A Colorful Bunch — Intro to the Latvian Folklore Movement

“Folklorists” are often considered a strange lot, both among Latvians abroad and in Latvia proper. Maybe even more so in Latvia. You’d think that if Latvians wanted to distinguish themselves from other nations, then folklore would be their piece de resistance. But it’s disheartening to see that the unifying enthusiasm for folk songs, folklore, and other things ‘Latvian’ of the late 1980s and early 1990s was just a passing phase for much of the nation. Be that as it may, I was born into a folky family and it’s stuck with me. So obviously, I looked to the folklorists for my niche here in Latvia as well.

Folklorists make up only a very small proportion of the population in Latvia. In addition, there are probably only about a dozen former trimdinieki, or exiles, active in the folklore movement, which is surprising considering how singing and ethnic arts were stressed in the trimda communities [The average trimdinieks probably knows more folk songs that the average Latvian in Latvia.]. Then again, it’s not the easiest community to break into, since most of the regular activities take place within tight-knit groups of music-making friends and when larger events are planned, much of the advertising is done by word-of-mouth.

Yet maybe all the singing in the late 1980s had some lasting effect after all, since demographically the folk movement is quite young. At 37 years I’m firmly in the “middle aged” crowd at most folk events, whereas at Latvian events outside Latvia I’m often considered fairly young. As with most cultural endeavors, folk groups usually have proportionately far more women than men. Currently one of Riga’s most robust folk groups is Kokle. It consists of 20 or so teenagers, about a third of whom are smart young men. Smart because a folk group—or choir or folk dance group, for that matter—is a great place to meet lots of interesting girls.

So no, the Latvian folklore movement is in no danger of dying out anytime soon. But neither is it developing a definite focus, as far as I can see. On the contrary, I like the variety that I see in it and find it healthy.

Some groups, such as Saucējas, attempt to recreate ‘ethnographic’ manners of singing or playing instruments. The specific designation ‘ethnographic ensemble’, though, denotes a group that sings songs only from their particular locale and which have most likely been passed down to them uninterrupted from previous generations. Other groups prefer to use traditional melodies and/or texts only as a starting point for their imaginations and experimentations with other musical styles: from the well-known rock-inspired Iļģi to the lesser-known Laimas muzykanti and new-age Baobabs; from the delicate Lāns to pagan metal Skyforger, and many more. Most groups however fall somewhere between ultra-ethnic, world, and metal music. Some of these groups concentrate on a favorite topic or region or focus on certain musical instruments. Vilki and Vilcenes sing songs about soldiers and warfare; Dimzēns sings songs from Zemgale, Ilža sings Latgalian songs, and Skandinieki’s hallmark is Livonia and Kurzeme; Laiva often makes use of kokle [a zither-like instrument related to the Finnish kantele] accompaniments, while Auļi play mostly instrumental music using only drums and bagpipes. Some groups perform very often; others are more private gatherings of folks who just like to sing. Recordings that give the listener a good overview of current Latvian folk-inspired groups and styles are the Sviests series of CDs compiled by the culture management center Lauska. The website folklora.lv has compiled a list of most of the folklore music groups in Latvia.

Folk groups based outside of Riga often focus on singing material from their particular region of Latvia. On the other hand Savieši—the group I sing with—sings unadulterated folk songs from all over Latvia. This sounds very nice, but is actually a kind of curse common to Riga-based groups. Being that historically most Latvians were farmers and not city dwellers, very little folk material has been gathered in Riga itself, leading to very little of what could be called ‘Riga folklore’. In addition, the members of Riga-based groups tend to have roots (and therefore allegiances) in different parts of Latvia, thus making it difficult for a group to agree on a single geographical focus. But singing and song styles vary from region to region and it is not easy to constantly switch from one song to the next and yet stay true to each style. The trend in Latvian folklore right now is to try to focus on one region or one style of singing and make it sound as ‘authentic’ as possible—not necessarily all the time, but at least during one program or performance. Another (unfortunate) trend is “the older, the better”, whereby newer song strata, such as ziņģes and the folk songs of the 1930s that our grandparents sang can sometimes be the target of implicit condescension.

There are also directions in the folklore movement that have little to do with music. Senā vides darbnīca and similar groups devote themselves to experimental archaeology, in which they research and then actually try living the ancient way of life for periods of time. These groups can be identified by their Iron Age garments, although several other groups have recently adopted similar costumes, to the point where these old styles of dress can now be called a sort of fad among folklore groups. Other experimental archaeology groups, such as Vilkači and Trejasmens, specifically concentrate on reconstructing ancient soldiering attire, accessories, and life and reenacting battles and rituals to varying degrees of plausibility.

Rīgas danču klubs (Riga Dance Club) is hugely popular, especially among teenagers and university students. [Remember, though, that folklore is basically a subculture, so ‘hugely’ is a relative term.] They host regular dance evenings that are open to the public, but also maintain a smaller group that performs here and there. There are also academics researching folklore, of which some of the better-known are Janīna Kursīte, Anda Beitāne, Mārtiņš Boiko, Dace Bula, Guntis Pakalns, and Aldis Pūtelis. Many folklorists are active craftsmen and craftswomen—potters, weavers, woodworkers, instrument makers—who are dedicated to learning and preserving folk arts. Last but definitely not least are the loners, eccentrics, back-to-the-landers, and ‘followers of their own road’ that help make the folklorists such an interesting breed.

So it’s a vibrant, dynamic community full of artists, musicians, students, teachers, craftspeople, alternatives, free-thinkers…and strong personalities. It goes without saying then, that it’s also sometimes a frustratingly impulsive, unorganized, capricious, and erratic community. Events are planned at the last minute. Familiar faces continually pop up in new places and combinations, and many are involved in several projects at once, ‘sitting on more than one chair’. New folk groups emerge only to break up again soon after. Sometimes the splendid vision of a talented musician never gets off the ground because s/he just can’t get the right people together at the same time, usually due to the aforementioned numerous chairs. But as we know, Latvian folklorists aren’t the only ones with such problems.

There is a sort of old boys’ club, or royalty, at the higher and official levels of folklore. That said, there’s plenty of grass roots stuff happening, too…grass roots being, of course, one of the defining elements of a subculture. But I feel that a bit more enterprising organization in the movement is needed, if only to improve the advertising of folk events.

Entry points? My favorite is the Riga Dance Club (www.folkdance.lv) since its events are open to the public and don’t require prior knowledge of folklore, dancing, or even the Latvian language. Once you get past the inherent reserve and reticence of Latvians, the dance evenings are a good place to meet people and network. If you play an instrument, practice picking up melodies by ear and jamming along with other musicians (any style—it’s all good practice) since that’s the way most folk musicians play. If you’re a singer, acquaint yourself with as many folk songs as possible, learn them by heart, observe patterns in the texts, and by all means try to find out where the song was originally recorded (meaning the region of Latvia, not the recording studio). To those on the outside, Latvia may seem like a small, homogeneous country, but it turns out that folklorists in Latvia are very sensitive to where a song is from. And definitely don’t be afraid of calling together a few friends and starting your own group.

This article was originally published in Jauno laiks, a supplement to the Latvian-American newspaper Laiks.