Kokle or historically kokles is a Latvian plucked string instrument belonging to the Baltic box zither family known as the Baltic psaltery along with Lithuanian kankles, Estonian kannel, Finnish kantele, and Russian gusli. The first possible kokles related archaeological findings in the territory of modern Latvia are from the 13th century, while the first reliable written information about kokles playing comes from the beginning of the 17th century. The first known kokles tune was notated in 1891, but the first kokles recordings into gramophone records and movies were made in 1930s. Both kokles and kokles playing are included in the Latvian Culture Canon.
According to Finnish linguist Eino Nieminen, the name of the instrument, along with the names of most of its neighbouring counterparts, possibly comes from the proto-Baltic form *kantlīs / *kantlēs, which originally meant the singing tree, ultimately deriving from the Proto-European root *qan- to sing, to sound. However, Lithuanian ethnologist Romualdas Apanavicius believes kokles could be derived from the Proto-European root *gandh-, meaning a vessel; a haft of a sword, suggesting that it may be related to the Russian word gusli.
The kokles has a hollow trapezoidal body ķermenis or korpuss usually carved out of a single piece of wood vienkocis thats topped with a thin ornated wooden soundboard skaņgaldiņs. A distinct feature that sets kokles apart from most of the other string instruments is that the strings dont rest on a bridge, making the sound quieter, but richer in timbre. Wooden or sometimes metal tuning pegs tapas are set into the wide tip of the body, while at the narrow tip is a metal rod stīgturis upon which the strings are secured, giving them a slightly fan-shaped arrangement. The strings may be of brass or steel. Traditionally, there were 6–9 strings which later increased to 10 and more.
The technique of kokles playing differs from most other plucked string instruments, including that of zither, harp and guitar. There are also some playing differences between the regional types of Latgale and Kurzeme instruments. In Kurzeme kokles was generally played while sitting on a stool, bench or chair without armrests and placing it horizontally in the lap with legs slightly parted. It could be played while laid down on the table as well. For Latgale kokles the size and form of the instrument also allowed for it to be steadily placed in the lap in a vertical position, resting the shorter edge of kokles against the stomach and placing both arms on the instrument for extra comfort and stability.
Strumming is done with the right hands index finger, while the left hand is used for muting unwanted strings by lightly placing fingers on them. An alternative string muting technique found in Latgale features the fingers being inserted in-between the strings, but such option heavily restricts the movement of the left arm. The left hand can also be used for picking strings.
Tuning of the kokles is a diatonic scale, with some lower strings traditionally functioning as drones. A few traditional tuning variations include D-G-A-H-C for 5-stringed kokles written down by Andrejs Jurjāns at the end of the 19th century, D-C-D-E-F-G-A for 7-stringed kokles and D-C-D-E-F-G-A-H-C for 9-stringed kokles both used by traditional suiti kokles player Jānis Poriķis. However, as kokles began to be constructed with more strings and Latgale kokles became the dominant type of kokles among many other factors, the drone strings have gradually lost their function and become just a lower range extension of the kokles diapason. Since the 1980s, the most popular tunings among kokles players for 11-stringed kokles are G-A-C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C GA and G-A-C-D-E-F-G-A-B♭-C GA-b♭.
In his book "The Baltic Psaltery and Playing Traditions in Latvia" Kokles un koklēsana Latvijā Latvian ethnomusicologist Valdis Muktupāvels distinguishes 3 types of traditional kokles – Kurzeme kokles Kurzemes kokles, Latgale kokles Latgales kokles and zither kokles cītarkokles – and 3 types of modernised kokles – the so-called 15-stringed Krasnopjorovs-Ķirpis diatonic kokles Krasnopjorova-Ķirpja diatoniskās kokles and the concert kokles koncertkokles both designed in the Latvian SSR in 1940s to 1960s, as well as the so-called 13-stringed Linauts-Dravnieks-Jansons kokles Linauta-Dravnieka-Jansona kokles that emerged in the Latvian American community in the 1960s.
5.1. Types Kurzeme kokles
In the Latvian historical region of Kurzeme kokles are traditionally constructed smaller in size and without a "wing", but with more ornate carvings and ornaments. It also usually has fewer strings than Latgale kokles, ranging from 5 to 6 stings for the ones found at the west coast of Kurzeme and Selonia to 7, 8 or even 9 strings for the suiti inhabited areas.
On May 17, 2015, during Latvias presidency of the Council of the European Union, a Kurzemes kokles built by the crafter Jānis Rozenbergs was donated to the Musical Instruments Museum of Brussels.
