Little Latvia becomes superpower of song

Not your usual mothballed folk festival, a songfest more than a century old with a choir of thousands enjoys near mythical status for the role it played in little Latvia's battle for freedom.

The weeklong Latvian Song and Dance Celebration culminates Sunday when 12,000 people deliver old folk songs in pitch-perfect unison at a forest amphitheatre in Riga.

"It's an experience I would recommend to anyone!" conductor Romans Vanags says, gasping and dripping with sweat as he leads the giant choir in sweltering summer heat.

The songfest is an experience that takes place only every five years and boasts UNESCO World Heritage status.

Hopping down from the podium after a final rehearsal of "Saule, Perkons, Daugava" (Sun, Thunder, Daugava River) -- an unofficial national anthem for many Latvians -- Vanags was still on a high.

"I started doing this 20 years ago. Every time feels like the first time, yet every time is different. It's an amazing thing to feel the power of all those voices a capella," the 50-year-old tells AFP.

Vanags is one of an elite group of "dirigenti" or conductors entrusted with leading this highly important event of Latvian heritage, celebrating its 25th edition.

Since the 19th-century the festival has been one of the few constants in the turbulent history of the Baltic nation of just two million people.

Under Tsarist and then Soviet occupation, it was a lifeline for Latvian national identity.

"There is a war in which Latvia can win without weapons: choir wars," Culture Minister Zanete Jaunzeme-Grende said at the June 30 kickoff.

"In the 140-year history of the Song and Dance Celebration, we have become a superpower."

The festival started in 1873 as a rare opportunity for Latvians to use their own language in public under Tsarist Russian rule.

It quickly turned into a showcase for "dainas" or generations of peasant songs passed down by word of mouth.

After the communist revolution brought down the Tsar, Latvia declared independence on November 18, 1918, but the freedom was short-lived.

Alongside Estonia and Lithuania, Latvia was reoccupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, seized by Nazi Germany in 1941 and again taken over by Moscow in 1944.

"In most places people associate choirs with something religious or old fashioned," says Daina Rudusa, 26, who will sing at the grand finale, the culmination of three years of rehearsals.

"For us Latvians singing is cultural, historical, it is something we do on a daily basis," she explains.

"It is also historically important: during the years of the occupation choral music was a way to maintain a national identity, but also a means of creative resistance."

Under the Soviets, Latvians were allowed to sing in their native tongue but under the banners of Marx and Lenin.

The tone changed in June 1988 when the so-called "Singing Revolution" began in Estonia, as tens of thousands raised their voices in anti-Soviet anthems in Tallinn.

The sound of freedom then rang out in neighbouring Lithuania and Latvia, where long-banned national songs and flags reappeared in the 1990 edition of the festival as the Soviet Union crumbled, restoring independence in the Baltic states.

The national love affair with the song festival has boomed ever since.

Nearly 40,000 people or two percent of Latvia's population take to the stage -- a per capita equivalent of one million singers and dancers in France.

Another 100,000 people turn up to watch the show, which draws a total of 1,000 choirs and dance troupes from across the country.

Attending his fifth edition of the festival -- more than many Latvians manage -- Bernhard Bendel from Germany says he first took part in 1981.

"I had a Latvian girlfriend and she introduced me to it and its history. I love it and always come to Latvia specially for the festival," he tels AFP, adding it has inspired smaller copycat choirs in his native Limburg.

Loading...

Editor’s note:Yahoo Philippines encourages responsible comments that add dimension to the discussion. No bashing or hate speech, please. You can express your opinion without slamming others or making derogatory remarks.

