[As the result of a 1921 international border agreement, half a county of ethnically Latvian inhabitants along the Baltic Sea coast ended up in Lithuania instead of Latvia. One positive outcome of this situation that culturally isolated the people there is that their singing traditions survived more or less intact until very recently. For the past 20+ years a couple I know here in Riga has been visiting Sventāja (Šventoji in Lithuanian), the main Latvian village in the area, getting to know the people and recording their songs. A CD + DVD of these field recordings was finally released in late summer of 2010. Since the folklore ensemble I sing with has learned many of these songs, I decided to go to the CD opening event in Sventāja in October 2010, spending the night with friends in Liepāja on the Latvian side of the border. I was curious to see where the songs had come from, hear the local dialect, and maybe even meet some of the original singers.]
Singing in Šķaune
About 20 years ago a young couple on an outing to the far reaches of Latgale [eastern Latvia] met and recorded a couple of local traditional musicians and singers. Ilmārs and Janta Mežs kept in touch with one of the musicians – a violin player – and this past summer Janta invited me and another friend along to Latgale to meet him and to see whether there were any other traditional singers and musicians left in that area. We focused on the town of Šķaune and its surrounding area, which is right on the Latvian border with Belarus, about 20 miles east of Dagda. First, though, we needed to apply for permits to enter the border area and then present them at the border patrol office in Šķaune, or else face searches and reprimands by patrolmen. Apparently a lot of smuggling goes on across the Belarusian border, which is also a frontier of the European Union and the newly expanded Schengen free-travel zone.