5.2. Types Latgale kokles
In the largely Catholic Latgale region of Latvia, it was characteristic for the kokles to be constructed with an extension of the body beyond the peg line called a wing, that reinforces sound of the instrument and can also be used as an arm support. Estonian ethnologist Igor Tõnurist believes that the wing may be a more recent innovation, that developed sometime before the 14th century for the Baltic psaltery played in the Pskov and Novgorod lands and later was borrowed by some neighboring Baltic and Baltic Finnic people, such as Setos, Vepsians, and Latgalians. In comparison with Kurzemes kokles, the finish of Latgale kokles is less thorough; the instrument is bigger and heavier, with more strings sometimes even up to 12 and only in rare cases less than 9 and with a more sober decoration.
In the Augszeme-Vidzeme region both types of kokles, as well as mixed forms for example, kokles with a small wing were constructed.
5.3. Types Zither kokles
At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of 20th century kokles traditions were influenced by the construction and playing style of the Western zithers coming from Germany and other Central European countries. Thus arose the so-called zither kokles: kokles with larger, zither-type cases, steel tuning pins, and an increased number of strings from 17 to sometimes even up to 30 single or double strings.
5.4. Types Concert kokles
The first larger "concert kokle" with a three-and-a-half octave range and 25 stings was constructed in 1951 by Romāns Ķirpis for the Latvian folk music orchestras soloist Helēna Kļava-Birgmeistere. It was the first to have devices for changing the pitches of strings in order to change keys. Few years later concert kokles saw a few more innovations in the construction and the new design gradually spread in the Latvian Conservatoire and musical schools, as well as amateur kokles ensembles.
For a long time concert kokles were produced at the Musical Instrument Factory of Riga, mainly from leftover materials used for pianos. But after Latvia regained its independence the factory was closed and until the mid 1990s instrument was left without any professional makers. Soon Imants Robeznieks who had previously worked at the factory started making and fixing kokles again after receiving numerous requests from kokles players. Since then he has been the only master of concert kokles in Latvia.
6. In mythology
Valdis Muktupāvels regards kokles as the most highly socially and economically valued Latvian instrument. Mythologically kokles may have been linked with the solar and celestial sphere as they are also sometimes called "Kokles of Dievs" Dieva kokles or "golden kokles" zelta kokles and sun ornaments were traditionally carved in the soundboard. Kokles, kokles playing koklēsana and kokles players koklētāji are mentioned in 274 Latvian dainas and mythological kokles players include Jānis and other unnamed sons of Dievs, as well as Saule playing kokles while sitting in the Austras koks.
7. In modern music
Already at the first kokles revival in 1930s and 1940s kokles music saw an influx of newly composed folk music-inspired compositions and orchestral arrangements of folk songs. However, only recently kokles has truly grown to transcend the boundaries of traditional folk music. From the experimental post-folk band Iļģi, Biruta Ozoliņas and DJ Monstas electronic folk collaboration, Laima Jansones free improvisations and fusion of kokles sounds with jazz in the project "Zarbugans" to a more heavier kokles-accompanied folk metal sound of Skyforger.
In 2002 record label Upe released a double CD by ethnomusicologist Valdis Muktupāvels titled "Kokles", dedicated to the instrument. The first disc "Muktukokles" contained 9 Muktupāvels original kokles compositions and 2 arrangements of traditional songs accompanied by other instruments, as well as the vocals of Rūta Muktupāvele, while the second disc "Tradicionālās kokles" contained 24 Kurzeme, suiti and Latgale traditional tunes and dance melodies.
In 2016 record label Lauska released a CD Trejdeviņi koklētāji Thrice-nine kokles players featuring some of the best known Latvian kokles players and Baltic psaltery players from abroad Leanne Barbo from Estonia and Jenni Venalainen from Finland, as well as Latvian concert kokles ensembles, with a collection of 13 compositions that span from traditional to ethno-jazz and ethno-baroque genres. A bilingual Latvian-English hardback booklet was also included with notes on performing musicians and their compositions, as well as a brief history of kokles.
- Muktupāvels, Valdis 2018. Slisāne, Laura ed. Folk music instruments in Latvia. Translated by Damberga, Andra. The University of Latvia Press. ISBN 978-9934-1824-8-8.
- Muktupāvels, Valdis 2013. The Baltic Psaltery and Playing Traditions in Latvia. Translated by Jātniece, Amanda 2nd ed. Riga: Lauska. ISBN 978-9934-8276-2-4.