, 3). Anyway, we got through it and it was fine, we had plenty of beers so it was good. It was getting late and it had been a pretty hectic few days so when the bar was packing up and Arūnas and Algirdas were calling it a day we were ready for bed. We were brushing teeth etc., when Arūnas’s niece came up to find us. “Why are you going to bed? We’re going to keep playing music out on the terrace. Let’s party, it’ll be fun (even though we only have about 3 beers left, we might be able to find more)”. Georgina and Aoife were having none of it. I know not to make Georgina cranky when she’s sleepy, and this was the first time of the whole trip Aoife had optionally called it a night instead of drinking so I knew things were getting serious! There was no point trying to negotiate with them but I went down to represent Wild Troupe. It was dark, and there wasn’t much beer left at all, and I had really played all the decent folk songs I knew already, but it was still reasonable craic to stay out for a bit.
The next morning we were due to have breakfast in the restaurant. Aoife wasn’t interested (still full from the 4 meals the previous day) but Georgina and I went down to see what was on offer. Pancakes with sour cream were the on the menu – nice and filling, just what we needed. We chilled outside in the wedding venue garden (there had been a wedding on the night before) in the sun before our next bus trip to a culture centre in a village called Velžys. It was a big hall, and it looked pretty grey and old school. We were given more free CDs and more food (we were starting to wonder if it was a joke at this point) – this food, however, was special. It was a creamy stuffed chicken thing with rice and stuff. I can’t remember the details but we all agreed it was bonkers. Despite the food abuse we had already put ourselves through, Georgina went back for seconds. Desert was some doubtful fruit cocktail thing with bits of twig in it; we weren’t sure how you were really supposed to eat/drink it. Anyway, more shots made everything perfect ready for our penultimate Griežynė gig.
This one was on a Sunday early-afternoon and it looked like the punters had come straight out of church in their Sunday best. They were pretty old and it was a bit subdued, and we didn’t have to work too hard at the gig. One or two of the acts had already left and we were noticing more about those who remained: bagpipe man sweated a LOT while he played (he definitely had the toughest instrument) and the loud-voiced Latvian guy never changed his jumper once (luckily he wasn’t sweating as much as the bagpipe man – it was a nice jumper to be fair). Just before we left we went to make use of the toilet. One appeared to be out of order – the door was locked and no one had been going in or out as we were standing in line waiting to use the other. After a good 10 or 15 minutes our Latvian friend came out of the cubicle, leaving a trail of devastation in his wake. Apparently the food abuse was getting to him too.
We were on the bus to the final gig venue, the most mysterious yet, called ‘Angel Valley’ in Miežiškiai. It was a beautiful day. We arrived in a desolate village – not a soul was about, and were pointed to a park with some big trees across a little river and told that was where we were playing. We walked through the village up to another cultural centre for more food, and stopped at the local shop to buy some beers to have with the meal. We had more creamy chicken stuff (although this wasn’t quite as good as the earlier one) but didn’t need to drink our beer because they gave us some. We left ours sitting at the side. After the meal and more homemade shots we left to go the gig only to find one of the Hungarians had stolen one of our beers. We’re not trying to be accusational, he just was blatantly drinking it as we walked back down the road. Anyway, we don’t like confrontations so we just let it be…
Angel Valley: not a bad spot for a gig…
The gig itself was right on the river bank on a small, low stage affair with lots of logs/wooden benches laid out for seats (kind of like the Campfire Stage at Sunflowerfest ,if you have ever been). There was a marquee set up and the folks from the culture centre started bringing over platters of buffet food which we assumed was for the punters. We were also totally stuffed and didn’t need to eat just yet. A small but nice crowd gathered on the logs and as the sun got low in the sky shafts of golden light broke through the trees illuminating small clouds of midgeys by the river. It really was a beautiful place. Algirdas played one more song with us, and then after doing so well yesterday at reading the crowd we pushed our luck too far trying to play Faces again – the crowd was way too chilled! Well, it was still fun to try and end with a bang and a nice way to round off our festival appearances.
Homemade vodka, Angel Valley, sunset, hammered.
When we were finished (we were the last act) we were informed the food was in fact for us (I think over-feeding guests is some sort of crazy Lithuanian joke). The locals then cracked out accordions and other instruments and singing us their songs, giving us crazy amounts of homemade shots (one woman had a tray of them providing a constant supply – I must have had at least 5, not even exaggerating). The vibe in Angel Valley went from really chilled to a crazy Lithuanian folk rave in a matter of minutes (Faces had been just too early…). Soon we were surrounded by people dancing, singing and trying to teach us the ‘mmm ahhh’ chorus. We were just getting warmed up when Arūnas and Algirdas started trying to usher us towards the bus. We didn’t really want to go, and the locals didn’t want us to go, but it was starting to get dark – the woman with the shots followed us onto the bus. On the bus we were slightly shell-shocked by the surreal experience we had just had. The woman was still trying to give us shots when the bus started to drive off! She shouted at the driver to stop, who rolled his eyes; he was probably having an awful time as the designated driver. As it turned out though, the night was still just kicking off…
More homemade vodka and the reaction to the homemade vodka.
Just when we thought it couldn’t get any more surreal (and drunken), the organisers announced they had more thank you gifts for us. A lot of the bands had already left and gone home rather than returning to Vilnius so it was just us, the Poles, the Hungarians and some Lithuanians left on the bus. The organisers kindly gave us a half bottle of Lithuanian vodka per band, which we thought was a nice gift to have over our travels. However, the sound of lids cracking open further towards the back of the bus signalled the Poles and Hungarians had other ideas, so naturally we had to join them. Then Arūnas got his concertina out and played each band a specially selected song, before just letting rip into a full set in the middle of the bus (ably accompanied by Algirdas on the kazoo). So we found ourselves driving through the Lithuanian countryside in the dark, slugging vodka from the bottle, attempting to make up the words to Gari Gari Meži at our own private gig – actually mental.
Locals singing and teaching us songs.
We got back to Ecotel in Vilnius at some god awful time in the night (maybe midnight, but we had been drinking for a long time). Arūnas and Algirdas (legends) said their farewells, and the bus left. It was unsurprising that we were soon to be found slumped on the sofas in the hotel lobby drinking Glenmorangie with our new Polish and Hungarian friends. Gradually we fragmented off to bed – Piotr did a proper Irish man’s exit and slunk off without saying a word, Mateusz lost his ability to speak English and we heard some strong opinions on feminism from our Hungarian friend who kept referring to the Glenmorangie as ‘the mother in law whiskey’ because Georgina’s mum gave it to me. It was time to call it an evening… No holiday will ever, ever compare. I have my application ready to sign up for Griežynė 2016.