A song festival diary: Second day

CHICAGO—Early in the Čikāgas Piecīši concert July 19, lead singer Alberts Legzdiņš noted the various events that were competing for attention during the 11th Latvian Song Festival in Chicago.

Festival attendees with children, he observed, had headed to Navy Pier for the song festival picnic. Educated Latvians, meanwhile, had gone to the fraternities and sororities ball. And those without kids or education, Legzdiņš quipped, had come to the Čikāgas Piecīši concert.

Friday certainly was a full day. And no doubt some attendees learned that the slow pace of the morning gave way to a much more active program in the afternoon and evening, so much so that it’s not possible to take in everything. One wonders how festival participants, those hundreds of dancers and singers whose rehearsals begin early in the morning, get to see much of Chicago or take in song festival events such as the musical “Lolitas brīnumputns.” The musical is based on a story by Latvian writer Anna Brigadere. The performance was directed by Valdis Lūriņs from Latvia; music was written and arranged by Andrejs Jansons of New York.

As the weekend approached more people arrived. Soon an ebb and flow was noticeable, as attendees congregated in the Marriott Hotel to visit the arts and crafts fair and other exhibit areas, only to disperse to locations such as the UIC Pavilion to view the contemporary folkdance performance or to Symphony Center to listen to the men’s choir—both events inconveniently scheduled miles apart at 1:30 p.m.

A few breaks in the day allowed quick exploration of nearby Chicago shops and sights, including a litle piece of Rīga set into the exterior of the Tribune Tower.

The arts and crafts fair, as always, presented itself in part as a gauge of the ethnic economy. If this fair was an indication, then businesses catering to Latvian interests are not doing too bad, even as the American economy remains tentative. Amber and silver jewelry, bumper stickers, books, compact discs and cassettes, software, newspaper subscriptions, videotapes and T-shirts proclaiming “Man garšo alus” and “Latvia: Where the storks are storks and the frogs are nervous” were among items available for purchase.

One big evening event was a belated 40th anniversary concert by Čikāgas Piecīši. Concertgoers heard many favorites from the ensemble, some performed by former band members such as Janīna Ankipāne. The group also offered several comedy skits, including one ribbing the Latvian newspaper Laiks for small type size that’s increasingly difficult to read for its aging audience. The newspaper has transferred editorial operations to Rīga and changed its format. Both the weekly newspaper’s publisher, Dace Rudzīte, and co-editor, Ligita Kovtuna, attended the song festival.

Meanwhile, those interested in rock music rather than schlager had to travel many miles north to The Metro, a club on North Clark Street, to listen to local Latvian band Adam Zahl and, in its first American concert, BrainStorm (Prāta vētra).

BrainStorm only took the stage about 1 a.m. and quickly became a crowd-pleaser. However, when lead singer Renārs Kaupers began to speak in English, he was shouted down by concertgoers chanting “Lat-vis-ki! Lat-vis-ki!” (In Latvian! In Latvian!). BrainStorm played a set that included a number of hits, including new songs such as “Waterfall” and the older favorite “Lidmašinas.” Among those in attendance was Ojārs Kalniņš, former Latvian ambassador to the United States and now director of the Latvian Institute in Rīga, who managed to find one of the best vantage points in the club: in the balcony directly overlooking the stage.

BrainStorm drummer Kaspars Roga, who just celebrated his birthday, was honored with a round of “Daudz baltu dieniņu.”

Despite the busy schedule, it was a satisfying day that ended much too early—or much too late.

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

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