YoC.3: Night of the Barricades

YoC.3: Night of the Barricades

Notice that “Year of Culture” was a bit too long, so I shortened it. I hope you enjoy YoC.

The Barricades: Historical Context

Barricade singers
Barricade singers

On January 20th, Latvia remembers The Barricades. I wrote somewhere before that Latvians have a lot of “black days” on the calendar—days of remembrance rather than celebrations. I see the flags out on buildings, and then check to see why.

On 4 May 1990, Latvia reclaimed its independence as the Soviet Union began falling apart. In 1991 the OMOM, a special forces unit, cracked down on Riga at various locations in an attempt to take the city back.

In order to stop them, barricades were erected with vehicles, bricks, and whatever could be found to stop the post-Soviet forces from entering the city. There were skirmishes, and the OMAM killed several Latvians including journalists in the TV Tower.

I was surprised to read that not only did 700,000 (estimated) Latvians turn out to demonstrate for their independence in January of 1991, but at the height of the barricades, 100,000 people in Moscow protested for Latvian independence. Wouldn’t it be something to see that happening today?

Each night, people volunteered to man the barricades and keep the fires lit all night long to protect Riga from the invading forces. Normal people, mostly unarmed and untrained, believed so much in their freedom that they were willing to sacrifice themselves for their newly gained independence.

Interestingly, I just finished watching the movie Janvāris which is about the barricades, so it has been weekend filled with history.

Laika liecība. Lugšana

As these things happen, I had no real plan to go to see the remembrance of the barricades. I had a plan to go observe the Friday night Ukrainian/English group at the Anglican Church in Old Town. I asked my friend Iveta to join me, since she is also an English teacher. We spent a delightful hour chatting with Ukrainians on various English topics, and then went to have a drink together to catch up.

Along the way, we passed through the Dome Square where a fire was lit, and Latvians were gathered around singing folk songs. Iveta pointed out that there was a concert at the Dome Church, and she just wanted to see if it was free—it was. This is another nice thing about living in Riga, you really can indulge in so many cultural events for little or no cost.

We had a drink at the B Bar next to the church, and then went in for the concert.

Iveta knows so much more about these things than I do. She, like me, was born in the States to Latvian parents, but she was immersed in Latvian culture. She learned the language, sang the songs, and has lived here much longer. She explained that the director of the concert, Gerds Lapoška, had developed this performance for his thesis. The title of the concert was “Laika liecība. Lugšana”, which translates to “Testimony of Time. Prayer.”


If you have never been to Riga’s Dome Church, it is a challenging place to hold any sort of concert. It is a giant echo chamber with large pillars, heavy and thick, that block the views from many angles. We chose to sit a bit off to the side where we could still see the main “stage” area in the front. I had no idea what to expect. I had seen a few other performances at the church, but it had been a long time. It was fairly full, and everyone was wearing their full winter gear inside because there was no heat. Even the performers were wearing mittens and hats.

The Performance

The performance began with Gerds and a woman, whose name I don’t see in the program, in a dialogue about the barricades as if they were there. Of course, I couldn’t understand all of it, so Iveta gave me a brief explanation.

Then began a light show with swirling white lights spiraling across the ceiling and walls of the church. Then a single man started playing these magnificent chimes. At first, it sounded like a church bell ringing, but then it just turned into this chaotic cacophony of noise. I closed my eyes just to feel it.

He finished, and then “Laudate Dominum” by Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks began. A choir of people and the organ combined to fill the space with an ominous and beautiful harmony. I had this weird feeling like I have always wanted to be in a church to hear sounds like this being created by human voices. It was almost hard to believe that it was real because it was so perfect. After an organ solo, the actual choir began walking through the aisles. They stood right next to me at one point and performed. I saw their faces and heard them singing as one in this delicate, soft, harmonious swell of voices that was too beautiful. It was simply surreal.

Then they walked in procession to the front of the church and there was an LED light show. It felt like the ticking of the clock, time passing, as the Latvian people had to guard the barricades all night. Each song was interspersed with dialogue.

