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A photographic journey by Olga Pīrāgs

Evilena Protektore

Olga Pīrāgs’s photographic stories of musicianship in the USSR, jazz, and life

Jazz music in the USSR was a pretty controversial style of music, but despite it all, it did have some tributes to it, for example — an encyclopedia titled «Jazz of USSR» («Советский Джаз»), where one could find a lot of interesting names and facts. Unfortunately, only a few Latvian jazz musicians got to be included in the encyclopedia, and Olga Pīrāgs is one of them. I had wanted to visit Olga for a chat for a while now because she indeed has a lot to say about playing jazz music in a regime that prohibited listening to this music, as well as other music that came from the Western world. Even if some foreign artists managed to tour in the USSR, local artists were rarely allowed to engage in conversations. And if, by any chance, they did get to speak with the guest artists, they would probably end up in the KGB for interrogation.
When I finally found the time to go to Olga’s place, I realized that she had given so many interviews that there’s little left to discuss, so I decided to use another approach — we took her vast collection of photographs she gathered during all her years of being a singer and went through those, engaging in memories of adventures, music, and life. So this article will be a photographic journey through everything Olga had lived through, felt, experienced. A little of nostalgia, a bit of this and that. Enjoy!

Further narration by Olga

This is a vocal ensemble of the Latvian Radio and Television where I have been working at the time. We had a lot of concert tours, of course, with the TV/Radio orchestra. Here you see Aija Kukule… And after each concert, there’s an afterparty, always!

This is a small line-up; Pauls [Raimonds] had also been there, Harijs Bašs. It was such a long time ago… Zigurds Rezevskis on drums, not only did he do comping for me, but he also wrote some wonderful songs! It’s maybe 1981 or 1982 — the same period as the Radio band. Although Harijs hadn’t been a part of the Radio Orchestra, he was sometimes invited as a guest artist. It was a regular practice to invite various guest artists to participate in different concerts, and then we’d play at other venues — concert halls, culture houses, factories, recorded music…

This is one of the concerts with the band «Inversija,» where both Pauls and Bašs played. They used to play ragtimes together, and I used to sing some pop music with them, world music hits. We regularly had to play «entertainment concerts»— parties, dance evenings.
All these people had played in the «Inversija» band – Uldis Marhilēvičs, Valdis Alviķis, Tadeušs Surgofts, Ēriks Kupčs… «Inversija» used to play jazzy music, we even did a couple of songs by Dunajevskis… Then they started playing more pop music with Aija [Kukule]. Harijs was our artistic leader, head of the band; he was always earnest about everything, was always on time and ready for the rehearsals, he came prepared. And he required the same attitude from the rest of the band. And this band, by the way, was considered amateur, the only one of our members had academic music education — Marhilevičs, and he often did our arrangements. Raimonds Pauls as well, of course, we played his arrangements very often.

This is a throwback to the movie they did once about me — «Dzied Olga Pīrāgs» (Olga Pīrāgs sings) – a 15-minute long film shot in 1982 by Dzintra Geka-Vaska. The movie’s shooting happened here on Mārupes street, there’s a building that now belongs to the baptist church, but it used to be National TV property in the USSR.
It used to be a famous TV format of a small sketch movie — a short interview and a couple of songs. I sang «The Man I Love» by Gershwin (but translated to Russian — «Любимый Мой»), then a tune by Zigmunds Lorencs’s «По коням» (Saddle up!), and the third one was a song by Raimonds Pauls «Māsa Kerija» (Sister Kerija)! Oh, that was so beautiful; Pauls played a long intro, and then I had an exquisite appearance; everything was staged so finely! But it was all filmed with a playback. No one played live at that time. However, I was quite adamant about singing live. It is a horrible way of performing — you have to have a precise lip-sync, but when you’re live, it’s so much more honest…

All different concerts… I don’t even remember all the people, honestly…

Ah, and this is my restaurant band! I did sing in restaurants as well, as you know. There was this restaurant called «Melodija» in the basement of «Latvija »hotel! Freds Mardžoliss had found me in some restaurant in Jurmala. It was when you had to participate in selections arranged by Jurmala Music Concert Union, who then decided in which restaurant you were best suited to sing. So it was serious then. A lot of musicians, a lot of ensembles, you can’t imagine that every restaurant, cafe, bar had live music back then, not like now… And there were wages for that as well! And so my band was sent to play in «Jūra» restaurant, across the street from the old «Lido,» there was this veranda with glass walls… I didn’t even get to spend a whole month there, a lot of musicians came to listen to me sing, and by the end of the month, I was lured away to «Melodija,» they gave me a massive Talmud [AN: the word is used to describe a huge book] of songs, told me to learn all the melodies. We had to sing some 5 hours in a row there, and sometimes I would stay there until 3 am. But it was a fantastic way to learn, and I did learn a lot then. Now I say to all my students that they have to find themselves a place to sing at because that’s the best way to practice! I worked there for a little over a year and then they had to invite another singer because I was invited to sing somewhere abroad.

All this was back in 1979; the lineup was made of Ivars Piļķis, who was actually a sound engineer, but played the bass in the band; Fred Mardžoliss on the piano, Valērijs Tarasenko on the drums, and Valērijs Gudzello on the guitar.
Actually, I wasn’t allowed to work there; I had received several reprimands about that from the TV committee… Because in the Societ times playing in bars wasn’t considered very respectable, almost indecent. Then, there was a situation once when Mardžoliss bought some excellent electric piano from some musicians from abroad, and it was deemed illegal. And as a punishment, the band was sent to play in a restaurant on the outskirts of the town, somewhere in Jugla district, a restaurant «Saule,» on the second floor of some building… I was almost gone from the band at that time, but sometimes managed to sing a couple of nights with them because I didn’t really care where to sing, I just wanted to make music. And then in 1981 I started touring abroad and couldn’t continue singing with the band.

