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Dancers perform in a stadium in Riga during the Latvian Nationwide Song and Dance Celebration in 2008. (Photo A. Liepins)
Image: Latvian National Centre fo Culture/A. Liepins

Singing for unity

Gederts Gelzis, Riga / ew
June 30, 2013

The Latvian national song festival is held once every five years and attracts hundreds of thousands of participants, viewers and tourists. As Gederts Gelzis reports from Riga, the song festival helps unify the country.


In the last few days, Riga has been alive with music. Around 40,000 people dressed in national costumes, will participate in the festival, and hundreds of thousands more will arrive just to watch. Many of them will sing "Sodien dziesmai liela diena" or "This is a big day for a song." It's the opening tune of the grand finale concert in the capital and the most impressive part of the celebration.

The song festival is hugely important in Latvian culture. For 27-year-old Zanete Skarule this is her first time participating in the concert. She joined a choir in December last year and has been practicing singing twice a week since then. She told DW, "as a Latvian I really want to experience the feeling of being on an open-air stage among thousands of other singers at the song festival. All the participants sing and they are united in a song. And that's why I decided to join a choir."

15 thousand choristers will sing in the grand finale concert of the Latvian Nationwide Song and Dance Celebration. (Photo I.Znotins)
Hundreds of thousands participate and watch the five yearly spectacleImage: Latvian National Centre fo Culture/I. Znotins

A sense of history

Skarule flicks through her songbook detailing some 40 songs she has learned during months of rehearsals. She says she was surprised to find out that some of the tunes were also sung by her grandfather back in the 1930s, when he participated in the festival. The festival goes back even further than that though. It has its roots in the 19th century. Musicologists believe the celebration was probably inspired by the first German choir "Die Rigaer Liedertafel" founded in 1833.

Dedication and graft

Whilst Skarule talks, different rooms all over the city fill with the sounds of voices all busy practicing; she herself joined the choir mainly to perform in celebrations and to socialize with other singers. It's different for Aigars Kalnins. He's 36 and works in the IT industry. He has been singing in choirs since the mid-90s and it's more than just a hobby for him.

"I think of the grand finale as the end of a five-year-long process of preparation for the festival. We rehearse the repertoire. We perform in competitions and we give concerts. We are scrupulous about it, and that bears fruit in the end. And then you stand on the festival's stage and you celebrate and just let go, all that hard work just sings out," he told DW.

Skarule and Kalnins will be just two among about 15,000 participants from almost 400 choirs in the grand finale. Another of those choirs is "Balsis" or "Voices" conducted by Ints Teterovskis.

Slipping standards

Teterovskis is holding a rehearsal for his 40 choristers as they practice their repertoire. Women sing, and he frequently interrupts, getting them to repeat the passage over and over again. Though each year up to 100 people want to join the choir, only a select few are admitted, Teterovskis told DW.

"The overall singing skills have substantially gone down during the past 20 years because people simply don't sing. It often starts in schools, where singing in a choir is no longer an obligatory subject. Pupils can be taught singing only if their parents allow it. I think that there mustn't be such a situation in Latvia."

Unity through music

He says that the song celebration is important for Latvian unity, it acts as a display of their culture and helps foster a sense of national identity. It has shaped the self-awareness of Latvians and even helped them to create their country when it was first founded in 1918. That's why it's a sacred event for Latvians, says cultural sociologist Dagmara Beitnere.

"It is a very emotional moment when many Latvians meet up again." She explained to DW. "We are a new nation and the invisible and spiritual bonding is very important to us. And that includes all the activities of the celebration, including dancing and singing in the old town. That gives us a great emotional charge."

All the participants of the celebration are dressed in national costumes of Latvia. (Photo A. Liepins)
All participants are dress in Latvian national costumesImage: Latvian National Centre fo Culture/A. Liepins

Heritage for the world

The festival itself is so important that it has been recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, as a masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity.

It has held Latvians together during Soviet rule -under which the celebration was permitted- although communist controlled. And the festival played a pivotal role again in 1990 when the singing revolution led to a restoration of Latvia's independence a year later.

Beitnere says that Latvians were at the peak of unity at that time but  the event has gradually become commercialized during the last two decades. A fact she laments. Teterovskis disagrees though. He defends the festival saying, unless it completely loses its core values, (people and language) in a haze of commercial considerations, he believes the festival and its unifying traditions will continue for years to come.

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