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Thursday, 12 September 2013 12:25

The Latvian Song and Dance festival: a strategic role for culture?

Written by Bert Mulder





Bert Mulder reviews the Latvian Song and Dance Festival:

The 2013 Latvian song and dance festival wasn't remarkable because its final concert lasted from 7 PM to 1.15am (!), but because after that singers and audience sang together until four in the morning. It wasn't remarkable because of the size of the audience with 20,000 people seating and 20,000 standing, but because of the 15,000 singers on stage that were singing. It wasn't because of the 15,000 singers on stage, but because they were the very best performers selected from the 10% of the Latvian population tested and selected in contests. It wasn't because of the newer compositions, but because of the many century-old songs that the audience knew by heart.

It wasn't because of good conducting, but because each song was conducted by a different conductor - each cheered on as a celebrity. It wasn't because of the singing only, but because the evening before 15,000 of the country's best folk dancers performed century-old dance patterns as well as new choreographies. And finally, it wasn't because of the singers' voices only, but because all 30,000 singers and dancers were wearing their folklore dresses. When, at one o'clock in the morning the official programme of the concert came to a close, the intensity and the energy was only deepening as the singers and audience connected and experienced their shared history, strength and identity in the singing.

Latvian song and dance festival

Held every five years since 1873 the festival is a remarkable event that presents us with a form of cultural expression that has all but evaporated on the Western hemisphere. Throughout all appearances the festival carries a pervasive sense of existential meaning that reconnects participants. For an outside observer three different questions come to mind: what makes the experience of the festival so distinct, what does that say about Western culture and in what way may the tradition contribute to the future of the country? The intensity of the festival may be attributed to at least five different elements - its historical, political, symbolical, social and cultural policy contexts.

The historical roots of the festival date back many centuries, but it really finds its current form in the Eighteen Hundreds. At this time, cultural heritage becomes an essential catalyst for the development of the identity of European nations. Folk stories become the now well-known collections of fairy tales in Denmark and Germany, of the Kalevala epos in Finland and of the Edda in Iceland. All over the continent open-air museums open - collecting, preserving and showing historical buildings. When in Latvia Krisjanis Barons, travelling through its forests and villages, collects the country's heritage. He returns with a collection of dainas (four line traditional songs) ultimately numbering more than a million that were sung to the tune of over 30,000 different melodies. The Latvians have more songs than people – at that time the population didn't even number a million. Songs and singing have been the soul of the people in the region for centuries and the current living tradition appears to be unique on this scale and quality in Europe.

Traditional dress

The political context strongly shapes the intensity of singing and the festival, as Zaneta Jaunzeme, the Latvian Minister of Culture expresses it: 'For us, the Second World War ended in 1991. And after founding the Latvian Republic in 1991 we actually did start it six times over.' For centuries the Latvians have been occupied by the Germans, the Swedish, the Polish and the Russians and all that time singing is their expression of Latvian nationalism. The Russian cultural policy of active acculturation didn't dare to abolish the song and dance festival but Russian elements can still be heard and seen in its songs and choreographies. For the expatriate Latvians living in the diaspora, singing connects them to their virtual homeland and prepares them for an awaited return. For the first time this year the parade hosts many choirs and dance groups from thriving Latvian communities overseas, making it the expression of a Latvia far larger than its geographical region. Although the singing and the festival are closely tied to Latvian national identity, the expressions stay authentic, never becoming a cliché, simplistic or pompous.

Many of the dainas carry ancient magical and mystical symbolism. Singers refer to nature's energies and the rhythmic patterns of day and night, summer and winter, high and low as the songs connect them to what creates and carries us. Over 4000 of the dainas refer to the sun in many different ways. Vaira Vike Freiberga, former president of Latvia and ethnographer, researches the meaning of the sun songs and identifies those referring to the warmth of the physical sun, those referring to the cosmological sun and those containing the deep symbolism of the mythological sun. On the last day of the song and dance festival she was present at a small ceremony celebrating the sun and its symbolism as a force for the future of the nation. During the singing, small groups in the audience started holding hands and moving in circles to mimic the movement of the sun, illustrating a natural magical depth that is felt throughout the song and dance festival.

