Surprises Possible in Local Council Elections in Latvia

The local government election that will be held in Latvia on Saturday may lead to a few surprises, the main issue having to do with the capital city of Rīga, which has been governed or misgoverned, according to one’s views, for the past eight years by the Harmony Party in tandem with the rather clumsily named Honor to Serve Riga. Polls show that fewer than one-half of voters are prepared to vote for the tandem again, and that leads to the question whether the dozen other parties can accumulate sufficient votes to deny it the majority. Not all of them, of course, will surpass the 5% vote barrier that is needed to win any seats at all, but if the three or four parties that have a chance to do so end up winning 31 or more of the seats on the City Council, then they will have to put together a coalition. They do not see eye to eye on all matters, and there is also the possibility that Harmony/HSR will try to peel off some members to form its own majority. I personally hope that the other parties will take the majority and will be able to form a stable coalition, because Harmony in my eyes is unacceptable for its excessive and entirely incomprehensible friendship with Russia and specifically with the pocket party of the Russian tsar, United Russia. The issue of whether that will happen depends in part on the fact that right now one-quarter of voters say that they have not yet decided for whom to vote. If they break in the direction of Harmony, it will probably continue to run the city for another four years with all that that implies.

Populism has been rife in this campaign. Parties are promising free health care for seniors, free public transportation rides, free health insurance for the elderly, etc., nowhere explaining where exactly the money for such largesse would come from. There have also been entirely peculiar promises. Aknīste is a small town in southeastern Latvia, and one party there is promising that if elected, it will withdraw the Aknīste Administrative District from NATO. Needless to say, that is not a local government issue, though it would certainly be interesting to see a little island of non-NATO territory amidst a sea of alliance territory. Elsewhere a party is promising to organize free tractor driving courses for young people. I truly don’t know for how many people the ability to drive a tractor is important in this day and age.

There are also some interesting candidates in Riga. The Harmony/GKR coalition is led by the incumbent mayor, Nils Ušakovs, who has attracted much opprobrium for his habit of communicating on Internet Websites both in Latvian and in Russian. The New Conservative Party (which is no longer particularly new) is fielding two former employees of Latvia’s anti-corruption agency, Juta Strīķe and Juris Jurašs, who have long claimed, not without reason, that the Rīga City Council is a den of corruption. An alliance between the Latvian Alliance of Regions and the For Latvia’s Development party is fielding Mārtiņš Bondars, a former chief of staff to Latvia’s former president Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga. In other towns, there are council chairs who have been in office since God was a teenager. The people of Ventspils will probably reelect the venal Aivars Lembergs even though he is on trial for serious financial and other crimes. Uldis Sesks will probably win another term in Liepāja after 16 years at the helm, ditto Mayor Andris Rāviņš in Jelgava. All in all, there are 8,945 candidates from 599 different parties, alliances of parties or alliances of voters (this is permitted in local government elections, but not national ones). A bit more than 60% of them are men, and more than 70% are registered as Latvians; 3.7% are Russians, and if one wants to go afield in this regard, there is one Ossetian, one Finn and one Swede on the list somewhere.

One way or another, Latvians will be electing members of councils in 119 administrative districts and nine cities. There is one administrative district where there is only one slate of candidates, while in other places people are spoilt for choice, with ten or more slates. Latvian citizens living abroad, of course, cannot vote in the election, because for the local government vote, you must be a resident of the relevant district. In Latvia, in turn, there is also the issue of voter turnout. If the weather is nice on Saturday, that will probably depress turnout, although precincts have already been open today, Wednesday, and will be open tomorrow and Friday, as well. No excuse not to vote, in other words. It is the duty of every citizen to vote, and I will certainly go to the polls on Saturday. Though I must say that this is the first election in my whole life where I am not yet certain for whom I will vote.

Kārlis Streips was born in Chicago, studied journalism at the University of North Illinois and University of Maryland. He moved to Latvia in 1991 where he has worked as a TV and radio journalist. He also works as a translator and lecturer at the University of Latvia.

