The Baltic States' Road to Eurovision

  • 2016-05-09
  • William Butt/STOCKHOLM

As the three Baltic heads of Delegations  Mart Normet (Estonia), Audrius Girzadas (Lithuania) and Zita Kaminska (Latvia) walked the red carpet at the inauguration of the 61st Eurovision Song Contest in Stockholm, I couldn’t help thinking back at how these three nations made it so well his far.  The history of  Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia’s participation in the Eurovision is really quite  phenomenal because  when they gained independence  after the fall of the Soviet Union a quarter of a century ago, nobody in Tallinn, Riga or Vilnius could, in their wildest imagination, have ever dreamt  that the Baltic Television bosses  like Normet, Kaminska and Girzadas would walk the Red Eurovision Carpet as they did in Stockholm yesterday!

During Soviet days in the early 1980’s when I first came to Eastern Europe, the pop music culture was very limited. So were the musicians and rock groups that appeared as poor copies of  our western bands from the early 1970’s. The two most popular songs in the U.S.S.R. when I crossed the Baltic Sea for the first time were Vladimir Matetsky’s “Lavanda” recorded by the Russian artist “Sofia Rotaru” and F.R. David’s “Words don’t come easy to me” . There was only one recording company, Melodya Records, in the whole of the Soviet Union and I particularly remember feeling sorry for Eastern Europeans for the great musical experiences they were missing due to being influenced by the totalitarian regime of the day in Moscow.  When I first came to  Riga and Vilnius, if anyone had told me that the Baltic States would one day not only participate in the grand Eurovision Song Contest, but that two of them (Estonia and Latvia) would win the whole spectacle, I would have been dumbfounded! But this really happened and the fact that two Baltic nations have held the top prize of the biggest song contest in the world is really quite an achievement.

Examining the history of Baltic popular music, I find that with the exception of the Russian music that was literally pushed down the throats of the Latvian,, Lithuanian and Estonian music consumers, there was  also a lot of domestic music in the three Baltic languages. Western music was available in limited but highly controlled forms. Many Baltic musicians and consumers were aware that there was something interesting on the other side of the Baltic Sea, but few dreamt that they would ever gain unlimited access to it. For many years Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian musicians followed the Eurovision Song Contest, dreaming of one day participating in it but never believing that the dream could become reality. But that dream came true for Lithuania in 1992 when Vilnius joined hands with the rest of Europe and became a participant in The Eurovision Song Contest.  Four years later in 1996 the second of the Baltic States, Estonia, joined  the European music festival of Eurovision. Finally in 2000 Latvia participated and a new musical dawn arose on the Baltic States after decades of limited foreign music culture. Finally musicians in Tallin, Riga and Vilnius could spread their musical wings and fly right into the arenas of Germany, Scandinavia and the rest of Europe thanks to the Eurovision Song Contest.

The fact that two of the Baltic States have won the contest has, according to Estonia’s Head of Delegation Mart Normet, stimulated not only the music industries of the region, but also made the individual countries  better known in Europe. “Before we won the Eurovision Estonia was a small relatively unknown country, but when we won, we gained a lot of international exposure and recognition” he said and added that the best thing that the Eurovision has done for Estonia is that it has stimulated the domestic music business and created an awareness that there are  good pop music creators and performers in Estonia. This was echoed by Latvia’s leading music publisher Guntars Racs who told me that since Eurovision came into the lives of Latvians a lot of new talent has popped up all over Latvia who won the contest in 2002 . This year’s Latvian artist Justs Simrais confirmed at a press meeting  in Stockholm last week that there are many really good artists in Latvia and that the often stigmatised Eurovision Song Contest has started to be taken very seriously by popular artists in recent years. Through the auspices of Zita Kaminska and her colleagues, interest for the contest is rising as is the case even in Estonia due to Mart Normet and his assistants. When asked about the television ratings Mart Normet proudly presented the following figures: “This year 70% of all televisions in Estonia were tuned into the domestic Eurovision Song Contest”

Lithuania has not  yet won the contest, the  highest score being in 2006 with LT United’s “We are the Winners” a sort of parody on the Eurovision that not only gave Lithuania a high placing, but also showed that this largest of the Baltic Nations consists of people who have a lot of humour! I have personally witnessed the development of the Lithuanian Eurovision due to the fact that I have participated in it as an Producer on three occasions since 2004. I have personally observed how Lithuanian Television’s production quality of the Eurovizijas Dainu Konkursas (Lithuania’s domestic contest) has increased tremendously in the last few years. This has been mainly due to three key persons. The Lithuanian music magnate Martynas Tyla who has attracted the best artists and brought them into the contest, with good songs and secondly by a journalist , Ramunas Zilnys from the newspaper Lietuvos Rytas, who, despite sometimes stepping out of his role as a journalist,  has been very active in the selection process of the songs and artists. Then there is of course The Head of Delegation Audrius Girzadas who really deserves most of the credit for the increase in Lithuania’s  television broadcasts of the competition. He is so deeply engaged in his productions that at the 2012 final I actually saw Girzadas stepping out of his executive position and rolling up his sleeves and helping the technicians with their practical work in the Television studio! These three combined will probably be the force that makes Lithuania one day win the Eurovision Song Contest.

All three Baltic States have very good artists and good songs in this year’s contest and the results will start to come in on Tuesday night when we will know if Estonia qualifies to the final.  The second semi final on Thursday will reveal how things go for Lithuania and Latvia, but whatever the result all three are really winners when one thinks back to how these nations have arisen out of the ashes of the Soviet regime that ruled their countries for decades – Now the Eurovision sun is shining on Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. And just as the Lithuanian artist Donny Montell told me a few days ago “ Whatever happens in Eurovision is one thing, but it's what happens after Eurovision that really matters”

And that is really what seems to matter to all three Baltic contestants. As for their delegation heads Mart Normet, Zita Kaminska and Audrius Girzdas, now comes the nervous race to see who wins and if any of their contestants take home to prize  we can expect next year’s spectacle to take place on the Eastern side of the Baltic Sea. Quite a long cry from what would have been expected all those years ago when these nations modestly joined the Eurovision family.

Footnote:

Estonia will compete in the first semi final which will be aired all over Europe on Tuesday 10th May. The Latvian and Lithuanian songs will compete in the second semi final which will be held on Thursday 12th May. The final of the Eurovision Song Contest will be broadcast live all over Europe , Australia and the United States on Saturday 14th May.

 

"
"