Over 4000 dainas refer to the sun

Latvian singing is a living tradition. At birthday parties, weddings or summer solstice celebrations my Latvian friends may start a 'koru kari' or choir duel. Men and women split up on different sides of the room, agree upon a melody and a theme, and one group starts singing a couplet. While singing, the other group creates their couplet, singing their answer in return. Such a 'koru kari' is a dialogue in sung verses that may go on for hours. The casual inclusion of all generations in dancing and singing is a delight. Small children voice words in songs already heard many times, schoolchildren dance complex folk dances in a casual way, and teenagers, young adults and adults are active in many different choirs, dance troupes and folk groups carrying the tradition. The simplicity and naturalness of the dance moves allow seniors to actively and gracefully participate, and they do.

The quality of the dancing and singing at the local, regional and national festivals is outstanding. Besides being a living tradition in which 10% of the Latvian population actively participates, such quality is the result of a dedicated cultural policy and careful planning. Dace Melbarde, director of the Latvian National Centre for Culture talks about the nations 160 music schools, the 600 cultural centres, the 800 libraries and their constant attention to maintaining quality. To put these numbers in perspective one needs to remember that the Latvian population numbers around 2 million, of which only 1.5 million speak the language. Stimulating the best quality is done through a network of carefully chosen regional and local conductors and annual festivals all over the country. Participants at all levels are supported by material and methods for teaching and practising. Regular contests identify the best singers and dancers that then get to perform in Riga at the national festival. Thus the song and dance festival acts as a catalyst that provides a single focus to people and organisations at all levels in society active in singing and dancing.

Traditional dance

The truly unique intensity and atmosphere of the festival is created by the synergy of all these different factors. The inscription of the Baltic song and dance celebrations on to the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity is but a fitting recognition of its quality. In recent years, with the globalisation of media, the festival is becoming more widely known. An example is the video coverage that was put online by China Daily and the delegation of the China Association of Performing Arts that will visit Latvia in the coming months to become acquainted with the Latvian arts tradition.

The importance of singing and the festival is widely recognised in Latvia and the future has everyone's attention. The minister of culture has a three-point approach for the contribution of culture in general:

  • Contributing to the economy by stimulating the creative industries
  • Stimulating and maintaining the quality of cultural expressions
  • Making the contribution of culture to the economy more visible.

For cultural professionals these are recognisable policy initiatives that make sense. It is what one would expect in the current climate. But there may be another, more profound contribution of the tradition and the festival that is less easily recognised.

Some years ago, in a report entitled 'Culture, the heart of a knowledge-based economy', written at the invitation of European Commission's President Barroso, members of the European Cultural Parliament described the possible contribution of culture to the European project. It outlines such a contribution to society on three different levels. The operational level consists of the arts and cultural sectors as we know them - such as the performing and visual arts and literature. At the tactical level cultural activities are applied in other domains, such as actors working in urban neighbourhoods stimulating quality of life. At the strategic level culture contributes its humanistic cultural paradigm, and its value system may contribute to rethinking the economy, healthcare or the financial sector.

The juxtaposition of traditional and modern

The Latvian Song and Dance Festival by itself would be the contribution at the first operational level, including all its supporting infrastructures, organisations and activities. At the tactical level the tradition and festival appear in the creative industries or as an export product. The strategic level asks what the tradition and festival's possible conceptual and paradigmatic contribution may be to the future of society at large and the different sectors in it. The answer to the strategic question requires a reassessment of the fundamentally different nature of the Latvian song tradition and its cultural expression. Beyond the outer expression of song lines and dance movements its activities are imbued with an inner sense of meaning. The dainas reaffirm the participants' place in life and the universe and their performance is an expression of a collectively known and shared truth. The singing and dancing acts as a form of knowing and are an expression of a deeply-shared feeling for and understanding of underlying eternal qualities of the natural world - knowledge of the principles that determine life as we live it. Part of the body of dainas not only aspires to express such underlying truth but to connect the singers with it in an on-going process. This quality makes the Latvian tradition fundamentally distinct from the larger body of Western culture.

