Don’t travel overseas to meet heroes, they say – in fact, we found one in Vilnius this time. The personality of Marius Kneipferavičius is so steeped in Kaunas’ spirit that it oozes rock and roll to a point when we didn’t even have to ask him anything. The stories just came at us, from his grandfather who showed movies in Šančiai to Baltic Balkan, a music project that Marius is a part of. The interview turned into a love letter, urging us to fall for something that was hiding right under our noses.
My atypical Belgian last name gets people confused, they assume I’m Jewish even though I only have Samogitian and Sudovian blood. Maybe the linguistic remarks pushed me to take interest in Lithuania’s Jewish heritage. It’s a hot topic now and I’m happy about it, considering we lost a piece of our own history and identity during the Holocaust.
We at Baltic Balkan are by far not experts on the Yiddish language, but we’ve managed to modernise and use a few Litvak songs over the years. We’re preparing a mini album “Litvish”; an artist Asta Ostrovskaja created a video for one of the songs – “Kadril”. The Jewish community shared it online, we’ve presented it on TV and received positive feedback. As DJs we were part of the line-up in Krakow’s Jewish festival and were even blessed by a rabbi in Vilnius. We feel that this creative choice – which might seem odd to some – was the right one.
I would call Baltic Balkan an adventure: the band was born as a joke, then it transformed into a kind of therapy for me, Lencas and Namas. We all have responsible jobs, so this project is our alter ego: we can act or feel in ways we can’t allow ourselves to in our daily lives. It’s perfect for expression, visiting new places, meeting all the people. We do it sincerely, because it’s the sort of music and energy we love. At an event, we certainly like seeing that we’re not the only ones to be captured by it.
All of us are over forty, yet we’re living the rock and roll life and that’s becoming the norm today. 40 is definitely the new 30: our parents felt old at this age, whereas people around us only start settling down nowadays when they reach their 40s. While travelling abroad, we’ve met many older performers and DJs that seemed extremely energetic, and their dynamic work pulse adds to it. We’re still kids compared to them.
Baltic Balkan / Photo by Gediminas Bartuška
If we’re coming back to the start, I must say I went through a searching phase as many musicians do, so naming one genre that made a substantial influence on me would be very hard. Music was always around me: my grandparents used to organise family gatherings involving a lot of beautiful singing. My dad was playing in a big beat band with his friend Kęstutis Ignatavičius, member of the band Aitvarai.
Dad rocking it with the future Aitvarai
And when I delved into my family’s history, I learned that many of my relatives were into music. My grandmother’s family that emigrated to Australia after the war were all musicians. This story, by the way, deserves its own narrative. I found my relatives on Facebook based on two factors – their last name and the fact that they moved to Australia. My second cousins often talk to me online now, and my aunt is even visiting in autumn. Crazy.
The family of Olius, the grandmother's brother
My childhood was spent in the Dainava neighbourhood, but those memories are quite gloomy. It was a true ghetto of the Soviet period, however my friends used to go to the abandoned Pažaislio monastery and climb around the belfries without our parents ever knowing about it.
The Dainava hood in 1985
Music charmed me with its alternative genres and the more peculiar sounds very early on. Visiting festivals like “Breikas ‘86” in Kaunas or “Papūga” in Palanga was a blast. My mother also used to take me to concerts and cafés, so I remember the music situation quite well.
In 1986, when I was eleven, an audio cassette of Beastie Boys – “Licensed to Ill” – was sent to my classmate by his relatives in the USA. He wanted to get rid of it as he thought it was nonsense; that’s how I was introduced to hip hop. I got records by Run DMC and Schoolly D at the shop on the corner of Maironio street and Laisvės Avenue: they were defective – that’s probably why they ended up here. Later came the Super Channel and similar things. A nearby technical store “Tauras” allowed me to rewrite cassettes there, that’s how I educated myself when there was no Internet. My neighbour used to overwrite cassettes as well, and Arka Glody – who was filming breakdancing events and the band Kardiofonas – was living in the same house too. Another joint to buy records at was the basement in front of Officers’ Club, so was “Merkurijus”.
