WE SING ABOUT
KRUPNIKAS & KUGELIS!
Krupnikas (honey liquor), kugelis (potato casserole) and koldunai (dumplings) are not what Lithuanian rock bands often sing about. However, in the United States, there is a band who croons "Oh, Grandma, where's that kugelis?" They are Steel Wolf, a rock band that has existed in New York for just under forty years and was founded by Lithuanian-Americans.
Steel Wolf mostly sings in English but their albums are full of Lithuanian themes and words. Even the band’s name was inspired by the Lithuanian legend of the iron wolf. According to Mark Adomaitis, one of the founders of the group and the main vocalist (who agreed to give an interview to this article) says their songs about krupnikas and kugelis are both ways to introduce Americans to Lithuania and also gives the band an individuality that helps them stand out a little in the humongous world of music.
We talked to Adomaitis via Zoom. During the interview, he revealed that this is the first time in the almost forty years of the group's existence that he has given a live interview to a journalist from Lithuania. We spoke in English, but, as in his music, the interviewee often inserted Lithuanian words during the conversation.
Mark Adomaitis was born in 1967 in the New York. His parents met in America, but they are both Lithuanian. His grandparents came to the United States after World War II, fleeing Soviet occupation like many Lithuanians of that generation.
"My father was born in Šiauliai. He emigrated to America when he was about ten years old because his father was a judge and they fled the Russians, first to Germany and then here. My mother was born here in the States, but she is also Lithuanian - her mother grew up in the Lithuanian countryside."
Growing up, Mark was educated in the Lithuanian spirit. He was surrounded by the Lithuanian community, and from childhood he participated in Lithuanian scout camps and dance festivals. Lithuanian holidays were celebrated in his house. Lithuanian dishes were eaten.
In 1982, the members of Steel Wolf were teenagers. Initially, Steel Wolf simply played covers of classic rock songs at school events or friends' birthdays. But later, songs of their own creation appeared.
“Many of my closest friends are Lithuanians. Therefore, when we formed a group, it seemed natural for us to showcase our Lithuanian roots. We wanted as many Americans as possible to be introduced to Lithuania, because a lot of Americans do not know anything about our beautiful heritage.”
Although there have been a couple of breaks in the band's history, Steel Wolf has stayed the course playing shows and composing new songs. The members of Steel Wolf have changed, but Adomaitis has remained the leader of the group and the lyricist all those years. Guitarist Ed Kezys was also a member of the band throughout this time. In total, the band has recorded ten studio albums and several live albums. The band's latest album is this year's acoustic album Funplugged. Bands like KISS, The Who, Black Sabbath, Van Halen, and Metallica are named as the bands that he likes and probably influenced him most.
"These groups have helped me become the artist I am."
According to Adomaitis, each time a new album is recorded, the band includes at least one song with a Lithuanian theme. For instance, some titles include: "Sunday Morning - Where's The Krupnikas?", "Night of 1000 Koldunai", "Skambutis!" (The Bell), "Naktipieciai"(Night Snack) and "Midnight Train to Siauliai" - in honor of Mark's father's birthplace.
"Thanks to me, my American friends know quite a lot about Lithuania. I sing a lot about my Lithuanian roots and so they, in turn, know what krupnikas, kugelis and koldunai are. They would not know these things if not for Steel Wolf.”
Also according to the Steel Wolf leader, the lyrics are born out of everyday life.
“For example, take our song about krupnikas. Ed Kezys, had been participating in a weekend camp of the Lithuanian community, called "Giraitė". I wasn’t there, but he talked about how they celebrated and drank a lot. And, as Ed told me, one of our friends woke up on Sunday morning and his first words were, "Where's the krupnikas?" When I heard this story, I thought - there is a song in there somewhere! But, there is another version of this same song called "Kur Tas Kugelis?" which has become our most popular song. We were readying ourselves to perform at a Lithuanian scout camp and realized singing the praises of krupnikas to young children was not really a good idea. Therefore, we rewrote the lyrics of the song, changing the krupnikas to kugelis and the whole camp liked it very much In the song, we sing “Don’t forget the onions / Don’t forget the sour cream / Don’t forget my plate / Don’t forget to call me / Oh, Grandma, where’s that kugelis? / Oh, Grandma, where's that kugelis now.” Videos of us performing this song in Lithuanian camps can be found on Youtube. I don't know if Lithuanians from Lithuania would like Steel Wolf songs the way Lithuanian-Americans of in the States do.”
