Emilija Karaliute – Musician

This week on WHITEBALLOON INSIGHTS we hear from musician Emilija Karaliute about the kanklės, a traditional Lithuanian instrument which she plays with such skill and beauty.

Q: When we first heard you play the kanklės we were blown away by how beautiful it sounds. Can you tell us about the history of this unusual instrument? 

Thank you! 🙂The kanklės is a national instrument of the small country Lithuania, and it belongs to the Baltic Psaltery family. This includes instruments such as the Latvian kokles, Estonian kannel, Finnish kantele, and Russian gusli. The kanklės is originally a traditional/folk instrument which carries a beautiful and significant message. In the past, when a family member died, Lithuanians would go to the forest and cut a tree to make the kanklės; they believed that whenever you played the instrument, the dead person spoke through the strings. Following this heartfelt message, it is easy to see why the instrument has been dubbed the “singing tree” by some!

It was originally a folk instrument used solely for Lithuanian traditional music, which was played at church services, rituals, funerals, and other similar events. It took several centuries for the kanklės to ‘fully’ evolve and become a part of the Western Classical music scene, with the help of the instrument’s makers and performers.

I have only briefly touched on the long history of the kanklės, an instrument that has undergone significant changes since the XV century. Due to the instrument’s development, a wide variety of music can now be played on it, creating a unique musical experience.

Q: When did you first learn to play and what do you feel drew you to the kanklės? 

At the age of nine, I started playing the kanklės and was enrolled in a music school in Lithuania by my mother. When I first started at the music school, I wanted to play the violin, but the principal felt I was not the ‘right’ fit. He offered other instruments like the accordion or piano before introducing me to the kanklės, which he then described as a Lithuanian harp with a dreamy and angelic sound.

But I usually like to explain why, even after more than a decade, I continue to play and master the instrument. I believe that after many years of playing, musicians can sometimes feel as if they and their instrument are one. Artists devote countless hours practicing and honing their craft, and month after month, they take the stage to showcase their work. For many of us, I believe that playing our instrument evolves into a fundamental way of communication.

Now, I feel that the kanklės and its naturally calming, soulful sounds offer me the best opportunity to connect with others and their emotions.

Q: You moved from Lithuania to the UK to continue your music studies. How do you feel studying music in the UK helped you to evolve as a musician?

I am so content with my choice to continue my studies in the UK! I love my country, and I am grateful for all the years in Lithuania where all of these incredible teachers taught me everything I know about music today. However, after a while, I began to feel the need to get more out of music.

In Lithuania, I learnt a lot about classical music, its interpretation, and different ways to perform onstage. But in the UK, you are given lots of musical freedom, which helps in the growth of your authentic artistry. I believe that my studies here have given me numerous opportunities, leading me to constantly seek a deeper understanding of music outside of my comfort zone, as well as connect with new people and form new links in the musical world.

Q: You have a wide repertoire of music and play at many different events and occasions, but do you have a favourite style or song? 

I do listen to a lot of instrumental music, such as film soundtracks. I think music without words can sometimes give your thoughts more space.

And I have two favourite songs: Fields of Gold by Sting (I also love the version of Eva Cassidy) and Saturn by Sleeping At Last!

Q: Raising your profile as a musician can’t be easy, but you have found interesting and effective ways of doing so through organisations such as Sofar Sounds? We’d love to hear about this experience. 

Yes, getting started as a musician in the music industry can be a daunting experience! With so many new artists ‘out there’, it can take some time to figure out how to best market yourself and your music. You need to consider, “Can I give something that other artists have not yet given?”

Sofar Sounds has been and continues to be an incredible journey for me; they provide me with various shows not only in London, but throughout the UK! I also absolutely love their concept of listeners arriving at a secret location and not knowing who will perform what. Sofar Sounds’ listeners are extremely attentive and just genuinely love music!

Q: Would you like to see the kanklės played more widely in places other than Lithuania? Do you have plans to teach others in the UK how to play?

I believe it would be one of my biggest dreams to see more people play the instrument outside of Lithuania, perhaps even other nationalities besides Lithuanians. Who knows! I would also like to see the instrument gain more recognition outside of Lithuania, and I believe that teaching others would be an excellent way to do so!

I believe it is important to think of it as more than just a specific country’s instrument; as I mentioned above, it can simply be your preferred method of musical communication! And I sincerely hope more people will see that 🙂

Q: And finally, I know that music, and practicing the kanklės, takes up a large portion of your time, but do you have any other talents or hobbies that take you away from your music?  

Outside of music, I enjoy doing things that boost my creativity, even when I am not practicing. I enjoy travelling, going to nature, and reading books!

When I am on stage, I talk about my music, my country, and the kanklės, which can be regarded as storytelling. So, reading gives me a lot of ideas for what to say and how to interact with the audience.

Regarding talent, I was once a very good gymnast, though that was a long time ago…

Thank you Emilija for your insights.

To find out more about Emilija and her music, please click here to visit her website.

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