  • Longtime Oscars director Marty Pasetta dies in car accident

    LA QUINTA, Calif. (AP) — Marty Pasetta, a television veteran who directed Academy Awards telecasts for most of the 1970s and 80s, has died. …

  • Sweden wins Eurovision Song Contest while Russia is booed
    Sweden wins Eurovision Song Contest while Russia is booed

    VIENNA (AP) — Sweden beat Russia to win the 60th Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday, in an event described by organizers as beyond politics but marred by boos for the Russian that were apparently prompted by the Ukraine conflict and the Kremlin's anti-gay policies. …

  • CANNES WATCH: Going out In style
    CANNES WATCH: Going out In style

    CANNES, France (AP) — The 68th Cannes Film Festival was going out in style this weekend, with Marion Cotillard drawing raves on both carpet and screen at the "Macbeth" premiere and the very cool entourage from the LA indie "Dope" continuing to wow the fest as anticipation grew for Sunday's Palme d'Or finale. …

  • Sweden's Mans Zelmerlow wins Eurovision Song Contest
    Sweden's Mans Zelmerlow wins Eurovision Song Contest

    By Victoria Bryan and Shadia Nasralla VIENNA (Reuters) - Sweden's Mans Zelmerlow won the final of the Eurovision Song Contest in Vienna on Sunday, beating Russia and Italy in the world's biggest international music show. Sweden has won the 60-year-old competition six times, more than any other nation apart from Ireland. Sweden won most recently in 2012 with "Euphoria" by Loreen and now gets to host the contest again next year. …

  • Icelandic film on sheepfarmer brothers wins Cannes 'Regard' prize

    By Michael Roddy CANNES, France (Reuters) - An Icelandic movie about two sheepfarming brothers who have not spoken in 40 years but are brought together by an outbreak of a disease that threatens their flocks won the Un Certain Regard prize at the Cannes Film Festival on Saturday. "Hrutar" (Rams) by director Grimur Hakonarson took the top prize in the grouping of 19 films in the festival's second most important competition. Jury president Isabella Rossellini said viewing the entries "was like …

  • Sweden wins 60th Eurovision Song Contest, Australia out for next year

    VIENNA (AP) — Sweden wins 60th Eurovision Song Contest, Australia out for next year. …

  • Nigerian senator-elect wanted for US drug deal 'arrested'
    Nigerian senator-elect wanted for US drug deal 'arrested'

    LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Nigerian drug agents Saturday surrounded the house of a senator-elect wanted by the United States in a nearly 20-year-old heroin deal that was the alleged basis for the TV hit "Orange is the New Black." …

  • Equality In Ireland: Stars React
    Equality In Ireland: Stars React

    Ireland became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote on Saturday – a historic result celebrated by equal rights supporters across the world. …

  • Beyonce's unretouched L'Oreal photos only latest in her long history of Photoshop controvers …

    Beyonce's unretouched L'Oreal photos only latest in her long history of Photoshop controvers …

    Celebrity News - Fri, Feb 20, 2015 1:47 AM PHT
    Beyonce's unretouched L'Oreal photos only latest in her long history of Photoshop controvers …

    Beyonce’s #Flawless image is embroiled in controversy once again. On Wednesday, a web site called The Beyonce World leaked 224 allegedly raw photos of the musician. The images showed Bey in full makeup for the 2013 L’Oreal ad campaign — but with the kinds of “imperfections” we all have — beauty marks, bumps, creases. In the wake of Cindy Crawford’s unretouched photos, the images have been praised by critics of a beauty industry that sets impossibly high standards, standards that Queen Bey …

  • Taylor Swift reveals ‘Style’ video

    Taylor Swift reveals ‘Style’ video

    omg - Sat, Feb 14, 2015 12:14 AM PHT
    Taylor Swift reveals ‘Style’ video

    The 25-year-old released the video for her third cut from platinum selling album 1989. …

  • My mother-in-law’s personal encounter with the pope

    My mother-in-law’s personal encounter with the pope

    Write Away - Wed, Jan 28, 2015 2:29 PM PHT
    My mother-in-law’s personal encounter with the pope

    For my mother-in-law Mrs. Elsa Yrastorza Yuzon, flying and soaring in the skies is part of her normal routine. But it reached new heights when Pope Francis boarded Shepherd One. …