by Bavesh Moorthy
Bavesh Moorthy and Kirsten McDowell attended a midsummer festival in Latvia and sang along with choruses from all over the world.
The Latvian capital of Riga held one of the largest congregations of singers and dancers in the world for the 25th Latvian Song and Dance Festival this July. The Vispārējie Latviešu Dziesmu Un Deju Svetki, is among the most important events on the Latvian calendar, having made UNESCO’s list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. With more than 15,000 singers from across the world, it was like a Jani, or a midsummer night’s dream.
Clad in vividly-colored costumes symbolizing their regions, people as old as one hundred and as young as nine stood testimony to history unfolding before their eyes. The Latvian Song and Dance Festival has been held every five years since 1873, and this year was the event’s 25th celebration.
The celebrations that commenced in the first week of July culminated with a mind-blowing evening of singing and dancing to celebrate the summer solstice. The festival, Līgo originates from centuries of Europeans enjoying the sun and summer. As a symbol of fertility, vitality and endurance in ancient times, today the Līgo festival signifies the unity and national pride of Latvia.
As a part of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna’s choir, Chorus Musica Favorita, my colleague Kirsten McDowell and I were invited to be a part of this event. We trained with the Viennese Latvian Choir (Vines Latviešu Koris) which was among the many international choirs invited to participate. Aside from the multitude of choirs from Latvia, there were choirs from countries as far away as Japan and the US. In addition to the mixed voice choirs, there were also all-male, all-female and even children’s choirs.
The stage was set in Mežaparks, the country’s largest open-air auditorium. Our first day of practice was overwhelming, and we were amazed by the effort and coordination of both the organizers and the participants. The conductors were Latvia’s prized children — men and women alike; the oldest among them had just celebrated his centenary birthday. It was the height of summer, so the days were sweltering, but luckily there were water sprays to cool off participants.
After two practice sessions, we were ready for the first of our three big performances. Tickets for the festival had sold out months in advance, as this was one of the most eagerly anticipated Latvian events in years. The final performance on Sunday, the seventh of July, was the dream I had been waiting to realize.
We donned the national Latvian attire, for the performance, as we were lucky that our Latvian host family, the Kaulas—including Katrine and her boyfriend Jēkabs, helped us acquire it. We fit splendidly into the crowd, save our inability to converse in Latvian, while my Indian appearance raised a few eyebrows.
As one of the sponsors of the event, the government of Latvia organized a night of partying for every one of the 15,000 singers and dancers at the country’s largest stadium, the Daugavas Stadions, so named as Riga lies on the banks of the Daugava river.
At dawn on the big day, the first thing on our itinerary was a parade through the streets of Riga in the national attire, singing folk songs to throngs of people eager to get a glimpse of history in the making. When we formed choir groups for our parade, we realized the magnitude of the event. Ladies clad in the multi-colored costumes walked along with their little young ones in their arms, and we knew that we were in for an event we would treasure for a lifetime. The women had exquisite floral braids and tiaras, seemingly to feel like goddesses who had just come from the most beautiful of gardens.
Despite our exhaustion, people continued to cheer for us as our parade led us through the beautiful streets of Riga; I was quite a distinct character with my costume and my camera dangling around my neck. A foreigner in Latvian costume aroused the curiosity of many, making me the focal point of many pictures among the treasure trove of memories.
The final grand performance commenced at 19:00, and thus began one of the most cherished memories of our lifetimes. With an audience of 30,000 to witness this great Latvian tradition, the renditions of some of the songs brought us to tears. It made us realize the closeness and unity so prevalent in this beautiful country nestled in the Baltics. The festival’s songs were written with such fervor that the enthusiasm, they could even be appreciated by someone who wasn’t Latvian. The final songs were emotional and we were shoulder-to-shoulder with the others, swaying and singing them from the bottoms of our hearts. Our Latvian colleagues were so enthused that we actually performed many songs more than once, and after every song the composer and conductor were felicitated by floral bouquets from beautiful girls and handsome guys.
Well beyond midnight, as the sun started to light up the horizon, the folk songs began anew and the people danced across the Mežaparks. The next few hours were pure bliss as Kirsten and I began to comprehend just how fortunate we were to be present to witness an event that we may experience again. However, we eagerly await the next celebration in five years that shall also commemorate the 100th year of Latvian independence. We hope to get another chance to be a part of this festival, and to once again sway to the rhythm of Līgo.