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On new generation, dreams and a blues club

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«Blues House» and Jānis Bukovskis: this club is vital for me, and it’s also a job that doesn’t allow you to relax even for a moment

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Every person in Latvia who loves blues music has heard of Jānis Bukovskis or Buks — that is what his bluesy colleagues love to call him. I as well have been following him and his ensemble, Latvian Blues Band, although I met him only in late 2022. Right away, it was clear that in his everyday life and on stage, his energy and charisma are what charm you from the start — a talented guitarist, vocalist, songwriter, experienced bluesman, and now also a club owner. Since last October in Riga, a new club opened its doors to the public, «Blues House» — a place where blues, soul, and jazz music lovers, and, of course, musicians, meet. I met up with Buks on a Thursday night, a couple of hours before he went on stage to perform.

On the way to this meeting, a sudden thought struck me — every musician has dreamed of his own club, maybe for a brief second, but still…

Exactly. Also, I and the Latvian Blues Band, while still performing in «Bites Blūza klubs», where we have grown up playing with countless artists and bluesmen. I have seen it all from the sidelines, how it works, and also gained some experience, both on stage and on the organizational side of things. If you have the right people surrounding you, then it’s like a hand of god guiding you, and then you only have to answer one question — when, if not now? You have to understand that for us musicians, knowing music things is one, but apart from that, there are at least three more factors you need to take into consideration — bar, paperwork, kitchen — these things require people you trust. I am very lucky to have my team — my wife deals with bookkeeping and paperwork, has vast experience leading a catering business, and has experience in bar works. While I can appreciate the bar from a design point of view or order a whiskey with cola, the reality is not that simple — the calculations involved, the finer details, nuances, it’s a whole new world.

So those discoveries come with opening your own club, but did you have a notion that it would not be that easy?

I had a feeling, yes. It’s a different world, different math. It’s like if I were to go to a bar and suddenly take the barman’s place doing what he does. What do I know about it? Absolutely nothing. It’s more than pouring 100 grams of vodka. Similar would be if a barman suddenly went on stage and said he knew how to do everything there. These are two different worlds and arts. So it’s even more crucial that everyone has his place. That concerns also those who dream of their own club or par — you can dream as much as you want, but remember that there’s also this invisible side of things, and it’s crucial; you can’t survive without it. For example — the process that precedes the opening of the club, all the bureaucracy, licenses, and paperwork. It’s amazing to step into the freshly opened club and rejoice, but it is a long way to get there, and you can’t do it on your own; you need help.

Yes, I agree that the first thing you pay attention to is the design — how beautiful the place is, the club’s atmosphere. I know that you and the Latvian Blues Band have traveled a lot and played concerts in European and American blues clubs; maybe something you experienced there has inspired you to design your club here.

Of course, a lot depends on the space, and here we were very lucky that we didn’t have to do anything with the walls because the old brick says it all. But we do have a lot of visual experience gained abroad. Sure, we can’t compare what we have here to what we have seen in, let’s say, Chicago, where we have performed in various clubs — their spaces are so old and old-school, they are active since the 70ies, the space has to live through a lot to get to that stage, because where can you buy worn out boards of the floors that has holes that might suck your boots in? [laughs] Another nuance from America that European musicians will not understand is that Americans don’t bother that much about stage equipment, like monitors. I know that Kingston Mines blues club in Chicago has only one monitor — no one cares whether you hear yourself or not; just do your thing, and play! Also, in Chicago, in Rosa’s Lounge, where we played multiple times, they don’t have monitors at all.

Looks like we, Latvians, are pretty demanding concerning the sound equipment.

Not only in Latvia but in Europe — the sound engineering level on our side of the ocean is high. We have been to IBC (International Blues Challenge) several times, it’s an event in Memphis where around 160 blues bands from all over the world perform in a showcase of sorts; there are event organizers, festivals, and recording labels in the audience, so even that competition-like event had very poor sound equipment level. Imagine a pianist coming to perform, and he is given a Casio synthesizer with soft keys to play boodie… so, yeah, like that. But of course, it’s their motherland and an integral part of this bohemian feeling that you can only catch there.

But to conclude the part about the club’s design — it was clear to us what we wanted and needed. For instance — the basement was an obvious choice because new and modern vibes just wouldn’t do. Of course, it was also vital for us to have a central location, a terrace, and car access. But the main thing, and a problem as well, was to combine the perfect location with making a lot of noise.

