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Dita Belicka about the singer Aino Bāliņa

Dita Belicka

Life story of an Estonian — Latvian Ella Fitzgerald

A singer who has attracted far beyond just the foreign music fans with her low, dark voice. A singer with the true musical intelligence. A singer who was called Latvian Ella Fitzgerald.

Aino Lehmus was born on May 3, 1935 in an Estonian town called Türi, as a middle child. Her parents owned a little shop selling various goods, but it was lost, one of the versions — due to a fire. From her early childhood years, as far as she remembers herself, Aino always loved to sing and dance. She had been doing sports and studied ballet. Moved to a big city to learn English in the Pedagogical University of Tallinn. Languages have also been among the passions of Aino. There was a student jazz band «Integral» in the University that invited Aino to join them.

1955 was the beginning of a story about a tiny Estonian woman, who came to Latvia for the first time, just to participate in the competition of the Latvian and Estonian high-school students. When the competition was over and it was time for an unofficial part of the evening, Aino came up on stage to sing. She was accompanied by Ermens Bāliņš on the piano, a student of architectural studies. This was a very important evening not just to Aino and Ermens, but also a huge event for Latvia. It got an amazing singer.

In 1956 this love from the first sight resulted in a wedding. Aino was already pregnant with her daughter Ilona, so she moved to Latvia. At that time Ermens Bāliņš was a piano player at the Medicine workers’ club. He studied the piano at the Academy of Music, although didn’t graduate. Aino used to come to that club from time to time to sing at the dance evenings. One of the advantages of the singer were amazing English skills, which let her perform jazz in the original language more and more often. And between the jazz compositions the singer quite often did some songs by Estonian composers. Thanks to these evenings, Aino’s fame spread quickly. She still remembers the day when she was invited to the White Hall of the Philharmony to sing a jazz standard «Tee for Two» without a microphone. It was enough for Bāliņa to become a soloist of the Riga Estrada orchestra just after a couple of rehearsals.

In 1957 Aino was up on stage as a REO soloist for the first time. The audience was in awe, hearing a low, juicy mezzo soprano. This singing in Latvian had some strong accent, which the singer couldn’t get rid of, even though she learned to speak Latvian within two years, practicing at home all the time. Estonian accent was one of the reasons why she was seldom invited to participate in the recordings. Even though Latvian Radio has just a couple of her recordings, the singer has counted that her repertoire consisted of 150 songs overall. The first recording was done in 1958 — it was a song by Vladimir Shainsky «Good night».

That same year Aino also participated in a Soviet Union’s competition in Moscow. She was singing in Latvian, Estonian and English. The singer herself says that she loved singing in English and Estonian the most. She has always wanted to sing softly. Latvian was a bit too hard, but she also didn’t like Russian, even though she was singing a lot of songs in it. Talking about the aforementioned competition, there were some members of the jury representing Russian pop music scene present. One of them came up to Aino after the competition and told her: «The performance was great, but this is a competition of Soviet songs, not jazz standards». So Bāliņa didn’t get any further than the first round, but the audience was as much awed as always.

She worked at REO for a couple of years together with her husband, but later on Ermens quit music and got back to architecture. Aino though began touring a lot to many different cities in the Soviet Union, despite the fact that their daughter was still very young. Some of the tours lasted for three months. Latvian original compositions were accepted very warmly by the audience. Enthusiasm was so intense that the director of the Philharmony, Philip Shveiniks, couldn’t get away from her. Sometimes it was necessary to increase security measures. When REO went abroad for the first time, to Hungary, they played the whole program in Moscow beforehand, to the jury that made a decision whether such a repertoire was acceptable for the foreigners or not. Aino sang some complicated Spanish ballads, with some small dance elements in addition. The jury instantly banned the movements, but Bāliņa said she wasn’t able to sing without them, each movement was a note, a phrase. So she was allowed to keep them. During another trip when REO went to Georgia not just flowers were thrown on stage after the concert, but money as well. Besides, the Georgians threatened to steal the beautiful singer away. A reason for that partly was the fact that Aino moved graciously on the stage, instead of standing still. The ladies were mesmerised by Bāliņa’s fashion sense. REO salaries weren’t high. And everyone needed to invest the most of that money into stage costumes. So to save up some money, Aino learned how to sew the clothes herself.

They have established a nice collaboration with Ringolds Ore. The «Pavasara dziesmiņa» (Spring song) was probably composed especially for her. But when Egils Švarcs overtook REO she didn’t feel so comfortable in the ensemble anymore. Some competition began. Egils took his wife-to-be Larisa Mondrusa on stage, so Aino’s stable ground began to shift. Aino had to transfer to the ensemble «Riga» lead by Aleksandrs Kublinskis, at the same Philharmony. A bit later Margarita Vilcāne joined this same team, and Aino established a very good relationship with her. But they have argued a lot with Mondrusa. It was emotionally difficult. How can one go on stage and sing beautifully if you are being teased backstage so much? Aino Bāliņa had a great relationship with all colleagues, excluding soloists.