Another highlight for me was the piano solo performed by world-class pianist, Vestards Šimkus. It was short, but so beautiful and delicate. There was also a stunning operatic solo by Rihards Mačanovskis.

The final scene performed by the actors included the refrain “keep the flames burning,” and the word for “flame” in Latvian is “liesma” which was my mother’s name. I kept hearing “liesmu,” and felt glad that I could understand at least one word. Today it is her birthday. She has been gone for 11 years, and would be 87 this year. And now I have this forever connection between January 20th, the night of the barricades, where Latvians worked so hard to keep the flames burning to protect their freedom, and January 21st, the day that Liesma was born. Here is a link to a memorial movie I made long ago.

The big finale brought all the performers to the stage area for a rendition of the Lord’s Prayer. Finally, there was some brightness in the dark, as the lights came on and the music swelled to a crescendo. The large crowd gave a standing ovation, and the applause went on for days, as it does at Latvian performances.

After the show, Iveta and I walked to the fire where the Latvians were gathered. They had just finished singing a folk song and then began singing “Daugav’ abas malas” (Both sides of the Daugava River). Iveta sang along, and I just stood there wishing I knew the words because I loved the tune and felt a gorgeous affinity with everything in that moment. Even if I didn’t know, I felt.

Side note

Once again, I did a double dip of culture. I didn’t feel like going home since it was a Friday night. I decided to have a beer at the Banshee bar where they have about 30 beers on tap. I have been there three times now, and the bartender is always the same guy, so it feels like I am almost a regular. I asked him for the most IPA beer they had, and he got me a triple IPA from a Latvian brewery that was pretty good.

Then I started chatting with the other bartender, Evelina, who said she used to be punk. I started asking her about the local music scene and where I could see some good live music. She recommended the Depo bar, which I knew about but had never been to. She checked her phone and told me that I should go this very night because an old Latvian band, Baložu Pilni Pagalmi (Yard full of pigeons), was playing. They were starting in about 15 minutes, so I had time to walk to the bar.

On a whim, I decided “why not?” Outside Depo there was a crowd of young people smoking. I wasn’t sure where the entrance was, so I had to ask. I paid the 8 euro cover and went inside. I ordered a Cilpa and then went downstairs to the basement where the performance space is.

This is truly a cellar, kind of like I have always dreamed of—maybe something like the bar where the Beatles first played, the Cavern Club in Hamburg. It was old, smelly, and really small. The stage was separated from the crowd by a narrow iron grate.

I stood in the 3rd or 4th row with my beer and waited as they performed the sound check.

I was hoping that the place would be crowded and people would start dancing and it would be really lively, but that was a bit much to hope for. I am sorry to say, but Latvians really don’t seem to get the whole ROCK concert thing. As the band played, the people in front of me just stood there most of the time like lumps on a log. Some of the people, especially the women next to me and behind me were dancing and really excited. There were also lots of gaps. I could have easily just walked to the very front and stood there next to the stage. One creepy blond girl did this maneuver where she bent her knees like she was doing the limbo, and then sidled underneath us all the way to the front. She moved so silently and smoothly that it was off putting.

The sidler

Is it inherent politeness and shyness that keeps Latvians from going all-out at rock shows? I remember another show where people were standing 10 feet from the stage, so I went and stood in front of them. I felt like I had broken some unwritten rule, but come on, the performers want to know you are out there! Show them you care!

The band was pretty old. I thought the lead singer had lost his voice, but then I went back and listened to songs on youtube, and he pretty much always sounded that way. I think I had heard a couple of the songs before, but nothing was very familiar. Some of the songs sounded like the Smashing Pumpkins or Nirvana. It was all alternative and interesting from the early 90s. I liked the sound and the music had really nice riffs and grooves. As always, the people next to me knew all the words to most of the songs. They were truly fans.

I had fun listening and dancing, but I left during the encore because I wanted to beat the crowd.

I headed back to the Banshee to tell Evelina about the show. I had another beer, and then walked home over the bridge. It was a very nice night of Latvian culture.

A few more photos

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