Latvia, seen as a straight-laced, introverted member of the Baltic family, lets loose every five years with a huge songfest that long powered its drive for freedom under decades of Moscow-led rule.
The Latvian Song and Dance Festival, holding its 24th edition this week, brought tens of thousands of proud residents into the streets of the capital for what still stands as a potent symbol of cultural survival.
“It helps a lot to feel united. It’s good for the nation,” says festival spokesperson Aiva Rozenberga.
Nearly 40 000 choir members, dancers and musicians from across this nation of 2,3-million are performing in this year’s event.
Though all three Baltic states gained independence in 1991 and full European Union membership four years ago, the songfest — Estonia and Lithuania have their own versions — still resonates with release, this year from Latvia’s current economic gloom and rampant inflation.
“It’s a kind of therapy. If you have a hard job, you can relax and forget about stress through songs and dances,” said Rozenberga.
Latvia’s first songfest was held in 1873 when it was part of the Tsarist Russian Empire and largely a peasant society. The event quickly became a showcase for “dainas”, generations of peasant songs handed down by word of mouth.
“It helped to lay the first cornerstone in the building of national identity,” says Valdis Muktupavels, a musicology professor at the University of Latvia.
After the communist revolution brought down the Tsar, Latvia declared independence on November 18 1918, but freedom was short lived, only 22 years. Along with Estonia and Lithuania, it was reoccupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, seized by Nazi Germany in 1941 and again taken over by Moscow in 1944.
Tens of thousands of Latvians were deported to Siberia or fled into Western exile during five decades of Soviet rule, while hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking colonists were sent in by Moscow.
Under Soviet rule, Latvians were allowed to perform in their native tongue but under the banners of Lenin and Marx.
“Moscow kept the song festivals alive because it needed some content for its slogans about ‘art belonging to the proletariat’,” says Muktupavels, who is also a composer.
Participants quickly learned to toe the Soviet line but use the music to express forbidden national pride, says Rozenberga.
“The Latvian people knew they first had to sing about Lenin if they wanted to sing their own traditional melodies. Singing about Latvian nature, about the meadows and the animals, was a way to exalt the nation,” she says.
As the communist bloc foundered, a so-called “Singing Revolution” began in Estonia in June 1988, as thousands gathered to sing anti-Soviet anthems. The movement spilled over into Lithuania and Latvia, where long-banned national songs and flags reappeared in the 1990 edition of the festival.
One of the more ardent advocates of Latvia’s folksong tradition is former president Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who served from 1999 to 2007 and researched and recorded songs herself.
Her country has been called minnow in the 27-nation EU pond but she insists “no nation is small in its wealth of history and culture”. — AFP