THE VOICE OF THE PEOPLE
Some nations rally around football, while others centre their bonding on famous battles. For their part, Latvians feel the greatest sense of togetherness while singing.
In July, Riga will play host to the biggest display of this vocal habit. Held every five years, the Song Festivals (or "song celebrations") literally bring the nation together to make beautiful music and are a showcase of Latvia’s finest cultural offerings.
Folk songs have been central to the lives of rural Latvians since time immemorial, and in the mid 19th century they played a crucial role in forging national identity. In 1873, 45 choirs from across Latvia gathered in Riga to hold a parade, engage in singing contests and join in a mass concert at the end. Despite some very bumpy history, these traditions have continued ever since.
VOICES OF FREEDOM
Under Soviet rule, the authorities tried to coopt the festivals for their own ideology, but in their hearts Latvians knew which songs were important to them and gained strength and hope from the concerts. Mass folk dancing displays also became cherished parts of the event.
The highlight of every festival is the closing concert, where almost every choir in Latvia gets together at the open air auditorium in Riga’s Mezaparks suburb. The biggest ever such ensemble, with 20,399 singers, performed at the 1990 song festival, was held at the height of the independence movement and involved exiled Latvians for the fist time since World War II.
There won’t be quite that many voices this year, but over 38,000 people will participate in the event as a whole.
Since independence, the festivals have won international recognition, and in 2003 they were included on the UNESCO Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage list together with the Estonian and Lithuanian song and dance traditions. At the same time, they have become broader celebrations of music, with this year's offerings including brass bands, performances by kokles (traditional Latvian harps), as well as special concerts for Latvia’s ethnic minorities and foreign choirs.
BIGGER THAN THE USA
Whit Bernard is an outsider right in the thick of things. An American music student who came to Latvia on a Fulbright scholarship to research the history of music in the USSR in the late 1980s, he became so engrossed in the subject that he has joined not one but two choirs. One of these, Kamer, is an international award winning group that is expected to win this year’s competition to find Latvia’s best choir. He is impressed by how deeply rooted music is in Latvia, and the organic way it brings people together.
"It’s an amazing opportunity for me to see music on a scale I’ve never encountered before," Bernard said. "Choral music in the US is a part of the art culture, but here it’s at the centre of popular culture."
Every village and town sends a choir or dance group to Riga for the festival, and these ensembles play a vital social role in often poor communities. Agita Ikauniece, one of the chief conductors for the closing concert, believes that the quality of the participants is better than ever this year, despite a chronic problem of getting men involved in as large numbers as women. Conversely, she herself is breaking gender barriers as conducting tends to be a male business, and it is certainly unusual for someone to get the job in their thirties. This will be Ikauniece’s second festival waving the baton, but she doesn’t see any difference in trying to get the best out of several dozen singers or a few thousand. And while she doesn’t play down all the sweat involved in getting such a huge event together, she stresses that taking part is a reward in itself.
"Honestly, sometimes getting to the festival, learning the difficult songs, going to all the rehearsals can be a chore," she said. "But we do it because we want to experience the indescribable sensations, to feel the emotional uplift that stays with you for a very long time afterwards."