The biggest passion of Aino Bāliņa was jazz. Repertoire of Ella Fitzgerald was studied very carefully. Jazz classics was what she did the most since the end of the 1950. Among it — «Caravan» of the famous Duke Ellington. Soviet ideology didn’t accept jazz at all, but REO stuck to a big band program, no matter how it was called. The names of the compositions were changed, and Gunārs Rozenbergs or Raimonds Pauls were written as composers. This was the way how Aino Bāliņa could sing the repertoire she desired to.

In the middle of the 1960s it was the time for Raimonds Pauls to begin leading REO. These were huge changes, because Bāliņa couldn’t choose what and how to sing anymore. Latvian pop songs slowly began to appear, and jazz had to step aside, and Bāliņa along with it. Her last song as a part of REO was a fragment of George Gershwin’s opera «Porgy and Bess» in 1966. In total, nine years have passed on the stages of Riga and the whole Soviet Union together with REO. At one of the Moscow concerts Oleg Lundstrem noticed Aino Bāliņa and noted that he enjoyed her singing a lot, so he invited her to join his orchestra. The decision wasn’t easy to make because of the family that would stay behind in Latvia and REO which she couldn’t return to because of an ultimatum from Raimonds Pauls, stating that if she leaves, it would be for good. Although Bāliņa accepted the offer and went to Moscow, where she could again sing top-class jazz compositions for five years. It was a dream come true, at least in the beginning. After these five years she decided to return to Latvia. Huge intrigues have been all around in Moscow, and Bāliņa was tired of them. When she got back, it appeared that her husband was already with another woman. Their marriage wasn’t a rose garden. Ermens couldn’t stand that Aino didn’t read sheet music and it was impossible to talk professionally to her. Pauls didn’t accept her back as well, sticking to his promise. Aino Bāliņa still had a good relationship with Alnis Zaķis who invited her to record a couple of tunes at the radio.

Aino Bāliņa offered her services to Marks Gurmass, the leader of the «Jūras pērle» (Gem of the sea) musical evenings. Knowing who Aino Bāliņa was, he didn’t hesitate to add her to the line-up. As she said herself: «I had to be a slave at «Jūras pērle» for many years». The Spanish ballads she wanted to sing weren’t accepted due to their difficulty. She had to sing «Autodziesmiņa» (Auto song) which was amazingly accepted by the audience, but she didn’t like it. After these years of slavery she decided to return to Estonia and began working in Tallinn Philharmony, as a part of Vello Orumets orchestra. But there was no jazz there as well, she even stopped dreaming about it. Once back in Tallinn, Aino Bāliņa married for the second time — to a poet Heldur Karmo. Aino sang until 1980 at the Tallinn Philharmony until her mother got very ill and she had to take care of her. Singing wasn’t considered a proper job in the family, so her sisters didn’t even offer their help to Aino Bāliņa.

In 1982 the singer left the stage. Each song Aino Bāliņa ever sang is cherished by the singer, except the songs in Russian and those which she had to learn against her will, she couldn’t accept that. Aino Bāliņa’s work ethics was always on a very professional level, despite the fact that she couldn’t read sheet music. She didn’t have any musical education. Jazz was just in her veins. She was practicing hard on her own, listening to the recordings. She once got to a professional teacher, but he told her «Just do what you were doing before and don’t lose your interesting special tone». Before the concerts the singer got so nervous it sometimes even reached the level of a panic attack of sorts. But she never had any difficulties when already on stage. She never forgot the lyrics.

The singer herself said that she has been good with her voice and memory in music. Her colleagues have also admired her high-quality, neatly done work. Zigurds Linde said Aino Bāliņa had really deep and a heartfelt approach to every person. Beautiful, but complicated life was the one she led. There was the time she was labeled a traitor by Estonians, but later on, once she went to Moscow, Latvians began disliking her for that as well.

At the moment Aino Bāliņa lives in Tallinn, seldom contacting any of REO colleagues, as well as her daughter Ilona. She told me she is never going to return to Latvia. Even though the singer became famous here, she wasn’t understood well enough. Aino Bāliņa is in good health. Now she spends her days in her kitchen, as well as does some sports and walks a lot, and solves some word puzzles from time to time. One of her recent musical likings is a Canadian singer Michael Buble.

Sources used:
Radio show of Daiga Mazvērsīte «Singer Aino Bāliņa celebrates her anniversary today»
— Interview with Zigurds Linde
— Interview with Ilona Dreģe (Bāliņa)
— Interview with a host of REO program Genoveva Skangale (Šustiņa)