Every five years, Riga hosts a traditional song and dance festival that draws over 30,000 people—mostly Latvians, and many from expat homes all over the globe. This year is one of those years, and throughout this week (July 5-12) Riga’s streets will be alive with the sound of choral music. In the run up to the festival, choirs (some of them hundreds of voices strong) compete with each other to participate in the festival and be named the best.
This boggles my mind. That many people that excited over folk songs?
Clearly this is a point of national pride. Choral singing is a tradition that stretches back 135 years, a way to assert national identity through centuries of foreign rule, most recently Soviet.
I visited Riga a few years ago in early spring, when snow still muffled the streets and dusted the roofs of the medieval and baroque houses in the cobblestoned Old Town. The place felt like a cottony fairyland to me, and the obvious vibrancy of folk traditions—despite the presence of chilled-out sushi lounges and basement clubs playing Euro dance hits—just reinforced that view.
Laura McDonald, the D.C.-based Latvian-American friend I traveled with then, is back in Riga now for the festival. She sent me this dispatch earlier this week, after the festival’s opening day:
It is 2 a.m. and we just got back from the opening choir concert held at a beautiful outdoor arena just outside Riga. Thousands of singers from Latvia and around the world performed folk and modern songs for over three hours. After the opening choir performance, we took the trolleybus back to Old Riga and it was filled with teenagers singing Latvian folk songs.
Today was the opening day of the Latvian Song and Dance Festival and the two main events were this concert and the festival parade, where all the participating singers and dancers marched through Riga in their traditional costume.
The parade was organized by region, and participants from each town, district, or village walked together, led by someone holding a banner.
Within each section, there was usually a main choir and dance group walking together, followed by a children’s choir and a senior’s choir.
At least 95 percent of the participants were wearing or holding flowers. Just the variety of these flowers was amazing: lilies, carnations, lobelia, baby’s breath, calendula, sunflowers, wild grasses, cornflowers. Many of the men wore oak leaves around their head. The parade lasted from 11 a.m. to around 6 p.m.
The Latvian Traditional Arts and Crafts Market also opened today with Latvians from all over the country selling items that Latvians hold dear, such as amber and silver jewelry, linens, wool blankets, knitted and crocheted items, leather belts and bags, wood carvings, and the occasional T-shirt.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Reading her email, I promised myself to one day make it back to Latvia for this festival and experience for myself a confident patriotism that manifests itself not in flag-waving or sports-centric beat-downs, but in ages-old song and dance.
Photo: Laura McDonald