The knowledge that the dainas express would be different from how we define 'truth' and 'knowing' in Western terms. Ever since the development of the rational, discursive notion of truth and our embrace of it since enlightenment, science, arts and culture veered away from expressing the natural truth of life as we live it. Such natural truths are left to older stories and sources such as the dainas, today generally relegated to the periphery of cultural life. In Western arts and culture, artistic expression is often highly individual - where the artist creates an evocative experience for an audience of individual viewers. The artistic work embodies the position of the individual artist whether it be just its cultural expression or a statement or critical standpoint relating to circumstances in society. In Western culture we don't assume arts and culture are an expression of an eternal truth in the way of the Latvian tradition.

Traditions preserved

Returning to the earlier question of whether the cultural tradition might strategically contribute to the future of society, it is precisely this distinct character of Latvian singing and dancing that creates an opportunity. Well-known Latvian ethnologist Austris Grasis, when asked what the dainas would say to bankers and the financial sector, without hesitation cited some dainas appropriate to answer the question. At first sight the simple text of the daina is no match for the complexity of our macro-economic models or the algorithms at the heart of complex financial products. Such complexity, which we associate with today's world, is exciting and challenging but at the same time gets us lost and results in systems, products and services that we don't know how to control. It seems to lack a certain quality that creates perverse effects when it scales up, resulting in the wicked problems that confront us today. One might even say that such complexity makes it a less likely candidate to structure a sustainable world. The simplicity of the dainas, on the other hand, might hide a much deeper quality than we see at first sight. They have the quality that, to paraphrase a quote attributed to Einstein, 'makes things as simple as possible, but not simpler'. It is a simplicity that is not reductionist, but results in vitality when applied.

If it is at all possible, such a contribution of the dainas to society would need to be developed. Principles contained in the dainas must be identified and formulated in such a way that they become understandable and applicable in the practical realities of business and society. In their current form the texts often seem old fashioned and self-evident in a way that makes us underestimate their possible meaning. Their expression of the underlying principles found in nature tend to be normative which may feel prescriptive and limiting, and yet such principles might get us home and prevent us from straying. The possible contribution of the daina tradition to society at large may lie in their underlying values and principles that could inspire a balanced and sustainable world.

Such a strategic connection between a cultural practice and the realities of business and society may seem surprising and far fetched, but in fact has already been developing in other forms over the last decades. Business thinking, in order to deal with new complexities, has been developing in fundamentally different directions such as the application of aesthetics in business or spirituality in business. These burgeoning fields are found in research groups at universities and business schools, in training programmes and in the early adopters in business. The approach has true economic reality. In their book 'Firms of endearment' authors Sisodia, Wolfe and Sheth show that fifty different value-based corporations for decades outperformed other companies on the stock market at a ratio of ten to one. All the researched companies have a strong set of explicit values at the centre of their operations. When part of the dainas collection contains and expresses deep values that may support true sustainability, then their possible contribution might indeed become strategic. It would depend on unlocking those values in such a way that makes them not only meaningful to the business community, but also practically applicable.

Singing in the Latvian tradition is the expression of national identity and voices the hope for a free and independent Latvia. That hope has been realised. How does one redirect its focus from a hope not yet realised to an inspiration for a sustainable nation? How does the daina tradition shape the future of Latvia? How might it contribute to our understanding of a deeply sustainable world? I am looking forward to the next Latvian Song and Dance festival in 2018 and hope that some of these strategic promises will find an audience to be developed. I would also hope that the unique and distinct nature of the Latvian cultural practice makes us aware of a force of culture that has been absent for long and inspires us to reconnect to it.

Bert Mulder is associate professor in information, technology and society at The Hague University in the Netherlands. He was information advisor to the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament, member of the Committee for the Innovation of Libraries.

1 comment

  • Comment Link JurisTuesday, 01 October 2013 03:04 posted by Juris

    A well written article.
    This Latvian cultural model, is similar to their ancient Indo-European ancestors. Indeed, the Vedic texts of old, including the Samkhya Karika, describe Universal Natural Reality, in the same way as the Latvian Dainas. Much like the Veda, Dainas are ancient Truths, that describe our reality. They provide us tools, to interact with our Real Universe!

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