The Making of a Dziesmu Svētki, Part 6: The Music

I have a confession: when song-festival chair Marisa Gudrā first mentioned hosting dziesmu svētki, I had zero interest. Then she told me that Krisīte Skare was already on board as music director. Suddenly, I was interested.

I knew Skare from our time together at Gaŗezers Latvian summer high school, where she was not only my class’s valedictorian, but also a musical prodigy who I made a point of standing next to during choir rehearsals so I could try (unsuccessfully) to copy her perfect pitch.

It didn’t surprise me that Skare went on to earn three degrees in music, including a master’s degree in jazz performance from the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music and a master’s in education with a focus on the arts from Harvard University, and to establish a musical professional career as an educator, performer, music director, and choir leader. For the past ten years, Skare has also applied these skills to teaching Latvians, from the children of Katskiļi summer camp and Boston’s Latvian school to the adults of Boston’s choirs. And Skare brings more than music education to the Latvian community: she was the principal of Boston’s Latvian school for six years and is the current church treasurer. In recognition of all these contributions to the Latvian music and education scenes, Skare has earned commendations from the Latvian Heritage Foundation, the American Latvian Association, and Latvia’s Ministry of Education.

So I was comforted knowing that the core of our festival’s program was already in good hands. Skare herself had given the intimidating job offer maybe thirty seconds of thought before agreeing. “Dziesmu svētki is an extension of my passion and my work,” she explains. When someone offers you that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, “that’s not an offer that you pass up.”

Once it became clear that the festival would indeed be going ahead, and after Skare had a chance to meet with other festival leaders, she got to work assembling a crack team. She turned to Latvian friends with impressive musical pedigrees and was happy when every one responded positively. Laura Padega Zamura, the head of New York’s Latvian choir, had collaborated with Skare at Katskiļi summer camp and would play a major role in preparations for the Festival Choir Concert. Dace Aperāne, a composer and recent recipient of Latvia’s prestigious Grand Music Award for popularizing Latvian music abroad, is, in Skare’s words, “a treasure trove of knowledge for basically any musical subject matter.” Agita Arista is a professional flautist from Latvia now living in Boston who has become invaluable in working with the festival’s instrumentalists. And Iveta Grava, a former member of famed Latvian choir Ave Sol as well as a member of the festival organizing committee in D.C., pulls double duty, helping with administrative tasks on the music committee. With two organizers in Boston, two in New York, and one in D.C., the music committee exemplifies the collaborative nature of this East Coast project. It’s further supported by superstar shadow helpers like Juris Ķeniņš, a repeat organizer of Canada’s Latvian song festivals who is always ready to lend expertise and input, and Skare’s mother, Ilze, who has taken on some of the committee’s more thankless tasks — such as hand-numbering hundreds of songbooks after they arrived with a printer error.

With the team assembled, the most pressing matter for Skare was selecting the repertoire and preparing materials for the festival’s main event, the Kopkora koncerts (Festival Choir Concert). Skare started by entering every song from every previous festival into a spreadsheet and conducting a detailed analysis, from which she learned that, with a few exceptions, there is surprisingly little repetition or tradition where song selection is concerned. From there, the team’s members each compiled a dream list and started whittling. They began by keeping some lyrical folk favorites and newer, upbeat rhythmic pieces that complemented Skare’s effervescent musical personality, then decided to highlight a selection of East Coast composers. Each composer was asked to decide which of their songs they would like to see performed.

By the summer of 2016 the repertoire had been selected. Now came the hard part: finding and arranging all of the sheet music for each piece (while not infringing on copyrights). Thankfully, the music program has a guardian angel: Musica Baltica, a publishing house in Latvia whose leader just happens to be a friend of Aperāne. For a truly nominal licensing fee, Musica Baltica sent Skare the majority of the necessary sheet music, leaving her to write the remaining music out by hand. In September, the sheet-music songbook went to the printer, and soon thereafter distribution to choirs began, providing Skare her first solid look at the number and size of choirs participating. It turns out that this process is still continuing; several groups have signed up as recently as a couple weeks ago. Skare explains that it is often difficult to pin down exact participant numbers, since choirs can afford to be more flexible than dance troupes can. Still, the current estimate, based largely on the number of songbooks sent out, rests at roughly 500 singers from across the U.S., Canada, Latvia, and Ireland.

