The Making of a Dziesmu Svētki, Part 1: The Beginning

Every single day, at almost every single hour, members of the Baltimore Dziesmu Svētki (Latvian Song Festival) organizing committee are hard at work on any one of various issues, concentrating on the website or the budget, the ticket sales or the schedule, the fundraising or the marketing. Online discussions are just as round-the-clock, and address every possible detail such as logo and poster designs, appropriate English translations, ways to appeal to various demographics, and plans to shake the mistaken public perception that Baltimore is just one big episode of The Wire. Each and every decision, every puzzle piece, no matter how seemingly small, has an entire story behind it.  And we’ll attempt to address each of these stories in turn.  This is the first in a series of articles intended to bring you behind-the-scenes while we spend the next fourteen months putting together one of the largest and most iconic events in Latvian-American society.

But for now, the basics. The sobering truth is that, up until a couple of months ago, it didn’t look like there was going to even be a festival at all in 2017, with no cities volunteering to host the event. This void would create the second-ever gap in a sixty-five year chain of Latvian-American Dziesmu Svētki, which have been held every five years since the influx of Latvian refugees post WWII. Why the hesitance?

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever attended a Dziesmu Svētki that organizing the event is a risky and exhausting endeavor. First, the event traditionally requires a full team of talented experts, all living within a single metropolitan area. With the active Latvian-American population experiencing a natural drop-off overall, it is not surprising that finding individual cities with appropriate personnel is also becoming gradually more difficult. Dziesmu Svētki also requires an extensive list of very specific performance venues, most of which come at a high price tag. The waning numbers of active Latvian-Americans equates to a steady drop in ticket sales over the years (1962 saw 10,000 spectators, by 1988 it was 5,000, and most recently in 2013 it was under 2,000), which in turn makes venue selection even trickier. There are virtually no venues that will accommodate both the large number of performers, and the ever-shrinking audience size, while still breaking even.

A solid crew and acceptable venues are the bare minimum requirements, but most Dziesmu Svētki hosts also know that festival attendees appreciate the convenience of having all festival settings within easy walking distance, the luxury of staying in a nice hotel, and the appeal of having a vibrant city to tour while in town. Between the unique human resource and venue restrictions, the expectation for an idyllic location, and the financial risk involved, it is no wonder that nobody was champing at the bit to host.

Marisa Gudrā, a Boston native and Washington, D.C. transplant who would eventually become the chair of our organizing committee, listened with contemplative consternation as members of the American Latvian Association board discussed these obstacles at their quarterly meeting in September. Gudrā was pursuing an advanced degree in arts management with a concentration in programming and project management in the arts, with the intention to someday eventually be involved in Dziesmu Svētki planning. Was someday already here? As if by providence, she soon thereafter received a random text message from friend and D.C. native Nik Timrots, who would eventually become the vice-chair of our organizing committee, suggesting that D.C. should host Dziesmu Svētki. Timrots was coming down from a music and danced-induced high after participating in the 2015 west coast festival in San Jose. “I realized that the 2015 Svētki were the last ones until Rīga 2018 (and the last in North America until 2019!), and I also realized I couldn’t wait that long,” Timrots explained.  Realizing that there was a gap in 2017 that could be filled by any American city, he thought, “Why not us?  Someone has to do it.”  The two partnered up and began researching plausibility, unsure of whether much would come of their planning.

The linchpin arrived when they received word that Latvia’s Ministry of Culture was offering grant money for cultural events in the diaspora, and that the lengthy, involved application deadline was only a few days away. “It was sort of a sign and an immediate motivation for action,” Gudrā explained to me. If something really did come of their research, then they did not want to regret not having applied.

The grant application made the dream of a 2017 Dziesmu Svētki suddenly seem more attainable, and it was time to start building a team. In early November, Gudrā and Timrots called together a small group of friends, all fellow members or former members of D.C. Latvian folk dancing troupe “Namejs,” for an informal meeting at local pizza joint Lost Dog Cafe, to present their proposed plans for hosting. I admit that I arrived skeptical, aware of the aforementioned challenges and the fact that our city had neither the personnel nor the venues, and that even if it did, competing with the throngs of D.C. tourists over the preferred date of 4th of July Weekend would be impossible .

But Gudrā and Timrots proposed solutions to all of these initial hurdles: first, we would expand the organizing body to include specialists from the entire east coast (and beyond if necessary), starting with Boston’s choir director Krisīte Skare and Philadelphia’s folk dancing troupe leader Astrīda Liziņa to lead up the music and folk dance programs. Expanding our focus to the entire east coast meant that we considered multiple cities up and down the east coast, beginning with those with Latvian centers, but also examining others. One city stood out as the obvious choice: our beloved neighbor, Baltimore, Maryland, which shares a metropolitan area with D.C. The city has everything we need, from a top-rated and affordable airport, to a beautiful waterfront setting in the Inner Harbor, to easily-walkable and beautiful venues, all of which will be detailed in future installments.

