Musician Gunārs Igaunis / Article

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A few years ago, a tourist campaign was launched which presented Latvia as “the land that sings”. To see this melodic gene in action, a good place to start is Gaigalava, 240 kilometers east of Riga.

Gunar Igaunis’ house

Photo: Philippe Birzulis

In this pretty village in the heart of Latgale, Gunārs Igaunis brings harmony to the ear in several ways. He builds innovative new instruments, amassed a unique collection of historical instruments, and offers visitors from everywhere hands-on workshops that get everyone’s foot taped.

“At the end of the day, everyone makes music, even people who don’t think of themselves as musical at all! Said Gunārs.

After graduating from the Latvian Academy of Music, Gunārs became a music teacher in his local district. In the chaotic first years of independence, schools in the area could not afford xylophones and other instruments, so Gunārs began making them in his garage. By the late 1990s, cheap Chinese imports had ended the shortages, so he turned to making traditional Latvian drums, zithers and kokles.

He also designed a “sound bed”, an intriguing instrument with applications for health and wellness. As the patient lies on a wooden platform, music strummed on a keyboard below sends soothing waves through his body. Flip the keyboard over and it can be used to aid in hand trauma rehabilitation.

If further proof of Gunārs’ industrious nature is needed, he also brews moonlight to give tourists a taste of his native region.

“We have ancient traditions of moonlight. After all, Latgale shares a border with three other countries, and we’ve borrowed a thing or two from them over the centuries – some good, some not so good, ”he laughs.

During the winter, when orders for new instruments dwindle, Gunārs takes care of repairing the accordions. Over the years, people donated old ones that they no longer needed, and it gradually acquired a unique collection. In the photo in this article he is posing with a historic accordion made by Augusts Ieviņš, who founded an accordion factory in Valmiera in the 1930s and ran a music store on Kr. Barona iela in central Riga, until its closure by the Soviet regime after the war.

Gunārs’ collection also includes zithers made in Latvia in the early 1990s, some with buttons producing ready-made chords, making them prototype synthesizers. There are also harmonicas that recall a forgotten chapter in history; before World War I, many residents of Latgale worked in St. Petersburg and took the melodious mouthpieces with them.

“Some came back with women, others were content with harmonicas,” he says.

Gunārs considers himself to be an accomplished kokle and accordion player and can play a few other instruments as well. With his wife Rasma and their daughters Liene, Marta and Laima, he performs in the Igauņu ģimene ensemble (The Igaunis family, see video below). The group performed well on national TV shows and toured across Europe and the United States. They can’t wait to do live shows again after the lockdown is lifted.


Igauņu Ģimene CD

Photo: Philippe Birzulis

When it comes to national talent for singing, Gunārs sees room for improvement. While people used to make their own music, today most people are just consumers. He is shocked that few young people even know classic folk songs like “Rīga dimd”.

“Because of progress, we are silent,” he laments. “Even on the eve of the summer solstice, it takes a big effort to sing, because all night long the radio is making noise in the background.”

Gunārs’ advice is to get back to the DIY spirit. And even in big competitions, passion counts more than technical genius.

“The winners weren’t the ones who sang perfectly or had impeccable chords or intonation – they were the ones who really put their heart and soul into it,” he says. “And who played our own Latvian songs, not catchy foreign numbers.”

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