Conductor selection happened around this time as well. Part of the search focused on traditionally underrepresented demographics: East Coast icons (this will be the first Latvian American song festival on the East Coast in over three decades), experienced conductors who have never graced the kopkoris conductor’s podium, and female talent. Including women is particularly important to Skare, who remembers thinking, “I want to be her when I grow up!” when Toronto’s Vizma Maksiņa conducted at the Cleveland song festival twenty years ago. Skare went on to discover that women are tremendously underrepresented in the conducting world; Baltimore’s own symphony orchestra is the only major city orchestra in the country with a female music director — Marin Alsop.

Instrumentalist selection worked very differently, with the music team listing and contacting all professional Latvian instrumentalists they could think of who are skilled enough to play together after just one rehearsal. Invitations went out to everyone, and of the lengthy list, twenty-seven people accepted and will be performing in Baltimore. This means that all of the festival’s instrumentalists will be Latvians or have Latvian connections, whereas other festivals on occasion have had to hire local non-Latvians to fill the gaps. This musical bunch is a perfect example of how far-reaching song festivals can be, drawing participants from Minnesota, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, Canada, and Latvia.

The majority of these instrumentalists will be pulling double or triple duty. Almost all will be accompanying the choir during the Festival Choir Concert, most will perform at the Latvian Chamber Music Concert, and some will participate in the Sacred Music Concert. While the Festival Choir Concert is the grand cornerstone of every dziesmu svētki, attracting not only the largest audience but also the largest chunk of Skare’s time, the two smaller concerts are also definitely not to be missed, as the committee has dedicated itself to make them spectacular for all festival attendees.

The task of assembling the program for the Chamber Music Concert falls mostly to Arista. She, Skare, and the rest of the committee are acutely aware that chamber music has a reputation as being stuffy and stodgy. “People our age either are or are not in that world, and have their biases,” explains Skare. But the goal of Baltimore’s chamber music concert, she says, is to “be interesting for people who don’t think they like classical music.” Helping this effort is the concert’s unique venue: the American Visionary Art Museum, a whiskey warehouse turned hip alternative-art gallery that exudes fun and vibrance. An emcee will be on hand to explain what is happening in each piece. “Learning about the music gets you more invested in it,” explains Skare. And the concert’s programmers are striving to choose an engaging repertoire that will make a connection with the audience.

This connection will also be on hand at the Sacred Music Concert, where audience members sitting in the astoundingly beautiful sanctuary of Christ Lutheran Church will literally be surrounded by the show. Musicians will place themselves in different locations around the chamber, depending on acoustics and the needs of each particular piece. Skare envisions the experience as a soothing meditation, enveloping listeners in ethereal melodies. Adding its talents will be the festival’s award-winning guest choir, Sōla, which is collaborating with Skare’s team on the project.

What remains to be done over the remaining few months? Skare is currently working on the Opening Ceremony with Anita Juberts, the Very Rev. Anita Vārsberga-Pāža, and festival folk-dancing director Astrīda Liziņš. The ceremony will welcome festivalgoers back to the East Coast with a mini-concert from various East Coast choirs and dance troupes. Also in the works or coming up soon: sheet music needs to be assembled and delivered to the instrumentalists for all shows, and the program for the Sacred Music Concert must be fully worked out with Sōla. Once those tasks are completed over the coming weeks, Skare’s focus will return to the Festival Choir Concert, for which the largest remaining task is figuring out gametime logistics: how to best divide up rehearsal times, how to maneuver several hundred people onstage and backstage, etc.

