Latvian rockers play with fire

Some Latvian rock groups are playing with lyrical fire. Authorities in Soviet Latvia are worried that songs with politically loaded texts in Latvian are a possible source of social unrest among youths.

Pop and rock music have been officially accepted for more than a decade, but a new generation of Latvian rock bands has appeared, playing music and singing lyrics that stir up nationalist feelings and critical attitudes toward the Soviet system.

The Soviet Lativian press has complained about youth dances with live music, called ''discoteques'' in Soviet jargon, where certain songs stimulate ''free association, punk tendencies, and the shouting of nationalist slogans,'' according to an official Latvian Communist youth newspaper.

Latvian emigre sources report that on at least one occasion a concert at a seaside resort was followed by disorders in which Latvian youths shouted nationalist slogans. The youths picked fights with Russians living in the republic and with the police. The song's lyrics, performed by the now disbanded rock group ''Modo,'' included the name ''Latvia'' in its refrain.

So far, Soviet Latvian authorities have kept ''suspicious'' musical ensembles in check. Since 1981, Latvian rock groups have had their performances screened by a special jury that can restrict where groups may perform.

''There are limitations on the groups, on how widely they can tour and perform in Latvia,'' says Dainis Mjartans, a recent emigre from Latvia living in West Germany who still maintains ties with the Latvian music scene. ''The real repression is against the audience,'' he adds.

Most bands present repertoires that contain little or nothing that is questionable on the surface. But other musicians apparently play entirely underground, inviting friends to private performances. They perform punk rock and other musical styles that have been criticized as ''artistically immature'' in the official Latvian press.

The Latvian rock movement started in the late 1970s and was influenced by rock music in western Europe, where many groups in Germany, France, and Italy abandoned singing in English in favor of lyrics in their native languages.

A Latvian rock guitarist who emigrated in 1973 recalls that as late as the early 1970s English used to be the preferred language for Latvian rock musicians taking a provocative stance. Some would even sing English phonetically without understanding the language, he said.

But the newer, semiofficial rock groups choose to follow their West European counterparts and sing in their native language. This tendency surfaced simultaneously with a renewed, grass-roots interest in Latvian folklore that authorities fear may be a cover for nationalist feelings.

A record album of Latvian rock music, created from tapes smuggled out of the country, was issued in late July by Latvian emigres in Hamburg under the ''KGB'' label, an abbreviation for ''Cultural Preservation Society'' in Latvian. The label is obviously intended as a jab at the Soviet secret police (KGB), which sets the standard for music censorship.

This is not to say that Latvian groups do not make records inside the USSR. ''Zodiac,'' an electronic music group that is one of most popular groups in the Soviet Union, has cut two records. And most of the music from a rock opera by a group called ''Dalderi'' has recently been recorded.

The dominate group on the album is ''Perkons'' (Thunder), which is considered to be the most popular rock group amongst Latvian youth.

Perkons' songs on the record deal mainly with alcoholism and environmental pollution, subjects which are officially encouraged. But although Perkons got a certificate of merit for ''social and political themes'' in mid-July at an official rock festival in the port city of Liepaja, the authorities have ambivalent feelings about the group.

And so Perkons is restricted to performing in small concert halls in Latvia. At the Liepaja event, the official program didn't contain the group's popular name, but listed it under the collective farm that is sponsors it.

According to Mjartans, Perkons has played to an audience of 20,000 - in Estonia, where very few listeners could understand the Latvian language. Such lines as ''Nothing in this life is fatter/ than the pigs that we must honor'' passed without recognition.

Perkons often performs in odd costumes and uses fireworks on stage to accentuate its music. Mjartans calls Perkons ''an uncompromising group, committed to its own music and uninterested in being a commercial success.''

Commercial success, in Soviet terms, means an official record album, bookings in the best concert halls, and publicity in the state-controlled press.

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