RIGA - One thing is certain; the Baltics certainly offer something for everyone in the summer. It would almost be enough just to while away the time on Saarema Island, play in the dunes of Klaipeda's white sand or enjoy a bottle of wine at a seaside Jurmala cafe, but this part of the world offers so much more. The range of summer festivals is endless: music festivals, art festivals, beer festivals, historic festivals, farmers markets and more. The highlight this year will be the Ninth Latvian Youth Song and Dance Festival.
The Youth Song and Dance Festival is a week-long event that takes place in Riga from June 27-July 3. Anyone who has ever been to a sauna with locals knows that when Latvians sing, they do it on a grand scale, and the festival is no exception to this rule. Like the more traditional Song and Dance Festival, the youth festival happens every five years and its 35,000 participants had to qualify. The theme for this year's festival is represented by a knot; the idea being that it holds all things and people together. Young crooners and dancers from all corners of the country will congregate in Riga, celebrating the one thing that holds them together- their national identity.
Talking with Inta Sorina, one of the event organizers, in the State Youth Initiative office, I discover just how much this festival means. Sorina's enthusiasm for the event is infectious.
"This isn't a commercial event 's this is an event where everyone comes to participate," she says, contrasting the youth festival to most other events in Latvia today.
Sorina adds that the concert is a labor of love and source of pride for its performers, organizers, and the parents and families involved. "If they pay their money, they want to know that they will have a good time," she says, adding that this is an extremely high-quality event.
As the energetic organizer describes the week's events, I try to narrow down what it is I want to attend most 's the concerts, the open-air events, or the markets? No success. Each event sounds better than the last.
The Youth Song and Dance Festival took place for the first time in 1960 and has only happened three times in an independent Latvia. The festival has evolved as the country has evolved, Sorina says, and this year will be the biggest event ever with almost 35,000 youth, plus volunteers, organizers, parents and helpers.
Almost a social movement, the festival provides youth aged 6 to 18 with a tangible connection to their Latvian identity. Sorina explains that today's Latvian youth live "in a different world"; one where globalization threatens the knowledge of their Latvian roots. In many cases, they can tell you more about Eminem than Raimonds Pauls.
That's where the festival comes in, she says, it makes being involved in traditional song and dance cool. The young participants train extensively to be selected. The reward? A week in Riga with 35,000 kids who enjoy the same things they do.
Eighteen-year-old Ageta has participated twice in the youth festival and once in the larger Song and Dance Festival. I ask her what it is that makes her want to be there again this year and she smiles: "When it all comes together and we sing together at the final event, I know that the practices three times a week were worth it. Nothing is better, and a week in Riga is great."
The event is more, however, than just a kids' show. They may be young, but the performers really know what they're doing and are a thrill to watch. The show they put on is of truly surprising scale, and it should be. Considering that almost 95,000 candidates hope to attend the festival, the 35,000 that actually qualify are the best of the best. With large-scale dance performances, interpretations of Rainis' "I danced 's I played," brass bands, and a parade, this is no small event.
Singing and dancing is not the only thing on the agenda. On July 1 and July 2, young people from trade and art schools around the country also have the chance to show off their work. The skills these cooks, craftsmen, actors and artists possess are certainly impressive.
The final show of the week takes place in Mezaparks. This is the event every child, proud parent or grandparent waits for. Telecast live on television throughout the country, all eyes are focused on these youth as they dance and sing together one last time for another five years.