He believes that Lithuanians in Lithuania may believe that Steel Wolf's songs about krupnikas or kugelis are meant to be satirical. However, Adomaitis emphasizes that this is not really the case - it's just that Lithuanians in America may see things differently than Lithuanians in Lithuania.
“I create songs for the Lithuanian-American audience since that is what I am. We look at Lithuania from an American point-of-view. We are, first of all, Americans because we live here but we do care greatly about our heritage. Our families have instilled a love of Lithuania in us by sending us to Lithuanian camps and the like. It is important for us to raise the Lithuanian flag, both literally and figuratively, to show the rest of world where it was we came from.”
When asked what songs, in his opinion, could be the most interesting for listeners from Lithuania, Adomaitis ponders.
"It would be interesting to know what Lithuanians think about our songs like "Naktipiečiai","Sunday Morning (Where's The Krupnikas?)","Skambutis!" or "Kaziuko Muge"(Little Casimir's Fair)"…
Adomaitis loves kugelis and eats it whenever available. His wife is Colombian, so she is not used to cooking Lithuanian dishes. Kezys' brothers (former Steel Wolf members) have a restaurant in Queens, New York where kugelis and koldunai are available. In addition, Lithuanian dishes are also produced by Adomaitis' parents, so he can get Lithuanian dishes fairly regularly. He also has the opportunity to enjoy Lithuanian food in Lithuanian camps, which take place every year.
"When I was little, my parents took me to a Lithuanian camp in Vermont, called Neringa. And now my kids go there.”
According to him, the Lithuanian community in the northeastern United States, where he lives, remains active, although most of its members were born in America and a few don’t even speak fluent Lithuanian.
"There is a big community here, we are active, we keep in touch through Facebook and through community meetings."
"Biški" (A little.) - the leader of Steel Wolf answers the question whether he speaks Lithuanian himself.
"I would say that I understand Lithuanian better than I speak it."
By the way, by profession he is an English teacher. Playing in Steel Wolf is a hobby. However, according to Adomaitis, it is often through music that he establishes a connection with students. The leader of Steel Wolf visited Lithuania once during the 1990s, after the country regained its independence. However, his son and daughter visited the birthplace of their ancestors a few years ago, and now he plans to return himself.
"My wife often tells me that our youngest son must see Lithuania. We plan to go next year. I am really looking forward to being able to visit Lithuania again.”
However, Adomaitis admits that not all persons of Lithuanian origin in the States are interested in their origin and ancestral country.
"There are many people of Lithuanian origin who are not interested in the culture. Even though being of Lithuanian descent, they know nothing about Lithuania. But I personally am very happy to be a part of the Lithuanian community. And that I can talk about it through music.”
Although Steel Wolf sometimes plays on Lithuanian holidays, many of the band's concerts are not for Lithuanian audiences necessarily.
"When the band plays for Americans, we always present ourselves as a Lithuanian-American band. Then the listeners know that the members of this crazy group are of Lithuanian origin. Even if they think that we came from Lithuania ourselves, that's okay- the most important thing is that they know that being Lithuanian is an important to us. You could say it’s our promotional gimmick. If our fellow Americans leave our concerts knowing that they were listening to a Lithuanian band, we are content. "
On November 7th, Steel Wolf will perform in Brooklyn during the New York City Marathon. The group is invited to this event every year, during which they fly the Lithuanian flag.
"A lot of people are running in the marathon. As some of them pass by, see the flag, smile and raise their thumbs, they seem to recognize the flag. It's very cool."
Asked if he would ever like to hold a Steel Wolf concert in Lithuania, Adomaitis answers without a doubt.
"I would very much like the opportunity to arise. We could play as a group or as a duo, acoustically, which had to do more than once during a pandemic. If any concert organizer reads this, it would be wonderful.”
Original article by Ugnius Antanavičius