Shuffling of feet and harmonizing voices resound throughout Latvia this week. The XXV Nationwide Latvian Song and XV Dance Celebration has begun and is in full force.

This is a magical time, to be experienced only once every five years. This time there are 1600 collectives and artistic groups performing, including about 40 000 participants from Latvia and more than 50 other countries.

The Celebration week is a ritual embracing the whole nation, fostering the Latvian cultural self-awareness and strengthening the Latvian identity that roots in culture-based creativity.

The singing and dancing traditions and newly forged elements of these ancient arts are not only a tribute to the magnitude of the cultural heritage of Latvia, but also serve as foundation for the identity of the modern Latvian. Traditional crafts and heritage is part of modern creation, interior design, cuisine, life-style as a whole.

The core of the culture heritage is the daina, a versified four-line piece of wisdom, which has been preserved and handed down from generation to generation until recorded at the turn of the 19-20th centuries, now inscribed in the UNESCO Intangible heritage list.

It bears the Latvian code of ethics. One can find everything there – from attitude models to descriptions of cosmic systems and deities. Some of longer folk poetry pieces have melodies, thus making them singable.  And old and young know and practise singing them, sometimes all night long.

During the time of lost statehood, the dainas or singing, private or public, often helped to express a hidden, but shared message of freedom, pride, longing for independence or protest.

Dr.Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, ex-president of Latvia and the first director of the Latvian Institute, wrote a piece in 1975 in the Journal of Baltic Studies that reflects the importance of song in Latvia:

"To the Latvian the dainas are more than a literary tradition. They are the very embodiment of his cultural heritage, left by forefathers whom history had denied other, more tangible forms of expression. These songs thus form the very core of the Latvian identity and singing becomes one of the identifying qualities of a Latvian."

Latvians call themselves a nation of singers, and the Song and Dance Celebration is a living and thriving testament of this, as it is at its heart a grass-roots movement that literally involves everyone in the Latvian society, engaging huge numbers of people from all walks of life, from the largest cities to the smallest rural villages.

Latvians sing and dance when they are happy. We sing when we are sad. As long as there is going to be Latvia, Latvians will be singing and dancing. If not every day, then at least every five years during the hottest time of the summer.

© Photo: Publicity photo
Karina Pētersone Director, 09.07.2013