If Skare or her team of pros are at all daunted by the colossal task of leading several hundred musicians through four different performances for thousands of audience members, they’re not showing it. They didn’t even flinch last June when the original venue for one show went MIA (Skare shrugs this obstacle off — she’s used to venue staff being flighty). Skare partially credits her jazz training, which teaches her to roll with the unexpected. She is also bolstered by the encouragement and excitement she encounters from folks at every turn, despite (or perhaps because of) her relative youth. Skare is pleased that so many of this year’s organizers are, like her, taking on this massive project in their busy mid-thirties. “It’s nice to get the sense that people want to continue this tradition,” she says. “I hope it inspires a sense of hope for the future.”

Any advice for future festival leaders? “If you have a vision for the kind of experience that you want the Dziesmu Svētki public to have,” says Skare, “really stick with it and don’t waver. I think that’s what’s made a lot of my decision-making easy: I return to the big picture. That way you can remove yourself from nitty-gritty questions and then those become easier to answer.” Skare’s vision for Dziesmu Svētki is clear. “I as a musician have been to really boring concerts. How do we make this engaging and a little bit fresh and different?” Audiences will discover the answer this summer in Baltimore.

“The Making of a Dziesmu Svētki” is an ongoing series documenting the behind-the-scenes process of organizing a Latvian song and dance festival.

The XIV Latvian-American Song and Dance Festival will take place in Baltimore, Maryland, from June 29 to July 3, 2017. For more information, please visit www.latviansongfest2017.com or write to info@latviansongfest2017.com.

3×3 Falls Creek viesosies Janta un Ilmārs Meži – iepazīsimies!

Nākošgad no Latvijas 3×3 Falls Creek, Austrālijā viesosies daudzpusīgie Janta un Ilmārs Meži. Iepazīsimies mazliet ar viņiem. Lai gan Mežiem ir kupla ģimene, uz 3×3 viņi tomēr dosies vieni paši.

Kāda jūsu pamatnodarbošanās, kādi vaļasprieki?

Janta ir botāniķe Latvijas Dabas muzejā, kur strādā ar izstāžu ierīkošanu, gan arī Latvijas augu kolekcijas papildināšanu. Savukārt Ilmārs strādā Starptautiskajā Migrācijas organizācijā, palīdzot imigrantiem brīvprātīgi atgriezties atpakaļ dzimtenē, ja tiem nav tiesību dzīvot Latvijā. Vaļasprieku mums ir daudz, no kuriem kopīgie ir saistīti ar latviešu tradicionālo kultūru un dabu. Mums ļoti patīk visiem izbraukt dabā – vai nu sēņot un ogot, vai ar laivām pa kādu nelielu upi, vai apceļot skaistas vietas.

Mums visiem liels pārsteigums bija uzzināt, ka jums ir viena no Latvijas “dižģimenēm” – ģimenē aug seši bērni! Kādos vecumos viņi ir?

Mums ir seši bērni: vecākā meita Ingrīda (24) jau strādā par zobārsta palīdzi, Silvija (21) mācās pēdējo gadu Latvijas Universitātes Bioloģijas fakultātē. Nākamā ir Lauma (16), kura mācās Rīgas Āgenskalna ģimnāzijā un interesējas par “mangām” un mitoloģiju, bet Jānis Viesturs (13) mācās Rīgas Doma kora skolā, ir īsts kora puika, kaut, protams, labprātāk spēlētu futbolu vai kādu datorspēli. Bet abi maziņie – Kalvis Ievalts (4) un Marta Austra (1) vēl dzīvojas pa māju un izstaro prieku un enerģiju.

Lūdzu pastāstiet par savu folkloras dzīvi. Janta – tu dziedi grupā “Saucējas”, un Ilmār, tu esi dziedātājs, kā arī mūzikas instrumentu kolekcionārs. Cik katrs dziedat, cik mūzicējat?