This is a show called «Шире Круг» (A wider circle) on the central TV! A very famous show, a lot of young artists participated in it, I did as well, together with the «Inversija» band, we played «Chattanooga Choo Choo»! In this picture, you see Harijs Bašs and Inese Greste.

And this is a festival called «Sarkanā Krustnagliņa» (the red clove) in Sochi… it was an international youth festival that was, in fact, not an arts event, but rather a patriotic song contest. There was even a round dedicated to the politically patriotic songs. The participants were from all over the world, also from America and Columbia. The USSR was like that… And before that there was a festival in Dnepropetrovsk, the concert was filmed by TV, I participated there and got second place, but I was the only one who wasn’t included in the broadcast… Pauls had called me afterward and told me it was a technical error of some sort, a malfunction, and bad luck. But when I came to the «Sarkanā Krustnagliņa» festival and met the conductor Silantyev again, he said I’m a double fool… I sang the song «По Коням» in Dnepropetrovsk, an energetic tune with improvisation, some even called it a part-rock theme (AN: political party), but unfortunately, it didn’t fit the ideology of a political song contest… But at the «Sarkanā Krustnagliņa» competition the jury members were mainly from abroad, they were able to understand my performance, I sang the same tune as in Dnepropetrovsk. And I also got second place!

Another trip with the «Inversija» band! This time in 1981 to perform in the Central House of Writers. «Inversija,» Pauls and me. But the way we used to play together a lot, Pauls and I. He was also the one who told me that I have to try singing jazz. He told me that after he heard me singing one of the songs by Dunayewski during the «Liepājas Dzintars» (Great Amber) festival. A while later, Rozenbergs and Raubiško said the same thing. Rosenbergs even wrote some arrangements for me, and he was terrific at that. After the same «Liepājas Dzintars» festival, I was also invited to work at the Radio and Television Orchestra. And the orchestra was, in fact, a pop symphonic! The conductor was Alnis Zaķis alongside Gunārs Rozenbergs. Of course, Pauls had participated a lot as well. He used to write sheet music of the jazz tunes, just for me, because it was impossible to buy. He also did a lot of medleys of famous jazz tunes. And Rozenbergs arranges for me such songs as «Summertime,» «Basin Street Blues»… Rozenbergs was able to make a jazz arrangement of every single tune!

It took me a while to learn how to scat. I was timid. It was something very unusual, and I was clumsy at that. My first attempts to scat were transcribed from Ella Fitzgerald’s compositions — I learned her solos by heart. It all stayed with me, and I learned to use it together with my imagination, to improvise. But in the beginning, I knew all my solos by heart. I was very nervous that I would get the syllables wrong because they have to sound a certain way, appropriate!

And then, in 1985, after a festival in Yerevan, I was fired from the orchestra. They sent me to this festival in December, and while I was away, they arranged a competition for the soloist’s spot, where I couldn’t participate, naturally. When I came back, I found out I was fired. Because they had to free a spot to hire another singer, that wasn’t nice, but oh well, water under the bridge… Maybe that was even good for me because I was hired at a vacation center, «Asari,» right after that, and I managed to create my solo program with very different songs, and I would have up to 20 concerts per month! But the fact that they fired me in such a manner… that was unfair. My daughter was only one year old at the time; some said that I didn’t go on maternity leave because I was greedy and wanted to earn more money, what a shame. Some said that I was fired because I only sang in Russian, although it was Raimonds Pauls who decided that I would sing his songs for the Russian audience and Kukule would sing the same themes but in Latvian and to Latvians. In truth, they just decided not to use my resources, and that’s a pity, I had a very distinct timbre, tone, and it couldn’t be mistaken with anyone else. I also had a huge voice range, so…

And this is a jazz concert — Viktors Zelenkovs, Aleksandrs Akimovs, Genādijs Drops, and Jūlijs Smirnovs (now he goes by the name of Jurijs on Facebook, I don’t know why suddenly it’s like this…), he was the bandleader. This is the second half of 1980. It was the same back then as it is now — the musician who has a gig has to find his own lineup of the day. It’s different from the ensembles in the Philharmonics, like «Modo» or «Credo»; they mainly had the same lineup all the time.

I always call these lineups «Olga Pīrāgs un Just Friends.» We used to play in those setups in the «Allegro» club; it had a vast musical program, and this club didn’t follow the standard practice — usually, REKO (Рижское эстрадное концертное объединение — Riga music concert union) assigned a specific ensemble to a particular restaurant and that’s it. But it was different in «Allegro» — something new every night, a lot of jazz music and jam sessions.

Aleksandrs Smirnovs… I enjoyed playing with him a lot, and he was an extremely talented pianist! He was able to influence me telepathically; I don’t know, there was some odd connection. His comping was unique, truly remarkable! But not everyone enjoyed his manner of playing because it was special, very individual. He could stop playing right in the middle of the song, to make a long pause, but people wouldn’t know how to react to that…

And this is 1999. My god, it was such a long time ago, it’s astonishing… This concert was the anniversary of my musical life — 25 years on the stage. We had many different guest artists — «Mirage Jazz Orchestra,» Pauls, Raubiško, Rozenbergs, Laimis Rācenājs! I’ve seen so many exciting things in my life… But Rozenbergs… He really enjoyed dancing with me during concerts! During all the «Tutti» places, he used to come up to me, hug me, and we would dance…