“It’s an experience I would recommend to anyone!” gasps Romans Vanags, dripping with perspiration from his exertions in 30-degree heat. Having just stepped down from the podium after directing a 12,000-strong choir through a final rehearsal of ‘Saule, Perkons, Daugava’ (Sun, Thunder, Daugava River) – a song many Latvians regard as an unofficial national anthem and far more powerful than the rather workaday ‘God Bless Latvia’ – he is 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 but also to give something back to them,” the 50-year-old choirmaster says.
Vanags is one of an elite group of ‘dirigenti’ or conductors who are trusted with taking charge of what is Latvia’s most important event – its Song Festival, which happens just once every five years and is recognised by UNESCO as a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’.
Conductors can achieve superstar status here. Their relative strengths and weaknesses are discussed the way a football fan might consider the abilities of a team’s players, and newspapers are keen to print their opinions on anything from government policy to demographics. They can even achieve a sort of quasi-mystical status, as evidenced by the display in Cesis museum of a coat belonging to one particularly renowned conductor, as if it were some religious relic capable of bestowing the power of song upon anyone laying eyes upon it.
Since 1873 the Song Festival has been one of the few fixed points in the turbulent history of this Baltic nation of just 2 million – seeming at times to be the only thing standing between it and obliteration.
So it’s hardly surprising that despite being on the surface an upbeat celebration of folk traditions, the terms in which it is described often invoke war and conflict, as if for its duration one week every five years, Latvia becomes a global force – in the world of song, at least.
“There is a war in which Latvia can win without weapons – choir wars. In the 140-year history of the Song and Dance Celebration, we have become a superpower,” Culture Minister Zanete Jaunzeme-Grende said at the start of this year’s event, while decked out in suitable national costume.
The festival (and its parallel dance festival) began June 30 and reaches its climax on July 7 with a huge concert at a vast forest amphitheatre in which 12,000 voices are raised in pitch-perfect unison, an occasion guaranteed to make the hair stand up on the back of any self-respecting Latvian neck.
The figures the festival generates are astounding. Close to 40,000 people – 2 percent of the whole population – takes part as active participants (the equivalent figure per capita in France for example would require around 1 million participants) with more than 100,000 spectators on top of that. The streets of Riga become clogged with 1,000 buses ferrying 400 choirs and 600 dance troupes in from every corner of the country.
In charge of the whole thing is Dace Melbarde, who seems remarkably relaxed considering the weight of a nation’s expectations rests upon her shoulders.
“The artistic side of it such as the repertoire and the training for the regional conductors needs to be complete at least three years before the festival,” she says, ” but you also need to be able to react immediately. For example today at rehearsals temperatures were up to 30 degrees and people started fainting so we had to make sure there was water and first aid available.”
According to Melbarde, the festival will need new, bigger facilities by the time the 2018 festival takes place.
“It’s interesting that despite our shrinking population, the number of people taking part in the festival is growing,” she says. “In the last two years alone, more than 100 new dance groups have been founded.”
The festival started in 1873 as a rare opportunity for Latvians to use their own language in public under Russian and Baltic German overlords. It is credited with playing a crucial role in the drive towards independence in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries and enjoyed a revival during the so-called “singing revolution” of the late 1980s that swept through the Baltic states.
The festival continued, albeit in carefully-vetted form throughout fifty years of Soviet occupation thanks to its emphasis on peasant folk traditions.
26-year-old Daina Rudusa will be among the singers at the closing concert, the culmination of three years of rehearsals: “In most places people associate choirs with something religious or old fashioned. I had a hard time getting my friends to come to choir concerts abroad, because for them, it didn’t mean anything. For us, Latvians, singing is cultural, historical, it is something we do on an everyday basis,” she says.
“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. I don’t think that it is something that other countries can understand – perhaps only our Baltic neighbors,” Rudusa says.
Another singer, 24-year-old Janis Kanders from Kekava can barely contain his excitement. “It’s the end of four years of hard work. It’s a feeling that’s difficult to put into words. You have to be here to experience it. You could almost say it is like a sort of light that shines on everyone,” he says, a broad smile spreading across his face.
Attending his fifth song and dance festival – more than many Latvians manage – Bernhard Bendel from Limburg in Germany admits that perhaps only Latvians can feel its full power.
“I first encountered the festival 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. It means even more to Latvians of course, but it inspired us in Limburg to put on our own choir festival, too,” he tells AFP as he strolls across Riga.
Meanwhile waiting at a tram stop is 60-year-old Erik Stamm from Bern in Switzerland. “I came here as part of a choir 10 years ago, and made so many friends that I just had to come back on my own this time. In Switzerland we have festivals of song, festivals of dance, festivals of brass, festivals of folk costumes – but here you have them all together at one time!” he enthuses.
With such devotion from foreigners as well as locals, Latvian leaders have realised the role the song festival can play in promoting a positive image of the country abroad, particularly with Riga set to be a European Capital of Culture in 2014 and Latvia due to chair the Council of Europe in 2015.
Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics says the song festival offers a way to get international media talking about more than Latvia’s imminent accession to the eurozone and its recovery from economic crisis.
“It’s about image but its also about showing that we are a country with great cultural potential. We can show our guests, of which there are quite a number, what this country is really about,” he says.
Economy minister Daniels Pavluts agrees: “I used to participate, but sadly now I don’t have the time. It was an extraordinary feeling of community, not just in the performances but in the time between, in the rehearsals, in the waiting,” he says.
“There are various ways our nation can find value in the song festival, not just in the cultural sphere. It’s one of the ways we can contribute the most to the world. I would say this was one of the strongest ways we could get a ‘soft power’ kind of message across,” Pavluts says.
Yet there is a sense in which no matter how much tourists and foreign media will enjoy the spectacle of the closing concert, te significance to Latvians goes far deeper. It might not be too much of an exaggeration to say that the way a song festival turns out might even determine the country’s fate for the next five years.
“Ultimately, this is for us, ” says Dace Melbarde. “It’s not a commercial product we want to sell. I remember in 1990, just as we were winning our independence, I started to read history and sing. Until that point I had been a typical Communist child and what I discovered about myself and my country really shocked me. Then, singing songs that had been banned before, the sense of liberation was overpowering. I literally found a new voice.”