Esam dziedājuši jau no skolas gadiem – Janta ilgu laiku dziedāja “Saviešos”, bet tagad jau 5 gadus dzied Latvijas Kultūras akadēmijas grupā “Saucējas”, kas vāc un restaurē senākās tradicionālās dziesmas bez apdares, tieši tā, kā tās ir skanējušas agrāk, un kā tās vēl vecākie ļaudis atceras. Ilmārs agrāk ir dziedājis folkloras draugu kopā “Skandinieki”, bet tagad labprāt dzied un muzicē draugu un ģimenes pasākumos. Mums abiem ir īpaša interese vākt un atdzīvināt sen aizmirstās latviešu dziesmas – kopā esam izbraukājuši daudzus Latvijas lauku nostūrus meklējot cilvēkus, kuri vēl atceras seno laiku dziedāšanu. Dziesmu meklēšanā esam bijuši arī vairākos Sibīrijas latviešu ciemos, kur pierakstītās dziesmas dziedam un dodam tām jaunu dzīvi mūsdienās. Ilmārs pēdējā laikā ir aizrāvies arī ar mūzikas instrumentiem – īpaši ermoņiku kolekcionēšanu un spēlēšanu, bet spēlē arī cītaru, kas ir sens latviešu stīgu instruments, līdzīgs koklei.

Ilmār, Tavs darbs ir saistīts ar demogrāfijas un migrācijas pētniecību. Lūdzu pastāsti, kā radās interese darboties šinī laukā..
Jau skolas gados sāku interesēties par iedzīvotāju ģeogrāfiju – atceros sevi kā puiku, aptuveni 12-14 gadu vecumā, izrakstot no grāmatām Latvijas pilsētas un pagastus ar to iedzīvotāju skaitu un arī vācot pamatinformāciju par visām pasaules valstīm. Interese padziļinājās studējot Latvijas universitātes Ģeogrāfijas fakultātē, un vēlāk Rietumu Mičigānas universtitātē (ASV). Jau 18 gadus vadu Starptautiskās Migrācijas organizācijas nelielo biroju Rīgā, bet sabiedriskā kārtā esmu uzņēmies demogrāfijas politikas uzlabošanas mudinātāja pienākumus. Neatlaidīgi runājot ar žurnālistiem un politiķiem ir izdevies mazliet mainīt sabiedrisko domu, ka arī Latvijā ir nepieciešams lielāks atbalsts tām ģimenēm, kuras audzina vairākus bērnus, un svarīgi ir novērst nabadzību, kas daudzām ģimenēm rodās tāpēc, ka viņi vēlās vairākus bērnus. Vairākos gados ir izdevies rast dzirdīgas ausis arī politiķu un ierēdņu starpā, un pakāpeniski arī Latvijā tiek uzlabota demogrāfijas politika.

Vai esat piedalījušies 3×3 arī Latvijā? Un citur pasaulē?

Esam piedalījušies vairākos Latvijas 3×3 pasākumos kā lektori un praktisko nodarbību vadītāji, visspilgtākā atmiņā bija Alsungas nometne, kur varēja iedraudzēties ar dzīvespriecīgajām Suitu sievām. Esam arī bijuši 3×3 Garezerā vairākas reizes un senāk arī Katskiļos.

Janta, vai tev rokdarbi ir visu mūžu bijuši mīļi – vai no mātes, vecās mātes mācījies šīs mākas?

Protams, ka ar rokdarbiem nodarbojās gan mammiņa, gan vecmammiņa, toreiz jau tā bija ikdienas nepieciešamība – jo rocība daudziem neļāva neko daudz nopirkt, tāpēc rokdarbi bija labs risinājums. Jau 15 gadu vecumā sāku mācīties Rīgas Lietišķās mākslas vidusskolā, kur mācījos tekstila nodaļā. Mans diplomdarbs bija pašas gatavots tautastērps, un arī joprojām turpinu tos darināt – visai ģimenei un ārpus tās. Nesen pie manis sāka pulcēties sievietes, kam interesē savs tautas tērps un es varu palīdzēt – kam piegriezni izgriezt, kam uzsākt adījumu, kam iemācīt aust ar celiem, kam brunčus sašūt.

