The Saint Paul Latvian Song and Dance Festival is over but if you missed it, you have more opportunities to see, and maybe even participate (if you’re a member of a choir and it is invited to take part) in Rīga, Latvia in 2023 and in Toronto, Canada in 2024. Start saving your money and renew your passport.
Tickets for these summer events go on sale early in the year and sell out quickly. There are usually several hotels where blocks of rooms will be reserved for attendees. These also go quickly. If you value a good night’s sleep, don’t reserve a room at the main event hotel. The partying will probably go on all night, not just in the public rooms but also in individual hotel rooms. I was at one such festival after-party in a hotel room in Pasadena, California. The room was crowded but I didn’t think we were all that noisy. However, hotel security came to shush us. We weren’t even dancing or anything though we might have been singing a little.
Contrary to what the “Visit St. Paul” website said, it was not the largest Latvian Song and Dance Festival in the world. Only 8000 visitors were expected. The largest festival, of course, was the one held in Rīga from June 30 to July 8 in 2018. That year was the 100th anniversary of Latvia’s original declaration of independence in November 1918.
My cousin and her husband were at the 2018 festival. He said there were so many participants in the procession that he and his wife went to lunch and when they came back the procession was still marching along.
These events are such a huge part of Latvian cultural heritage that I had to write about them again. Every third person in Latvia belongs to a choral group. I wonder what it would be like if 110 million Americans sang in a choir?
Since 2008 the Latvian Song and Dance Festival has been recognized by UNESCO as “one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”
I wrote this post primarily as a way to introduce this YouTube video, which I think is pretty cool.
Latvians are a singing people. My mother often broke into song at home. Every community around the world that has a sizable (more than one?) Latvian population has a choir that sings in churches and performs at concerts on special occasions, such as Latvia’s Independence Day. Every five years, since 1873 national song festivals have been held in Riga. Latvians from all over the world flock to their ancestral homeland to attend these joyous celebrations of our music.
The festivals went on even during the years refugees spent in Displaced Person camps in Germany, during the Soviet occupation of Latvia, and in our countries of refuge, the United States, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere in the free West.
One of my kind-hearted followers wondered if singing helped Latvians survive the horror of 1941. I can’t say for sure, but it seems reasonable. Singing helped slaves in the American South survive the horrors of slavery. Soldiers and sailors sing. Peasants sing in the fields. Boatmen on the Volga sing while hauling boats down the river. Science has confirmed the efficacy of music in helping people heal both mentally and physically.
I was able to attend a Song Festival in Rīga during the waning years of the Soviet occupation. Memories of the Grand Finale Concert are still vivid in my mind. Hundreds of us gathered in an esplanade in Mežaparks in Rīga. I think all of us were rattled when two or three small planes flew over the audience. They were probably just taking photos. But why would so many planes be necessary for that? Refugees and descendants of refugees tend to be justifiably paranoid. After the choristers had taken their places on the stage soldiers and sailors marched on from the same entrances. We have expected them to turn their guns on us.
Most of the songs on the program were ones I didn’t recognize. Any reminders of a free Latvia were strictly forbidden. Needless to say, that included the traditional national anthem. But all the “foreign,” visitors recognized at least one song, our unofficial anthem, which is sung in Latvian cultural centers around the globe. Unlike the real one, it’s not about God blessing Latvia, our precious homeland. It’s about a drinking, horse-racing young man who sails to Kurzeme (Courland) in hopes of winning a bride who’s been promised to him by her mother. A promise that the mother breaks because of the young man’s unsavory habits. I couldn’t tell if everybody cried. My eyes were full of tears.
Why has this song about a young wastrel become our unofficial anthem? In part, because of its innocuous lyrics, which the authorities saw no reason to banish. Or because of its wistful music. Because everybody wants to be in Courland. Maybe even because Courland was the last holdout against the invading Soviets.
A nationwide Song Festival was coming up in Riga. They’ve been held every five years since 1873. Song Festivals are older than the Latvian Republic. I wanted to go. I’d been to Song Festivals up and down the West Coast of the United States, but I’d never been to Latvia. This would be one of the most memorable events of my life. A Song Festival on its native soil. A first time ever chance to meet relatives, who’d stayed in Latvia. Mind-blowing.
Although my visit to Latvia during the waning years of the Soviet Union happened decades ago, my memories are still vivid.
I’d been wanting to go to Latvia for a long time, but I had to wait until my father passed away. He loathed communism and for very good reasons, feared the Soviets. He might not have wept in fear for me, the way the father of one Latvian acquaintance had when she told him she wanted to go to Soviet Latvia, but my father would no doubt have been very upset, possibly even angry. That was something I wanted to avoid.
I would have liked my mother to go with me for the company and to reunite with relatives she had not seen in more than forty years. The youngest of her three brothers was still alive and living with his family in my grandparents’ house. My mother still had cousins living in Latvia. In those days there were specific regions where tourists were allowed to visit, the capital, Rīga, seaside resort towns, and a few other places of historical or cultural interest. My mother’s hometown, Limbaži, was not in a tourist zone, so we assumed visiting there would be impossible. Another reason she didn’t want to go was that she wanted to remember Latvia as it was during her youth. She did not want to see what war and the Soviets might have done to her beloved homeland.
Like my father would have been, my mother was afraid for me, too, but she did not try to talk me out of going, although we did talk about the advisability of such a trip. There was good reason for such anxiety. As the child of former Latvian citizens, I was considered a Soviet citizen, even though I was not born there. We all had that distinction, even though all of us had acquired United States citizenship many years before. Once a Soviet citizen, always a Soviet citizen. And your kids, too. Another reason to fret was that there had been recent stories in the media about an American citizen, with roots in the USSR, who had visited the country of his heritage and not been allowed to return to the US. I reasoned that in the era of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (a movement to reform the communist party) the Iron Curtain had lifted a little. I believed that an uninterrupted flow of tourist dollars to the USSR would be more important than keeping one traveler. Besides, I wasn’t going alone, I would be traveling with a large group of Latvians from my area, who were also heading for the Song Festival. Latvians from all over the world would be converging on Rīga.
It was well-known in our community that our passports would be confiscated for “safe-keeping” until we were ready to go home. We were also advised not to bring our driver’s licenses. There was no way I was going to enter the USSR without some sort of proof that I live in the United States. I took my driver’s license, just in case.
More than just a passport and visa were needed to travel to Latvia. I need to fill out a form requesting permission to visit. I had to include information as to whom I would be visiting, where they lived, and why I wanted to visit. I needed an invitation. It felt as if I were fingering one of my relatives as a sacrificial lamb. Having contact with someone in the Free World was not good for a Soviet citizen’s health. I finally decided on one of my father’s relatives. I no longer remember which one. Once all that was done, all I required was a plane ticket, tickets to the Festival, and a hotel reservations. Although I had numerous relatives who had let me know I’d be welcome to stay in their homes, it was not allowed. There’s no profit in allowing travelers to stay in private homes.
My mother drove me to the airport and I was on my way. Destination: Rīga.