Saturday, November 17, 2018

Latvia's Centennial Week Post #5: Muzika


It's such an important part of Baltic culture. When the three countries broke free of the USSR in the early 1990s, it was called the Singing Revolution, in large part because dissidence was often expressed through singing national songs. The song festivals of the 19th century led in a pretty straight line to the independence movements of the early 20th.

Every village and hamlet has a choir. When I lived in Roja, a fishing village of about 1,000 people, there were easily fifty of us in the choir. When I lived in the larger town of Talsi (about 12,000 people), I sang in the woman's choir on Thursdays and the youth choir (30 and under) on Tuesdays. Again, these were no mere dozen singers, but large groups. Much of the time is spent preparing for various song festivals, from local events to the national song festival held every two or three years. Twenty to fifty THOUSAND singers gather, spending several days sleeping on gymnasium floors, attending rehearsals, and putting on huge concerts. It feels like the rest of the country is there too, either to participate in the concurrent folk dance festival, as audience members, or at the very least, sitting at home glued to their TV watching the coverage.

The first song festival after the re-establishment of independence was in 1992, and it was so overwhelmingly emotional, with so many expats coming home for the first time since childhood, that they went ahead and had another one the very next year. That was the one I got to participate in, and it was the experience of a lifetime. Parading through the streets of Riga in a folk costume, clutching a bouquet of  ferns and wildflowers, singing the whole way to the Freedom Monument was unforgettable. Singing in the huge outdoor concert hall, songs that had been forbidden for so long, with hundreds of choirs mixed together--amazing. I've lived a lot of life since then, and it remains one of the best experiences I've ever had.

Here is one of my favorite songs that we learned for this event. Gaismas Pils, or Castle of Light. This video is from the 2008 song festival, so you can also get a sense of what it's like at one of these things.

Right now I'm in a tiny, mostly elderly choir of local Latvian Americans, getting ready to sing so half dozen songs at the 100th anniversary event this Sunday. Gaismas Pils was originally on our list, but it proved a bit too challenging for our group. But we're singing another personal (and national) favorite: Pūt Vējiņi (Blow Little Wind.) The first verse, which repeats at the end, goes like this:

Blow little wind
Blow my little boat
Waft me to Kurzeme 
(the western coast of Latvia)

It is sung with longing and affection, and creates wild nostalgia even if you're singing it while already in Kurzeme. When I was in Peace Corps, the doorbell on the PC office in Riga chimed out the first few bars of the song. But when I learned the rest of the song, I was a bit surprised. It's all about a guy who's girlfriend's parents won't let her marry him because they say he's a drunk and gambles on horses. He insists that he drinks on his own money and races his own horses, so he plans to just sail off to Kurzeme and grab the girl for himself without her parents knowing.


It's not all choir music, of course.  Here are some of my favorite songs that were popular in Latvia in the early 1990s 

Kad Mēness Jūrā Krīt  by Jauns Mēness (New Moon)

One of my favorite Latvian bands, whose sound was obviously influenced by U2.

Man ir Gandrīz Viss Another one of my favorites by them, which I especially liked because I understood all the lyrics without having to spend hours with my dictionary. 

Man Vienalga Viss (It's All the Same to Me) by Bet Bet is a lighter, folksier (cornier?) type of music. The bit at the end of this video where he pauses and talk-sings something is a line that goes "women are beautiful naked," but when the crowd supplies the word naked, he tells them that is the old-fashioned version, that nowadays women are beautiful when they are wearing their traditional Latvian folk costumes--which given the 1992 setting, was an excitingly radical thing to be able to say.

Then there's the gloriously silly Kur ir Mana Lidmašīna (Where is my airplane?) by Prata Vetra, including the banter between verses where they pretend to check in about which verse they're supposed to be on.

Finally, a few haunting songs from Kaspars Dimiters,  Glāze ūdens (A Glass of Water) and Pasaule ir Tāda Skola (The World is Such a School). What can I say? I'm a sucker for singer-songwriters.

This isn't music related, but I love this photo of my friend's husband lighting the candles on their Christmas tree. Tiny tree, only up for a few days, just a couple of presents--so lovely and non-commercial. 



  1. A country in which singing is valued so highly is my kind of place. I do not have any Latvian or even Baltic blood (that I know of) but you make me wish I did.

  2. It’s cool that music is so important to them. Those are big choirs. I guess music is a good way to protest dictators because it’s memorable and can’t be taken away like a material possession. Good luck with your singing!

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

  3. Wow! I had no idea how popular music was in that area! Thanks for the info!


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