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Latvia: The Land that Sings

Once the primary objective of hijacking Latvia in 1941 was completed, the Soviet's moved on to a secondary mission: The obliteration of the Latvian national identity. With individuality discouraged, basic human rights denied, and history books rewritten, this ancient culture was then isolated from the outside world for the ensuing 50 years.

Latvians watched the first moonwalk in the 60's; observed blue jeans move from farms to upscale fashion boutiques in the 70's; and heard campaign slogans—promising to reduce nuclear proliferation morph into vows to protect the nuclear family—in the 80's. They watched and listened silently, in the shadows of their captors, because if there's one thing Latvians know how to do, it's patiently and quietly survive. This was not the first time the small nation had suffered domination; they knew the drill.

The dawn of the new millennium, however, witnessed radical changes in the Baltic political landscape, when Latvia—along with Estonia and Lithuania—came out of the shadows, declaring their sovereignty, in 1991. Simon Anholt, a British policy advisor to governments around the world, developed a concept called nation branding. According to Anholt: "In order to compete effectively [within the global market], every place needs to be known for something: its values, people, ambitions, products, landscapes or perhaps a combination of these." Anholt has ample data to support his theory that countries need to identify themselves by creating a brand, or identity—in order to achieve and maintain visibility on the world stage—in the same manner that manufacturers of soaps and automobiles create product identification.

So, under Anholt's supervision, a committee of Latvian business people endeavored to create a brand that would reflect how Latvia wished to be perceived in the new millennium. To Anholt's chagrin, the committee's chosen brand was a slogan that had been around for sometime: Latvia: The Land That Sings. Cutting-edge, high-tech, innovative, global- market-member—or any words remotely related to the 21st century—were conspicuously missing from this brand. What was clearly stated, however, was this: Latvians were no longer silent nor living in the shadows of anyone. Scribbled between the lines of this simple brand, was the far less obvious message: In spite of Latvia's subjugation and subsequent 50 years of isolation from the international community, this nation would never be silenced nor its culture destroyed; because Latvia had learned— more than 1,000 years prior—the power that lives within songs.

Political systems can easily rewrite history. Victors of wars have done it for centuries. But Latvian culture lives within folksongs— ancient dainas (poetry) set to music— with words as loved and respected by Latvian people as the Daugava river and rhubarb; and melodies so inexorably woven into a Latvian child's world that the child can hum the melodies before learning to speak. A cultural history that lives within songs defies rewrites; no matter how powerful the political system. Latvia: The Land That Sings was neither a contemporary national brand nor an outmoded reference to ancient times. Folksongs were and continue to be the immortal Latvian backbone and exist outside of time and space and beyond pages and print.

And such a culture can't be destroyed as long as it continues to sing. Because Latvia was, for centuries, an agricultural civilization without a written language, early Latvians created quatrains (four lined poems)— telling of their lives, cultural beliefs and world views—which were then set to music.

Since there are more than 1.2 million dainas handed down orally, putting these poems to music probably assured their survival and possibly, also, began the Latvian tradition of singing. For centuries, parents and grandparents sang these folksongs—by cradles, around hearths and in fields—guaranteeing that each generation knew the songs, and consequently, their cultural history, by heart. Over the centuries Latvian composers continued creating folksongs, reflecting their values, as the dainas had done in centuries past.

Today, at almost any gathering of Latvians, singing traditional songs is inevitable; and amazingly, almost everyone, regardless of age, knows the words. Written documentation of dainas first appeared in 1584 and again in 1632. According to The Latvian Institute, "These [early documents] are scanty and fragmentary testimonies by non- Latvians, that appeared randomly in the documents of that time period—protocols of witch trials and historical and geographical treatises. Nevertheless, even these first, incomplete publications demonstrate the same poetic forms and stylistic qualities that we recognize today, and therefore allow us to draw conclusions about this tradition's stability and longevity."

There are also several documented reports, by visiting foreigners during this era, of the importance singing had within Latvian culture. In the early 1800's, while uneducated Latvians were toiling and singing in the fields— oblivious to a marginally developed written language—the German Baltic Intelligentsia, developed such a keen interest in Latvian folksongs that a collection of dainas was compiled and published. In the 1850's and 60's—upon realizing that they were capable of more than working on farms or compliantly following directives of the ruler de'jour, Latvians began leaving the wheat and grain fields to pursue academic fields. Within two decades, higher education became commonplace within Latvian society.

This process of comprehending their potential as intellectual beings, as well as excellent farmers, awakened an understanding in Latvians: They were a unique nation with a remarkable culture—not simply a group of farmers and servants. With this awareness came an appreciation for the dainas, and their role in keeping Latvian culture unified and alive. Consequently, collecting and publishing these ancient Latvian folksongs was now considered essential to their culture. This time is generally considered the beginning of the journey, in which Latvian folksongs traveled from an exclusively oral tradition, to well documented chronicles: A task no longer entrusted to German occupants, but now in the hands of educated, articulate Latvians who were in full possession of a fully-developed written language.

This time of increased awareness and intellectual participation in their environment is known as the First National Awakening. In 1868, Janis Sprogis became the first Latvian to publish a collection of dainas, but by the early 1870's, it was apparent that a truly comprehensive collection of these folksongs was a monumental undertaking that could not be contained in one book. Also apparent was: A method of classifying the vast number of dainas, needed to be implemented, before serious documentation could even begin.

