Latvians of the world unite for song festival

  • 2000-07-20
  • Ieva Raubishko
WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Latvian community in North America is still strong, active and interested in continuing Latvian traditions.

The recent Latvian Song Festival in Canada, hailed as one of the most successful so far, proved this point as first-generation American Latvians pass the baton to their children and grandchildren. The latter proved to be as good organizers as their parents.

"There is a positive feeling that the first Latvian song festival in the 21st century marked new times with efficient organization by second-and third-generation people and a fruitful cooperation among Latvians in all parts of the world," said Vizma Maksina, a long-time activist and vice chairman of the song festival's executive committee.

The festival, which ran in Toronto from June 30 to July 3, brought together about 5,000 participants and spectators, and much more money than was expected. Participation had been decreasing sharply, at times by 50 percent, since 1991, but this year's event hinted at a promising revival in North American Latvian community.

Both the festival choir concert and the folk dancing performances, which were among the sold-out events in Toronto, drew approximately 3,000 spectators, according to Maksina. Thirty two choirs with a total of about 300 singers and 22 dance groups with about 350 dancers took part in the festival. The festival's friendly and unifying atmosphere helped to strengthen Latvian identity and a sense of common roots, several participants told The Baltic Times.

"We recharged our 'national batteries,'" said Inta Purva, vice-president of Culture and Education of the Latvian National Federation in Canada. "This song festival reinforced our unity and gave a boost to our national confidence."

The festival demonstrated a strong sense of common identity, said Sandra Matisone, one of the leaders of the Washington, D.C.-based dance group "Namejs." Matisone, who rehearsed with her students three times a week before the festival, said she was pleasantly surprised by the eagerness of the young North American Latvians.

"They really like Latvian folk dance," said Matisone, a Latvian foreign service officer.

Song festivals remain one of the main opportunities for younger generations to get acquainted with Latvian traditions and feel their national roots, Maksina said. Such events also help to unite Latvian families scattered all over North America and to reduce friction between Latvians in Latvia and people of Latvian descent living abroad.

Festivals can "teach us how to understand each other, cooperate with each other, change our thoughts and approaches, and respect each other," Maksina said.

The popular conductor, whose chamber choir hosted the women's choir "Ausma" from Latvia, said "Latvian Latvian" faces among participants and spectators erased the distinction between "us (emigrant Latvians) and you (Latvians from Latvia)."

Festivals in Canada and America are no longer considered remote expatriate activities, Maksina contended.

"Our festivals are like festivals in different regions of Latvia, for example Valmiera. We all continue to be active and prepare for the national song festival."

There are issues, however, that Latvians from different parts of the world continue to disagree on. If many expat Latvians want to build on a strong national identity, Latvians in Latvia have acquired more "cosmopolitan" views, said festival organizers.

One of the students from Latvia, present in Toronto, told The Baltic Times he couldn't understand the cool response to "Ausma's" performance of several pieces by George Gershwin.

Purva, on the other hand, pointed out the importance of having national, not international festivals. The latest national song events in Latvia seemed to lack a strong national vision, Purva contended.

"Song festival is an event where we show our national (not foreign) culture and achievements," she said.