Kur dzīvojat Latvijā – vai pilsētas centrā, vai laukos?
Dzīvojam Rīgas laukos – jeb vienā no zaļākajām Rīgas nomalēm – Mārupē, ko precīzāk būtu saukt par Bieriņiem, bet šo veco nosaukumu daudzi neatpazīst. Tas ir plašākais Rīgas privātmāju apūves rajons, kur pie katras mājas ir lielāks vai mazāks dārzs. Mums ir liela māja, kura būvēta 1898.gadā, ko pamazām cenšamies atjaunot. Arī mums ir liels dārzs ar daudzām ābelēm, ķiršiem, plūmēm, ir arī izdevies ieaudzēt Latvijas vīnogas, persikus un aprikozes, kas visi nes saldus augļus. Blakus tek Mārupīte, no kuras mūsu dīķī iepeld līdakas, un pēdējā gadā pie mums ir apmeties dzīvot arī bebrs. Līdz Vecrīgai mums ir 50 minūšu gājiens, ko reizēm arī cenšamies veikt kājām vai riteņiem. Agrāk dzīvojām vienkāršos pilsētas centra dzīvokļos, tad ik katru brīvu dienu rāvāmies ārā uz laukiem, bet kopš pašiem ir māja ar dārzu, tad laprāt laiku pavadam tur.

Vai bērni jums arī interesējas par folkloru – rokdarbiem, dziedāšanu, latvisko dzīves ziņu?

Ar bērniem nav tik viegli – jo viņiem jāļauj iziet arī caur vecāku noliegšanas stadijai – nevaram lielīties, ka visi bērni ir aktīvi dziedātāji, muzicētāji vai tautas tērpu darinātāji. Bet lietas notiekas pamazām – vecākā meita pamazām ir sajutusi vajadzību gatavot linu kreklus, arī jostiņas. Savukārt Silvija ir aktīva dejotāja tautiskajos dančos – būtu tikai puišu tur vairāk:-) Domājam, ka ar laiku visi bērni sajutīs nepieciešamību darboties arī kādā latviešu tradīciju jomā.

Vai būsit Austrālijā pirmo reizi? Kas jums Austrālijā visvairāk interesē?

Austrālijā abi būsim pirmo reizi. Vistuvāk Austrālijai līdz šim esam ceļojuši uz Sibīrijas latviešu ciemiem un arī Indijā. Austrālijā ceram iepazīt gan dabu, gan cilvēkus un viņu kultūru – gan eiropejiešu, gan vietējo aborigēnu. Priecāsimies, ja izdosies uz kādu brīdi ienirt siltā jūras līcī pavērot krāsainās zivtiņas, kā arī ceram ieraudzīt kādu ķenguru bariņu. Visbeidzot ir arī maza cerība no Austrālijas vecākās paaudzes latviešiem dzirdēt kādu mums nepazīstamu dziesmu. Mūsu labākās teicējas Ķērstas Albužes (dz.Bubēris) brālis dzīvojot kaut kur Austrālijā – varbūt izdotos satikt arī viņu un parunāt par “veciem laikiem”.

Kas jums mīļākā nodarbe karstā vasaras dienā? Garajos ziemas vakaros?
Kā jau ziemeļniekiem mūsu ideālais vasaras siltuma komforts ir no 20-25 C, bet ja karstums pārsniedz 30 grādus, tad meklējam ēnu un ūdeni. Ziemā, kad ir tumšs un auksts – tad Ilmārs strādā ar arhīva datiem vācot latviešu uzvārdu sarakstu un to izplatību, bet Janta veic rokdarbus. Labā ziemas dienā, gan mēģinam ar bērniem slidot un slēpot, veidot sniegavīru.

Paldies par interviju! Tiksimies 3×3 janvārī!

Daina Gross is editor of Latvians Online. An Australian-Latvian she is also a member of the Education Board of the World Federation of Free Latvians and the translator into English of various books on industrial history in Latvia.