But you have chosen a challenging location — between embassies…

Yes, but it’s also a good location because everybody around ends their workdays around 5 pm, and we can start doing our thing. There’s the ambassador of Kazakhstan right above us, so once he came for a visit during the soundcheck… but everything turned out fine, somehow we managed to get along. Apart from that, everything is fine, if we open the doors, all the sound goes towards the Congress hall, towards the park, no one is bothered by that. That was the main problem while searching for the right place — we always had someone above us, some apartments. We were considering another location, but there was a complaint from the landlord as soon as the first guitar chords were played.

Finding the right name for the club is also very important, especially talking about a music club, because the name will stay, and it has to resonate with the listeners from the very first day. It’s hard to imagine a better name for such a place than a «Blues House».

Yes, well, the name didn’t come in a day’s time; it was a whole process. We had a lot of options to choose from — the «Saloon», variations of my nickname «Buks’», and so on. It was challenging for my wife and me, we had long and hot discussions with a lot of emotion involved. Somehow «Blues House» appeared. I remember it was similar to Latvian Blues Band’s song «Five minutes too late» — my bandmates and I literally gave birth to this song’s title after changing it 17 times! [laughs]

Well, great, you have found the perfect space and name, and now you’re already in your fifth month of being open. How is it going so far? Do you already have listeners who attend events at the Blues House on a regular basis? Or are there a lot of new faces each time?

We have both regulars and newcomers. A great part of our regulars come from the times of the Bite Blues club, but recently, we started seeing some tourists. I’m sure that in summer we’ll be having even more foreigners. We are truly glad to have people from abroad here since we had quite a fun time with Google Maps — it was a hustle to place us on the map. But now we’re there, and everything is fine.

Aigars Lapsa

And what about the listeners? Do the musicians, young and old, come to the concerts?

Yes, of course! We have been experimenting with the program, with different concepts, since the first day to better understand what attracts the listeners. We have also started a jam session tradition every Tuesday night. My experience with jamming was pretty disappointing; I think jam sessions have to be well organized, cultural events so that they wouldn’t become something where playing louder than another is a thing, where solos are a hundred forms long, etc. Somehow this was the tendency of the blue jams I have experienced. I want for the listeners and participants to discover something new every time they attend a jam session. I don’t want to see them leaving after the third song. When we did the first jam night, I was pleasantly surprised — we had around 12 jammers in attendance! At some point, I had the feeling that we, bluesmen, are a dying out breed, like dinosaurs, but no, looks like we’re not; I see young musicians aged 17 and up, who can play some decent blues, one even sang some! I thought I might play something and then go home, but find myself staying till the end, it’s always very interesting. The new generation is vital, and stage sons are the ones we create. One thing is when you stay at home and play by yourself, another thing is when you have to go on stage and do the same, to express yourself. I was surprised that we have people here, and things happen!

For example, the guitarist, Rūdolfs Ozols, we have trusted him to play concerts with a freshly admitted artist Justina Lee Brown, because once, twice, three times we have heard him playing and singing, and we know that he knows how to go on stage and be like a rock there, he knows his thing, he can play the guitar, he knows blues. Similar story with Miķelis Vanags, who we can trust with playing two or three sets; he has his own material at the ready. Do you know what makes me happy? Young people know who Muddy Waters, Juniors Wells, and others are; they know the blues tradition, and it’s not such a complicated thing. Once, Carlos Johnson said to me: «Nobody wants another BB King or Stevie Ray Vaughan, you gotta be your own, make your style as good but new»; which basically means that you have to know the roots of blues music, what is your starting point; just like the modern Johnny Land, Joe Bonamassa — if they were asked to play something from the blues tradition, they would be able to do that with their eyes closed.

What about the development of the blues here in Latvia, but also in Europe, how different is it from the USA?

We are most definitely different. We, Europeans, have better techniques. Let’s be honest here, Afro-Americans usually have the advantage of their charm and charisma but are lazy. I’m not saying that all of them are, but mostly for them, it’s a God-given talent; it comes naturally from within. It’s hard for Europeans to get recognition. We have to work really hard for that, to be considered true bluesmen. Even now, being a club owner, I sometimes hear someone saying things like: «Is this blues? Can blues even be played by someone else but Afro-American?» Such opinions are a downer and aren’t really competent — blues is a state of mind, means of self-expression, it can be done by everyone who knows how to.

Talking about the concerts you have already hosted in the club during those last couple of months — there were not only local bands but also artists from abroad. Was it your decision to regularly invite foreign artists and let our Latvian listeners get acquainted with them?

