Brisbane is an Australian city often perceived as a country town, but that just happens to house almost two million people. Part of this perception comes from very public instances—both historical and contemporary—of not only intolerance toward cultural diversity, but active campaigning against it. Despite this, Brisbane is a rapidly growing city that has come to celebrate its cultural diversity.
The Brisbane Latvian community is not only significantly smaller than its southern counterparts, but is also aging—rapidly. The Senatne Dance Group disbanded more than a year ago (and prior to that danced without boys for eight years). My generation is rarely even seen as members of the audience, let alone participating, and sadly my parents’ generation is the same. Culturally, the Brisbane Latvian community has three active groups: Beverīna Choir, Senči Dance Group and Zigrīda Ensemble (the latter being the only one composed of young people, and we vary in size from two to six participants, all of whom are female).
Therefore, traveling from Brisbane to the 49th Australian Latvian Arts Festival in Sydney was indeed an experience.
My initial shock concerned the amazing array of young people who not only participated—dancing, singing, acting and playing instruments of all descriptions—but who also were an extraordinarily supportive audience. Those who attended the youth concert will recall the cheers of support issued to the performers not only by their families, but their peers.
I mention this phenomenon especially in relation to recent political policies that have made a commitment to recognising the importance of youth participation. Young people are the future, and without nurturing, supporting, encouraging and celebrating their active participation, Latvian philosophies, ideals and communities will cease to exist. I hope everyone involved in the arts festival is aware of how special it is in contemporary society to have young people participate in community activities. Not only do your young people have language skills and a desire to participate in a unique cultural expression, but an interstate network of peers with whom they have shared, explored and grown with.
My alienation from this gave me the opportunity to observe the phenomenon with both great pride and great sadness. Pride in knowing that despite cultural policy and social intolerance, my community managed to pass on its cultural heritage to younger generations. Sadness, because my participation in that was inevitably restricted, due (in part) to my somewhat self-induced alienation.
The second phenomenon I experienced—a phenomenon that is still having repercussions on my life—was the post-folk group Iļģi.
I have been part of Zigrīda Ensemble for about seven years and in this time have witnessed (and perhaps encouraged) a move to diversify our repertoire. Having limited access to sheet music has meant that much of our evolution has come from listening to compact discs brought back from overseas and attempting to emulate those sounds. Iļģi have played a part in that evolution, especially with regard to presenting the possibility of erring away from a classical aesthetic and edging towards a uniquely Latvian sound.
I am aware that Iļģi have made a commitment to maintaining and developing the tradition of folkloric practice. I am also aware that UPE Recording Co.‘s “Latvian Folk Music Collection” has a similar philosophy. This series has played a significant part in our commitment to understanding the sociohistoric context of the music we play. In this understanding we have been able to connect with the music on both a technical musical level and a personal one. The booklet accompanying each CD in this series translates the lyrics and contextualises the songs, opening up new possibilities for our personal interpretation.
Prior to our sojourn to the Sydney arts festival, we had a certain amount of motivation to explore music and folkloricism. Now that I have seen Iļģi live, the possibilities are endless.
When I walked out of the theatre I felt as though I had just arrived home from a magical journey. Iļģi began gently, inviting the audience to participate in something akin to a trance: the droning bass notes accompanied voices that resonated through my body and ignited something deep in my soul. And then the soundscape transformed from spine tingling blue to fiery red. The traditional combining with the contemporary to create a tempest of passion that connected me to a part of my psyche I wasn’t sure existed any more. I watched, awestruck, at the energy they emitted without having to destroy furniture or jump around like beings possessed. I sat, bewildered, at the diversity of sounds created though different combinations of instruments, rhythms and vocal timbre. I listened to ancient melodies come alive.
I was in the presence of musicians who not only have a masterful command of the technical, but the incredible ability to put their hearts into every note. What’s more, they invite the audience to participate in every poignant moment. That’s part of what makes Iļģi masters of their art.
Iļģi are able to recreate the antique so it becomes accessible to a contemporary audience.
In my opinion, the organisers of the 49th Australian Latvian Arts Festival could not have offered their audience a more potent live experience. Iļģi are not only magnificent performers and exceedingly talented musicians, but folklorists with a passion that inspires. Now, I don’t want to go to Latvia, I need to go. I don’t want to learn about my ancestry, I need to learn. I don’t want to participate in my community, I need to participate.
As a young person, I could not think of a greater gift than inspiration, nor a more beautiful feeling with which to leave what was a magnificent arts festival.
Ilga Reizniece, on fiddle, and Māris Muktupāvels, on kokle, perform as part of Iļģi at the 49th Australian Latvian Arts Festival. (Photo by Arnis Gross)
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