Latviešu Dziesmu un Deju Svētki: Latvian Song and Dance Festival

Latviešu Dziesmu un Deju Svētki: Latvian Song and Dance Festival

The Song Festival 2018

This year Latvia held its 26th annual song festival and 16th annual dance festival. These celebrations are held every 5 years, and I feel blessed to be living here in both the Centennial year and the year of this incredible event!

I thought that there was no way the performance could live up to the hype, but this is one of those rare cases where it well exceeded anything I could have imagined.

A Little Background

From what I understand, the Song Festival began in 1873, long before Latvia was an independent state, and it was this joint cultural event that really bonded the country together. In a way, music really did play a part in creating the national identity that later led to independence in 1918.

These festivals were held every 5 years (give or take with wars and such) mostly in Riga, and a dance portion was added to the festival about 80 years ago, but I am struggling to find out exactly why and how.

This year’s festival included about 100,000 participants from all over Latvia and the rest of the world with over 500,000 people coming to watch various events throughout the week. There are contests and small groups combine to form a super group on the final two days. Saturday was devoted to the dance with some 18,000 people dressed in folk costumes performing these unbelievable dances to traditional and modern Latvian music.

But the real jewel in the crown is the Dziesmu Svētki held on Sunday. Twelve-thousand singers form a giant choir singing incredibly orchestrated songs to a live crowd of about 40,000 in the stadium in Mežaparks, which is literally in the middle of a forest. I am sure that most Latvians who could watched it live on t.v. just as we did, mesmerized by the spectacle.

Dziesmu Svētki 2018

I say we watched it on television, and this wasn’t a bad thing. Tickets were very hard to come by. There was an online lottery where people logged in and waited for hours and hours to get tickets. I tried, but I failed. I was, however, able to get tickets to the sing-along following the formal peformance at the same stadium with many of the same singers. Rita assured me that it was even better than going to the actual show, and I have to say that I think she is right!

The live production began at 8 p.m. on Sunday night. We watched as the singers started filling the giant white platform dressed in their beautiful national costumes from different regions and time periods representing Latvia in so many ways. Women were adorned with flower crowns and real crowns while most of the men had traditional hats and colorful vests. The costumes alone were impressive enough, but when the singing began, I was blown away.

The night was basically a who’s who of Latvian music (and really all of Latvia) with conductors and composers from the Latvian repertoire all present along with the president of Latvia and many ministers and other important people. Anna’s favorite part of the night was when President Vējonis gave a speech. He stuttered a bit and forgot that he was speaking at the song festival and almost said “Merry Christmas.” Then he stopped and said that he was really nervous. It was cute.

The program itself was a loosely organized concept of the history of Latvia from its beginning to the present. An important moment came when the original Ligo flag was brought out, and then the old Latvian flag was presented.

After a few hours, we decided to get a taxi to get to Mežaparks to catch the very end of the concert. One of Rita’s favorites is Saule, Pērkons, Daugava (Sun, Thunder, Daugava). It has become kind of a second national anthem for Latvia and is the official song of Rīgas Valsts 2. ģimnāzija (my school). The Taxify driver got us there just in time to hear the end of the song from a distance, and, as we usual for this concert, the crowd and the singers demanded to sing it again, “Atkārtojiet!” they chanted. And we got into the stadium to catch the second round… completely breathtaking.

The After Party

The stadium was packed with people, and we kind of pushed our way through the loose line to catch a glimpse of the chorus just before the show ended. The wall of white drowned in lights against the night sky was poetic, and to hear them singing in person was just incredible.

As you might imagine, after sitting there for four hours, many of the ticket holders were eager to leave, which left lots of open spaces for us to sit during the sing-along. The crowd thinned out, and we parked ourselves about 20 rows back from the stage waiting for the party to start.

The sing-along was wonderful and very well organized. The minister of culture stayed the entire time, and the stage was always full of emcees and singers and a band playing music. I have no idea how they orchestrated the whole thing, but it was beautiful.

They displayed lyrics to songs on a ribbon screen above the stage, but it was hard for me to follow. Everything went better once I found out there was a book with all the songs they were singing in the order that they would be sung. We ran into Joe Horgan, my American friend from Maine who shared his book with us. I later bought one of my own.

Not only did they perform folk songs, but they also had organized dances. Rita, Anna, Joe and I went down to dance with the big group learning some of the basic moves of such Latvian classics as “Tūdaliņ, Tagadiņ” and “Pankūkas” along with many others.

All in all, there are 82 or so songs in the book, and we got through 73 of them at the party. It went from about midnight to 6 a.m., and people (including us) stayed the entire time. We saw the sky grow completely dark, and then it slowly began to lighten at about 3 a.m. until it was fully light. It was like another Līgo but with a thousand new friends.

After singing and dancing the night away, we took a tram home, and people on the tram started singing songs. Rita warned me this might happen, and, sure enough, it did! I can only imagine what the early morning commuters who weren’t at the party must have thought of us.

It boggles my mind to think about the amount of time and effort that went in behind the scenes to bring us this show. All of those individuals came together after practicing for years to create an impeccable and amazing sound.

You can learn more here.

Watch the whole thing here. (If this link even works outside of Latvia?)

You do not need to know the language to appreciate the beauty of it all.

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