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When Many Become One

By Amy Bryzgel. 29.07.2008

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  They say that Latvia is “the land that sings.” In this journalist’s estimation, that statement couldn’t be more true, particularly when considering the massive Latvian Nationwide Song and Dance Celebration.


Go to any Latvian party, gathering, or public event, and at some point and time during the festivities, you will hear people united in song – be it five, ten, or 1,000 people. Once every five years, you can hear thousands of people doing just that on the Mežaparks Open-Air Stage. It is really a sight to behold, if you haven’t before.

In general, Latvians are rather quiet people. They can rarely be accused of rabble-rousing and causing a stir with loud voices, as some cultures do. But put them in a large group on stage in their national costumes, and you will be amazed at the immense sounds, bold harmonies, and strong contrasts you hear. This is the Latvian Nationwide Song and Dance Celebration, which has been taking place without interruption – even during the Soviet times – since 1873.

A Folk Song for Every Latvian

Song is the very foundation of Latvian culture. One would venture to guess that each and every Latvian knows at least one folk song, but more likely, they know several. The folk songs are known as dainas, and date back centuries to the original Latvian tribes that settled on these lands thousands of years ago. In the late 19th century, they were catalogued and compiled into a book of several volumes by the man who is considered to be the “father” of Latvian dainas and folklore, Krišjānis Barons. The book, Latvju Dainas, was published between 1894 and 1915, in six thick volumes, and contains 217,996 folk songs. In actuality, there are many more than that – as the saying goes: “one folk song for every Latvian,” so, in point of fact there are probably over one million in existence. The songs published in Latvju Dainas were gathered by “local collectors” from around the Latvian countryside, and until then had simply been passed down through the generations orally. Barons came up with a system of classifying the songs, by organizing them in the well-known Dainu skapis, or, Cabinet of Dainas. He divided the songs into groups or categories with similar texts or themes, selecting one main song and grouping the rest around it. To this day you can visit his flat in the centre of Riga, on the very street that has been named after him – Barona iela – where he spent the final four years of his life. There you can also view a replica of the Cabinet of Dainas and learn about his classification system. The flat turned museum is now the Krišjāņa Barona Muzejs, at Kr. Barona iela 3, flat 5, open Wed.-Sun. 11.00-18.00.

The Nation that Sings

The celebrations may not be as old as the dainas, but they have been a firm and long-standing tradition for over one century. The festivals have carried on since the late 19th century despite wars and occupations, and in fact was one of the factors that helped the Latvian people and nation to survive through such difficulties. Although song festivals are popular in many countries, according to the Latvian Institute “nowhere else in the world has this tradition proved to be so admirably lasting, with such massive participation, nationwide organization and such a stable festival programme model.”

The very first Latvian Nationwide Song Celebration took place in 1873. While the event began as simply a choral festival, over the years it grew to include other art forms also significant to Latvian culture, such as national folk dancing (added in 1948) and kokle playing. The kokle is a string instrument, somewhat similar to a harp, although the strings are horizontal, like that of a piano, and it is played by plucking them.

Preparations for the celebration start well in advance. One might think that since there are over 35,000 singers involved, that means organizers simply accept any choir that wants to participate. Not so! All of the choirs that end up in the final concerts in July are there because they have gone through a series of rigorous auditions. Even choirs from abroad have to apply; this year twenty-one groups from abroad – including Australia, Canada, Ireland, Brussels, Scandinavia, Russia, Luxemburg and the USA – will be singing in Mežaparks. The regional competitions ended in May, and 394 choirs passed on to the semi-final, which was held between May 30 and June 8. After that, the competitions continue throughout the celebration week, and only the best of the best appear on stage for the closing concert.

This year, as usual, the week-long event kicks off with a massive street parade on Sunday, July 6, at 11.00. All of the participants will walk from Town Hall Square (Rātslaukums) in the Old Town to the Dailes Theatre on Brivibas Street, passing by the Freedom Monument on their way. All will be dressed in national costume, including traditional flowered garlands as headdresses. The parade is truly a site to behold, and gives the viewer a sense of the immense number of people involved in the event. If you are anywhere in the city centre, you surely will not miss out on seeing at least a part of the parade! The concert begins that evening at 21.00 in Mežaparks. Throughout the week there will be a variety of concerts and performances, many of which are free and open to the public, both outdoors and in, in the city centre and further afield. Although tickets to the opening and closing concert have long-since been sold out, throughout the week, you’ll be sure to come across a free concert or two in Doma Laukums (F-2), so sit back, and enjoy the delightful sounds of the traditional Latvian melodies!

