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Rigas Ritmi Festival: Riga, Latvia, July 3-6 2013

Bruce Lindsay By

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Butterscotch introduced "Summertime" with a story of how her grandmother's cousin, Anne Wiggins Brown, had been the original Bess in Porgy And Bess. If that tale seemed to set things up for a traditional reading of the song, then Butterscotch's beatboxing and cries of "Let's get funky" and "Let's break it down" soon moved things firmly into new territory, mixing the song's melody and lyrics with some strong, soulful, rhythm. Maybe not what Gershwin had envisaged, but a great example of how a fresh perspective on the harmonies and rhythms of a song can shift its emotional impact while still respecting the melody and message of the original.

Joined onstage by the superb rhythm section of bassist Claus Fischer and drummer Rhani Krija, Butterscotch continued the performance with a mix of classics and original tunes. "My Funny Valentine" and Sade's "Smooth Operator" bookended Butterscotch's own "Perfect Harmony," on which she vocalized a trumpet part. By the time a beatbox version of "Misty" was followed by another original, "Silver Lining," some serious dancing had broken out in the front row. Butterscotch invited the group on stage to dance and join in on the chorus.

Butterscotch closed the show with "Obsession," which she wrote with Marcus Miller, then encored with a solo beatbox performance. This young artist has still to release her first album but she's already an outstanding talent. Where she'll eventually choose to go with that talent is still open for discussion, but as festival organizer Maris Brietzkalns said, she is definitely "a new star."

Saturday, July 6

Butterscotch got Saturday off to a great start with the most informative, entertaining and interactive of the master classes. Beatbox 101, as she termed it, took a dozen workshop participants through the rudiments of the beatboxer's art and also gave insights into the more complex aspects of the style. With a combination of gentle persuasion and friendly cajoling Butterscotch persuaded almost all of the participants to try out their newfound skills on the mike. Two of them revealed a particular ability and were rewarded with the chance to duet with Butterscotch—an experience which she seemed to enjoy just as much as the students.

The Congress Hall's closing concert offered the intriguing prospect of sets from the Riga-born kokle player Laima Jansone and American vocal star Diane Schuur. It was an idiosyncratic pairing: Jansone's experimentation and Schuur's pop-influenced take on standards. Schuur was a real entertainer, adept at engaging with an audience and getting them onside. But on the night it was the young kokle player who impressed the most.

In 2012, Jansone had impressed during a Rigas Ritmi gig at the Club Artelis alongside percussionist Orubs and bassist Andris Grunte. The trio had at that point played together only once or twice but it was already developing its own mix of tradition and modernity. A year later, things had moved on and the additional experience the musicians had gained as a unit showed in the imaginative sounds they created.

Grunte cut a fairly standard jazz figure, on double bass or bass guitar, a strong musical foundation that every so often would launch into some powerful solos. Orubs' more eccentric approach made him as fascinating to watch as he was to listen to. Sporting a rather marvelous pair of trousers, he seated himself behind an array of instruments that was, if anything, even more extensive and weird than it had been in 2012. In addition to his upturned bass drum and his collection of whisks, spoons and other kitchen utensils Orubs had added a bicycle wheel to his percussive arsenal. Armed with such a wide variety of instruments, Orubs could have made use of any or all of them in his first solo but instead he chose to clap, slap and otherwise hit his own body and the stage floor.

Seated between these two imposing musicians the slight, traditionally-dressed, Jansone clasped her kokle—an instrument that has changed little in 300 years—and prepared to play. It was Jansone's birthday, but a difficult flight home from Helsinki that afternoon had left her little time to relax and she looked a bit self-conscious at times. There was little obvious impact on her performance however. In the early part of the set, Jansone brought out the kokle's light, almost mystical, side—wistful, romantic, melodies that seemed to float across the auditorium. There was a Fender amplifier on stage and, out of sight of most of the room, a selection of foot pedals. When Jansone changed instruments and brought the effects into play she moved into altogether different sonic territory, creating wave after wave of sounds that were challenging, aggressive and spectral.


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