The Land That Sings
Non-Latvians may find it hard to comprehend the importance of the Latvian Song and Dance Festival which takes place in Riga once every five years, and takes over the hearts and minds of the entire nation. The simple fact is that the festival is inextricably bound with Latvia's very identity.
After centuries of foreign rule, social and political changes in the 19th century led to the rise of a National Awakening in the minds of the Latvian people. They strove to rediscover their Latvian identity, despite the oppressive influence of so many foreign powers. The way they did this was through song.
Latvian folksongs, or 'Dainas', have a centuries old history and is estimated that over 1.2 million exist - making Latvian oral tradition one of the richest in the world. Dainas are characteristically made up of quatrains, or four-lined stanzas, and their topic usually include philosophies on life, love and the world order and the important rites of passage surrounding birth, marriage and death.
Taking the idea from the recent German practice of organising huge choir concerts, the Latvians organised their first Song Festival in Riga in 1873 in which 45 choirs and 1019 participants took part. Much of the aim of the festival was to help foster in Latvians a sense of national identity - and this certainly worked, as in 1918, during the aftermath of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, Latvia declared itself an independent state.
Unfortunately for the Latvians, Soviet Russia was to reclaim the state as its own following WWII. However, even the Soviets, who had criminalised the ownership of a Latvian national flag, dared not deny the people their beloved Song Festivals. And so the Song Festival continued to exist, albeit with an unhealthy amount of panegyric in praise of Lenin. Despite the heavy russification of the festival it was understood between Latvians, at first tacitly and later in the 1980s more openly, that the event stood for Latvian national identity. From 1987 to 1991 in fact singing protests became Latvia's most powerful weapon against the Soviet regime, as it did in Lithuania and Estonia, in what is now termed the Singing Revolution.
But enough about history, what does this Latvian Song and Dance Festival (the dance element was added in 1948) actually consist of? Well basically some of the largest choirs in the world getting kitted out in national dress and singing their hearts out! At the last Song and Dance Festival in 2003 over 30,000 participants, 300 different choirs, more than 500 dance groups, plus 57 brass bands, three symphonic orchestras and one chamber orchestra all took part during a crazy eleven days in June and July. On top of that a large number of art exhibitions, parades and also some contemporary rock and pop concerts took place.
The Latvian Song Festival, along with its sisters festivals in the Baltics, are truly unique awe-inspiring events - after all what other events can boast 20,000 people in national dress all singing in pride of their country at the same time! Perhaps that's why they were recently bestowed the title of "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity", by UNESCO.