Even if song and dance are not your thing, you can get an idea of the nature of the event by visiting the week-long Traditional Craft Market in Vērmanes dārzs (C-2), or venturing out to the Open Air Ethnographic Museum (take bus No. 1 about thirty minutes to the end of Brivibas Street and get off at the stop “Brīvdabas Muzejs”) on July 11, the Saturday before the end of the celebration for “Latvian Folklore Day,” with a variety of activities and demonstrations to introduce you to the ancient traditions and beliefs prevalent in Latvian culture. Wherever you go, you’re likely to see more people than you’ve ever imagined in traditional folk dress. Don’t be fooled, Rigans don’t dress that way all the time! A word to the wise: allow for extra time to get to and from anywhere in the capital during this week – especially the airport! Over 30,000 participants means major traffic delays as the streets fill with buses from all over the country. Expect some delays and plan accordingly!

Political Importance of the Event

Prior to the 19th century, the idea of a Latvian National identity didn’t really exist. From the year 1201, Latvia had been ruled and occupied by alternating foreign powers. For centuries, Latvia was governed by foreigners, and the native Latvian people were farmers and peasants, but never land-owners. In the wake of social change that was occurring throughout Europe in the 19th century – the freeing of the serfs, and the awakening and reawakening of other suppressed nationalities – Latvians also began to organize themselves and argue for the recognition of an independent Latvian state. For this to happen, however, it had to be proven that Latvia was indeed worthy of such status, and as one of the marks of a nation is a shared set of traditions and beliefs, the Latvian intelligentsia began to mobilize themselves into action and promote the idea of a distinctive Latvian national culture.

The organization of the first event of this kind was an integral part of the Latvian National Awakening and push toward independence that began at the turn of the 19th century. Modeled after similar song festivals in Germany, the first Latvian celebration took place in 1873, with 45 choirs and 1,109 participants. Thus began, little by little, the recognition of Latvian cultural traditions, as well as a national music, art and literature, among other things. Eventually, this led to the establishment of an independent Latvian state, in 1918. This year the celebration takes place on the 90th anniversary of the establishment of the Latvian nation, and organizers expect a record 38,601 participants – the largest number over the whole history of this event.

The Soviet Union did its best to suppress local national and ethnic identities in favor of a general Soviet one. In Latvia, for example, it was even illegal to own a Latvian flag or place flowers at the Freedom Monument, let alone celebrate Latvian Independence Day on November 18. Quite surprisingly, the Soviets did allow the celebration to continue to take place every five years. Of course, the celebration was heavily Russified, and songs were sung in praise of Lenin, but generally everyone was able to read between the lines and unite in celebration of Latvian national folk songs, the dainas.

The overthrow of the communist regime in Eastern Europe happened relatively peacefully in comparison to other similar events throughout history. In Czechoslovakia, it was called the Velvet Revolution, owing to the smoothness of the transition. In the Baltics, the term “Singing Revolution,” was dubbed, as song is what united the people and bolstered their strength to stand against the occupying regime and regain their independence. In the same way that the festivals gave Latvians a sense of national pride during the first awakening, they also served to strengthen and reaffirm that identity in the Reawakening of the 1980s.

The Song Celebration Nowadays

In an age of globalization, when young people are moving further and further away from local traditions and more toward international music, films and styles, the celebration is a time when all people, young and old, from Latvia and abroad, can come together singing songs that are as old as the hills, dressed in ancient Latvian costumes. For those that fear the disappearance of Latvian culture as a result of Westernization, this event should calm even the greatest skeptics. Latvians are proud of their heritage, and it is during the festival they that show it off with all the bells and whistles that it is due.

Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than a law adopted by the Latvian Parliament in 2005. Its purpose is to “preserve, develop and pass on to future generations the tradition of the Song and Dance Celebration.” The main task of the law is “to ensure the cyclical and continuous process of the Song and Dance Celebration,” in other words, to guarantee that it continues to take place every five years.

The uniqueness of the event has also been recognized by UNESCO. Perhaps more known for their identification of cultural monuments, buildings, or natural wonders, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural organization also has a category for the world’s intangible culture. In 2003, the Baltic Song Festivals were added to that list. The celebration in Latvia is distinctive because of the fact that it consists of thousands singing a difficult repertoire in 8-part harmony, while the dance performance unites many more performers, with every participant wearing a national folk costume.

This year the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, together with the Latvian Institute and the Song and Dance Celebration Office have put together a traveling exhibition to promote the recognition of the uniqueness of the event. Entitled, “When Many Become One” (Kad daudzi kļūst viens), the exhibition opened in Brussels in April, and will travel around Europe throughout the summer. Meanwhile, in Latvia, many will become one as they unite in song, music and dance, from July 5-12, with a record number of events – 39 over the eight day period, 20 of which are free and do not require tickets.

Another first for the celebration is that the main concerts and events will be broadcast live on a large screen in Doma Laukums (F-2), so that “even if people couldn’t get tickets to the concert, they can still participate in the event,” says the event’s spokesperson, Aiva Rozenberga. One can also view the concerts live on the website, The organizers of the 2008 celebration have commandeered modern technology in order to provide even more ways for “many” to “become one.”

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