It wasn’t an ultimatum decision, I try looking at it from a business point of view — the program should be dynamic enough because the club has to survive somehow. Up until now, every artist from abroad that came to perform at the Blues House was either my friend or a colleague with whom I have friendly relationships. It’s artists that I’ve met at various festivals; I’m like a Latvian booking agent for them, I have contacts of musicians in Chicago and Europe, and I know their fees and repertoire. This, of course, isn’t easy because everything involved, like plane tickets, hotels, meals, and artist fees, comes with a known risk. In the end, people who hold dear things like that don’t drive around in S-class Mercedes cars, they also don’t have villas in Baltezers. You have to love your job very much; either way, you will not be able to go through everything and stay sane; it’s a very scrupulous job. You have to always be on top of things, and it will not bring you millions in cash. I as well had to put my creativity on hold because the club requires a lot of input; it’s like a child — it takes time to raise it, then you can continue living your life.

And if this article is read by some young musician that is willing to perform in the Blues House, how can he get on stage? Is there a showcase or some conditions — how do the practicalities work? How do you select the musicians? I have heard that you try avoiding repertoire in the Latvian language; why so?

Yes, well, my answer will be from a promoter’s point of view, a club owner’s — one thing is when guys can come to the club and play something beautifully, doesn’t matter what language to songs are in, if they are able to attract the listener and keep their attention, if they have their fan base, then I have no objections, it’s a common practice worldwide. I remember when we (the Latvian Blues Band) participated in the first IBS — in order to get there, you had to win in the Baltic Blues Challenge, where all the bands were from the Baltic Sea region. Among those were musicians from Germany, and it didn’t go well for them — just imagine singing blues in German… I remember clearly how the producers, quite cynically but clearly, told the musicians — what are you going to do in the States with your German language? If this music is international, you have to consider that. If you’re planning to base your career in, for instance, Latvia, then sure, sing blues in Latvian, but the moment you want to step out into the world, the choice is clear. There are always exceptions, of course, but you get the drift.

It’s curious that it is slightly different in the jazz world — a lot of people are attracted to this exotic jazz that is being, for example, sung in different languages or some original music; any way you can highlight your authenticity…

I have to admit that the freedom jazz has is wider and bigger. If we stick with the blues form or with the shuffle rhythm, it gets complicated — I tried a couple of times to sing in Latvian and it seems like the alphabet doesn’t want to play along; it seems long-ish. Anyway, I don’t condemn singing in Latvian; I’m only being pragmatic, it’s that simple.

Ok, so how do youngsters get on the Blues House’s stage? Do they need to email you or send you their recordings or what?

First of all — come to the jam session. Secondly, you have to have at least a 2×45-minute program. Of course, I would be glad if you already had a fan base. Another thing musicians definitely have to do, and we always remind them of that, they have to work on their PR. Ok, it’s the 21st century, and it’s easier now, but I still remember the early 2000ths, and there were no social media whatsoever, no Facebook, no Instagram. So we worked like crazy to be published in a newspaper, to get interviews, released CDs, it’s important. Every time I have to chase musicians and remind them to share the info about their concert on social media, tell the listeners about them, and post an invitation video, do they even want people to come to their concert? Of course, the new generation does something, but they also have to be constantly reminded that it’s in their own interest to promote themselves so that the listeners would come to their shows, for the promoters to notice them. One thing is when your friends, your mother, and your brother go to your concerts but it’s in the clubs’ interest to create gather people. So that’s why often my mornings start with research — I browse the web and explore how the artists communicate with their audience and what’s the activity on their page; it is vital for me.

Five months is like gathering speed for the club, a starting point. What are your plans for the summer?

Mark June 10th in your calendar because everyone has to go to the «R&B Blues Festival» in Ropaži. The festival will take place for the 7th time, we have to give credit to Ropaži municipality for the support. This year the festival will feature Wild Flame from Poland, Chris Gray & The Bluespand from Denmark, such local bands as Very Cool People and Rahu The Fool, and Latvian Blues Band.

And what about the Blues House?

Definitely a pre-party and an afterparty of the festival! [laughs] Also, we are having Roberto Morbioli from Italy, one of the most required guitarists in Europe, and a fantastic singer. We will have a legendary trumpet player from Chicago — Boney Fields, in late April, who played with James Cotton and collaborated with multiple artists. In May, we are having my lovely colleague from the times in Bites Blues Club — Ieva Kerēvica, with Madars Kalniņš. The music in the Blues House sounds every week from Wednesday to Sunday, all the information is available on our Facebook and Instagram pages. You’re welcome!

Jānis Porietis