The job of systematizing and publishing the subsequent six volumes—required to house the immense collection of dainas—was given to Krisjanis Barons; a job to which Barons' dedicated the remainder of his life. Barons felt a sense of urgency to document these folksongs in writing because he believed that Latvians were turning away from the tradition of folk singing as they embraced Christianity. Barons further warned: "The old ladies, our purest source of folk songs, become more and more rare with each day." At the time of Krisjanis Barons' death, in 1923, 217,966 dainas were officially compiled and recorded in writing.

For the first time in history, dainas now existed on two planes—within the psyche of the Latvian people and documented within books. By the late 1800's, Latvians had a sense of national identity, although—because it was relatively new—this identity was probably somewhat fragile, if not fragmented.

In an effort to strengthen a cohesive national identity, Latvians, predictably turned to singing. The first major song festival in 1873 was called: The first All Latvian Song Festival. The colossal event featured forty-five choirs which included 1,019 participants. This was the beginning of a new tradition as Latvian folksongs moved from the fields and hearths to huge venues with vast audiences. Whether this event was single-handedly responsible for Latvia's declared independence in 1918, in the aftermath of WWI, is debatable. What is clear, however, is the tremendous cultural changes that transpired in less than one century: The once subservient, largely illiterate, agricultural nation was now educated and courageously declaring its independence.

And the glue that had bound the culture together— the dainas; the folksongs—were no longer taken for granted but given duly warranted respect. During the night of June 14-15, 1940, a Red Army patrol raided Latvian territory and killed three Latvian border guards, a woman, a child, and took captive 11 border guards and 32 civilians. The Latvian government demanded an official investigation by the Soviets into this provocation. Predictably, the demand was completely ignored. Simultaneously, the Red Army now occupying Lithuania, moved ominously into position along the southern border of Latvia, preparing to invade.preparing to invade.

There was no doubt that Latvia was, once again, about to be overpowered, disenfranchised and held captive after only 20 years of freedom. By now, however, the significance of singing their songs was implicit in the culture. Thus, a large song festival went ahead, as planned, in Daugavpils, the capital of Latgale, on June 15th and 16th—in spite of the tragic events that would undoubtedly transpire within days.

At the end of the festival, 60,000 participants, choir members and spectators—sensing that their fate was sealed—sang the national anthem: "Dievs, sveti Latviju" (God bless Latvia) three times, with tears in their eyes. By the time the Soviets occupied Latvia, nine song festivals had past; and Latvians were fully conscious of their national identity. They were more than peasants, farmers, servants, builders and academic scholars. They were the proud ancestors of ancient tribes whose songs had floated on Latvian breezes, risen up in the smoke of Midsummer bonfires and echoed in the hearts of Latvians for centuries.

Latvia, as a nation, was as safe as her songs; and Latvians continued singing. It's hardly surprising that the Soviet policy makers saw the songfests as a threat; neither is it surprising that these authorities didn't attempt to completely suppress what had, by now, become a tradition. Even tyrants know the benefit of choosing their battles wisely. The song festivals were, therefore, permitted to continue. A few major changes, however, were required. All songs needed to be pre-approved by a committee of party members. The vast majority of songs performed would proclaim the joyous brotherhood that existed between the Soviet nations; all living peacefully within the great Soviet family. And most of the songs performed, at the Latvian songfests, were to be sung in languages other than Latvian.

Typically the Soviet propaganda machine also attempted to use the once revered song festivals for their own purposes, as seen in this official government telegram, dated 1960, which was sent to the secretary of the Talsi region, in reference to an upcoming Latvian songfest: "We congratulate you, the collective farm workers, industrial workers, and intelligentsia of the region, regarding the upcoming regional song festival dedicated to the 20th anniversary of renewing Soviet power in Latvia. Today joyful songs are being sung far and wide about Latvia; where country workers praise the joyful work of Soviet people, their beloved Socialistic motherland and the dear communistic party who strongly unified all nations of our country [Soviet Union] in a united family of brotherhood."

What had originally been a festival dedicated exclusively to singing, became a song and dance festival in 1948 and was subsequently held (more or less) every five years thereafter. Latvian traditional dance is based on the fundamental idea that dance is a balance between the feminine principle of mystery and the masculine principle of daring. Latvian traditional ritualistic men's games appear brutal, as does their dancing. Anthropologists assure us, however, that this apparent brutality is simply an echo from ancient times, when matriarchy ruled the world, requiring that men compete for female attention. Since jousting never made its way to the Baltic region, Latvians devised their own methods to scout out potential propagators of the family line; as evidenced in their games and dances.

Songfests in the Soviet Union went pretty much according to Soviet dictates—hailing the USSR, paying homage to the workers and so on—for almost four decades. Then in the 1980's winds of change reached the Baltic shores. In 1985 traditional Latvian songs that had once been banned, some of which were composed during Latvia's time of independence, were permitted into the songfest; albeit side by side with songs praising the USSR. And by 1990, in spite of Moscow's refusal to release Latvia from their grip, the Latvian songfest included its choice of folksongs, many written in the spirit of dainas, reflecting Latvia's true culture and history; and these songs were sung in Latvian language.

Latvia's 24th songfest—Latvian Nationwide Song and Dance Celebration— is scheduled for July 5th - July 12th. Mesmerized spectators will listen and watch as 35,000 participants entertain an international audience with traditional dance—communicating both the daring and mysterious—and songs that go beyond the simple braiding of voices together in harmony. Because, aside from echoing centuries of subjugation and tyranny, as well as the clear, joyous resonance of people who truly understand the meaning of freedom, Latvian songs, quite possibly, hold the secrets of Latvian survival.

By Holly Taylor