A trip to Prague
Upon maturing, my hanging out spots in Kaunas were quite clear – “Pegasas”, “Laumė”, “Kulinarija”, the yard of the Kaunas artists’ house and so on. I can’t wait to walk through V. Putvinskio street using the “GilusKaunas” app – I feel a special connection to this place, being born in P. Mažylis maternity hospital. I’ve also enjoyed “The spiritual guide to old Kaunas” by the same people.
Rebellious teenage years led me to heavier genres like indie, industrial, punk, gothic. The circle of friends has also changed, including new buddies that played music, so we started rehearsing in a flat, inspired by The Cure and Joy Division. Our first band was called Musėgaudis (“Fly catcher” in Lithuanian), later came projects like Dulkės (“Dust”), Sperm Eaters (one video was even selected by Ugnius Liogė for his TV show), Latvia’s Top Fortune Teller. Then we formed the band Drigentai (“Conductors”) and played at alternative festivals around the country, even getting the award of “the most ideological band” in 1996. A popular TV show “Tangomanija” featured us, while Nykštukas, a leading voice of the alternative music scene, said we’ll have a bright future. Of course, we ran out of youthful enthusiasm pretty soon.
The alternative music world was quite intense in Kaunas: everyone knew everyone, and members of every genre used to go to each other’s events. I was there when the first RyRalio and Pakalnė events started happening – such electronic music shows were very important. I was taking care of the visuals for a group called DJ Žvėriukai, also passing leaflets and logos around. Later, I worked as a designer with such pioneers and organisers like Ore, Atari, Kitoki.
Turning thirty resulted in getting a job in Vilnius. I was working at a small design studio in Kaunas at the time, so moving to an international ad agency in the capital was a big challenge.
I live in Vilnius for 12 years now, but I never compare the two cities. Going back to Kaunas makes me rediscover it every time. Maybe you think you know each corner of the town yet there are always new stories, legends, tales to hear, whether they’re public or personal.
After my father’s funeral, one of the elder relatives gave me my grandparents’ suitcase full of photos. Around 200 shots of the city during the Interwar years and after were inside, leaving me curious to find out what each one of them is really about. I started examining the archives, visiting libraries, forums… I do it now too. Genealogy is an addictive hobby. Maybe it’s linked with getting older?
I discovered that my grandparents and great-grandparents lived in Šančiai – a unique industrial neighbourhood – for a long time. Actually, I’ve lived there for a bit too and had no idea how much there is to see. The book on Šančiai by Jurgis Vanagas gave me a lot of new information: apparently my grandfather Stasys Kneipferavičius was serving in the military as a minesweeper, spending time in the barracks of Šančiai, working as a cinema mechanic at the Lyra (later Taika) cinema, showing movies to people during the Interwar period and the war.
A local chess club
The church interior in 2016
That book also told me that my grandparents – Stasys Kneipferavičius and Viktorija Dobrovolskytė – got married inside the Šančiai church on its opening day! I realised it after studying the wedding metrics and facts mentioned in the book. By the way, that church with a truly impressive interior was built in 1938 thanks to priest Mamertas Lumbė and it’s one of the most special ones in Lithuania.
The house of the great-grandfather Augustinas (the building used to be a jail)
My connection to the author of the book J. Vanagas deserves a mention too. I remembered my aunt telling me our relatives in Gudžiūnai had bird-like names (“vanagas” means “hawk”). So it’s possible that J. Vanagas, born in Kaunas and a resident of Šančiai, was a distant relative of mine – my great-grandmother Morta Vanagaitė-Kneiferavičienė was from Gudžiūnai too, and she’s buried in Šančiai cemetery. I found her grave recently, along with the house that my ancestors Augustinas and Morta lived in, which interestingly was a prison for soldiers during the Tsar times.
Grandfather Stasys by the Nemunas river
Šančiai is a mysterious neighbourhood with many stories, undiscovered to the fullest by Kaunas residents and visitors alike. However, will the industrial heritage be preserved here as it seems not many individuals care about it?
The article was originally published in the April edition of Kaunas Full of Culture. Read the magazine on ISSUU.
All pictures from the family archives
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