A song festival diary: First day

CHICAGO—The first day of the 11th Latvian Song Festival in the United States was a day in part defined by generations.

For older Latvians—those past their teenage years—events such as the opening ceremony and the get-acquainted dance served as venues for reacquaintance. For the younger generations, the events seemed to be part of the ritual of growing up Latvian in a strange world.

The festival runs from Thursday, July 18, through Sunday, July 21.

Late at night, watching the clusters of Latvians gathered inside and outside the Grand Ballroom of the Marriott Hotel in downtown Chicago, one would frequently observe sudden exclamations of recognition, followed by handshakes and hugs. These were the older Latvians seeing people they had not seen for a few years, perhaps not since the last song festival in the United States. The folk bands Jūrmalnieki from Colorado and Lini from Minnesota, who were overseeing the danču un rotaļu vakars, faced stiff competition from people just wanting to chat.

Meanwhile, younger Latvians roamed the halls, some trying to impress members of the opposite sex, others looking for fun. They deserved their liberty, especially the many dozens who came from the Gaŗezers summer high school near Three Rivers, Mich. They had arrived in the early afternoon and had gone straight to rehearsal for the 5 p.m. opening ceremony. It was not until about 7 p.m. that they finally were free to explore the hotel and the streets of Chicago.

It’s difficult to say yet how many Latvians will attend this song festival. Certainly the numbers will be down from the song festival’s glory days of earlier decades. Certainly this song festival will be nothing like the first song festival held in the United States, almost 50 years ago right here in Chicago. But one song festival official offered 3,000 as an estimate. That’s based on the knowledge that about 600 of the Marriott’s 1,179 rooms are reserved by song festivals guests. Other hotels in the area also are housing song festival participants and attendees. For the opening ceremony alone 1,200 chairs were set out, although not all were taken. And the evening concert by the youth choir Kamēr drew an estimated 1,000 ticket holders to the 4th Presbyterian Church.

The first day also saw the opening of three exhibits, one devoted to the history of the song festival movement, one (in the nearby Daley Center) to the Occupation Museum of Latvia, and one to the work of Latvians who have studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. A Latvian folk costume show rounded out the day’s offerings.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of a song festival in the United States is that for a few brief days a small corner of the country becomes Latvianized. I recall first experiencing this in Milwaukee, Wis. Hearing someone not speaking Latvian was unusual. Here in Chicago, a stroll along North Michigan Avenue didn’t bring quite the same experience, but you still had to be careful about what and whom you talked about. Latvian could not be a secret language.

North Michigan Avenue, by the way, is bedecked with song festival banners hanging from streetlights. It’s kind of cool to walk up the street and see them. I wonder if any passers-by have been lured into the festival after seeing them.

But at least it’s a language that still is being used. Surprisingly, we heard plenty of younger Latvians speaking Latvian, just as often as we heard older Latvians switch to English after exchanging pleasantries in Latvian. So much for the generation gap.

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *