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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 October 2005, 03:48 GMT 04:48 UK
Latvia celebrates national instrument
By Laura Sheeter
BBC News, Riga

Women play the kokle
The kokle is traditionally played by women and girls
A festival to celebrate an instrument played by only 500 people is taking place this weekend in Latvia.

The 10th annual festival of Latvia's national instrument the kokle, features a performance by the largest kokle ensemble in the world.

Ninety-nine young women - one in five of all kokle players in Latvia - will be performing a piece written especially for them by one of the country's leading composers.

Latvia's national instrument is traditionally played by women and girls. It's a triangular wooden box on legs with up to 33 metal strings, which the musicians pluck.

It is unique to Latvia, and although neighbouring countries do have similar instruments - the Finnish kantele and Lithuanian kankle for example - Latvians say nothing sounds quite like the kokle.

Playing the kokle was banned for a time under the Soviet Union, but now more and more people are taking it up and contemporary musicians are using the kokle in new works.

Master craftsman

There is a problem though - there is only one master kokle-maker in Latvia, and he has a five-year waiting list for new instruments.

Imants Robeznieks in his workshop
Imants Robeznieks will soon be training two students
It takes Imants Robeznieks a month to make each instrument - he says parents are now ordering kokles before their children have even started playing.

"I work 12 to 14 hours a day and still the waiting list keeps growing," he says. "The telephone rings non-stop. I have to turn it off or I'd never get any work done."

Mr Robeznieks has been making kokles for more than 20 years and says finding suitable wood is the biggest problem. He searches building sites where old wooden houses are being demolished, and uses off-cuts from old pianos, if he is lucky enough to find one.

The Latvian ministry of culture is so worried about the future of kokle-making that they have just agreed to fund two students to study with Mr Robeznieks. But it will take years of hard work before they are ready to take over the work of making kokles for the country's leading musicians.

But Mara Vanaga, the organiser of this weekend's festival, is far more optimistic about the future. She says that as Latvia has changed since independence, so has the kokle - with alterations to the instrument itself, and its adoption by young musicians playing music of all kinds.

The kokle cannot die, she says, as it is becoming ever more popular. She believes it is reasserting its place at the heart of contemporary Latvian culture.

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