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    Kokle master preserves 'the sound of a Latvian soul'

2005-11-04 06:24

The only kokle master in the world, Imants Robeznieks, 57,  makes a kokle  a string instrument unique to the Baltic state of Latvia  in his workshop in Riga, Latvia. (AFP)

RIGA: Imants Robeznieks had been working 14-hour days, seven days a week for longer than he cared to remember in order to prepare for a two-day music festival that began on October 28 and featured the kokle, a string instrument unique to the Baltic state of Latvia.

"The kokle is my lifelong love," said Robeznieks, 57, the only kokle master in the world.

He describes kokle music as "the sound of a Latvian soul" melancholic, smooth and deep.

Robeznieks conducts his love affair with the kokle which bears similarities to the harpsichord or harp and is a close relative of Lithuania's kankle and Finland's kantele in a tiny, dusty room in the backyard of a library in Riga, the Latvian capital.

"The kokle has unique features," he said. "Its sound is softer and deeper than those of Finnish or Lithuanian instruments."

The oldest kokle a rectangular instrument with between seven and 33 strings dates back to the 16th century.

Kokle music helped Latvians to maintain their national pride during almost five decades of Soviet occupation after World War II, when kokle players gathered together in song festivals and other concerts, dressed up in national costumes.

During the Soviet occupation, kokles were made at a Riga musical instrument factory, mainly from leftover materials used for pianos.

"Masters used to secretly smuggle some screws from a Soviet military factory," Robeznieks said, smiling at the memory.

The more technical kokles have a system of screws and switches up to 272 for the most complicated instruments.

"I think that Soviet officials just closed their eyes to the traffic," Robeznieks said.

When Latvia regained its independence in 1991, many factories, including the one where kokles were made, were destroyed. In the mid-1990s, no one made the traditional instrument.

"People called me and begged me to fix old kokles or to make new ones," he said. "I started to do it again and now I have a queue of clients for almost five years."

Working flat-out, he can make one instrument a month, he said.

There are only about 500 kokles in Latvia today, and demand for the instrument outstrips supply.

He said the first step is finding the best material for a kokle.

"It's really not easy," he said. "Wherever I see a demolished wooden building, I ask people to have a look at old boards. I also have a wood processing company, which kindly stops its work for a while and lets me search for the most resonant boards. I could spend all day knocking boards to hear what sound they make."

He explained that wood conducts sound five times faster than air.

"The best trees for traditional Latvian kokles are Canadian maple, or maples which have grown in some regions of Ukraine or Romania."

Once he finds the right wood, Robeznieks makes the instrument's frame and resonators. He decorates his kokles with traditional ornaments, and fixes its strings and special screws.

"I do it in absolute silence and concentrate on my work," he said, lovingly surveying his kokles through thick glasses. "One-hundredth of a millimetre is important for a clear sound."

The master is passing on his craft to two apprentices.

"We have to continue kokle-making, so I want to teach my craft to others," he said. "When I see that Latvian kokle players receive international prizes, it's the best reward for the job."

(China Daily 11/04/2005 page13)


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