With this foundation laid, we have continued wading into the depths of Dziesmu Svētku planning. It is an involved and nuanced process, some elements of which are less obvious than others. The Baltimore organizing committee has two main resources for sorting through these elements: one, our own experiences as previous festival participants, which will come into play more than one might think, and two, tremendous support and guidance from the organizers of various previous festivals, who provide the closest thing that we have to a guidebook. Over the next several months we invite you along on this life-engulfing journey as we learn the ins-and-outs of what it takes to run a (hopefully successful) Dziesmu Svētki.

“The Making of a Dziesmu Svētki” will be 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 29th – July 3rd, 2017. For more information, please visit or write to

The Next Challenge for the Latvian Language

We use our computers and mobile devices and expect to be able to write and read in Latvian without a second thought. But to get where we are today has taken a journey spanning over two decades. With speech recognition fast becoming the new way to interact with our devices the Latvian language could face its biggest challenge yet.

A few years back I was lucky enough to receive a 1920s state of the art writing machine. What made this typewriter so special was its ability to write in Latvian – using all 33 letters of the Latvian alphabet including the accented letters (garumzīmes, jumtiņi and mīkstinājumi). Despite weighing over 5kg this technology was considered so important that it accompanied its owners all the way from war-torn Latvia to Germany and eventually Australia. It played a key role in the publication of many Latvian history books by the renowned historian Prof. Edgars Dunsdorfs.

Fast forward to the 1980s and a new revolution in technology begins – the personal computer. Not wanting to be left behind Latvian computer enthusiasts from all corners of the world began creating fonts and keyboard drivers so that they could join the desktop publishing boom and produce high quality books and magazines in their own cherished language. With the proliferation of custom made Baltic fonts it became increasingly difficult to share Latvian based documents amongst computer users. Even the Latvian newspapers Diena and Neatkarīgā Rīta Avīze resorted to special text conversion tools to cope with the many different text formats. At one stage there was over 10 different font “standards” for the Latvian language. Latvian Macintosh pioneer Juris Mazutis, who published the first Latvian computing magazine “LatDati” in the late 1980s dedicated many pages to this topic.

The emergence of the Internet in the early 90s presented another challenge for the Latvian language. Both the Web and email supported only Latin letters, but it wasn’t long before a work-around was found. Apostrophes, tildes, dashes and two letter combinations were some of the new ways to represent the diacritics when exchanging emails (a’ = ā, aa = ā, lj = ļ, sh = š).

The Artifical Intelligence Lab of the University of Latvia together with the Baltic Express Mail service used a similar approach to encode and decode Latvian texts sent in express electronic emails between Australia and Latvia. During the August 1991 coup this proved to be one of the few ways of getting in contact with the outside world, especially when most other communication channels had been cut off by Soviet authorities.

It wasn’t until late 1992, when the official Latvian computing standard, also referred to as LVS 8-92, finally took effect. For the first time users Windows and Macintosh users could begin exchanging Latvian documents without the hieroglyphics and unreadable text.

The Latvian National standardization committee was on a roll: LVS 18-92 (computing standard for the Liv language, which is a minority language with less than 100 speakers worldwide) and LVS 24-93 (Latvian language support for computers) were also published. LVS 24-93 went beyond the font and keyboard layout standard and specified how the Latvian language (alphabet, numbers, currency, punctuation marks, date & time) should be represented in the computing world.


Several months later the Latvian ergonomic keyboard standard LVS 23-93 was also announced, but because it required the production of a custom keyboard for the Latvian market it never took off.


The QWERTY keyboard or the US keyboard still remains the preferred keyboard both in Latvia and abroad. On this keyboard the most popular way to access the Latvian diacritics is by using the apostrophe or tilde dead key provided by Tildes Birojs, WinLat and other similar software packages for the Windows operating system.


On the Macintosh the most popular way to obtain the accented Latvian letters is by holding the Option key followed by the letter, for example, OPTION a = ā, OPTION s = š, OPTION n = ņ.

The creation of the Baltic computing standards paved the way for the Estonian, Latvian, Liv & Lithuanian languages to be included into Unicode – an international and universal character set of more than 120,000 characters for 129 modern and historic scripts, as well as multiple symbol sets.

Since the early 90s Unicode has become so widespread that it is included in all modern operating systems and programming languages. Every Latvian web page will include a UTF-8/UTF-16 in the header of its source code. Unicode plays a vital role in the localization of products such as common home appliances, car navigation and entertainment systems. It has enabled Olympus to produce digital cameras with on-screen instructions in Latvian, Electrolux washing machines to display a Latvian menu, Monopoly to use Unicode fonts to release a Latvian version of its board game, Microsoft to offer translated versions of its MS Office software suite, Tom Tom car navigation instructions and prompts in Latvian, Google and Facebook to offer localized Latvian versions of their search and social networking services and major film studios to subtitle in Latvian. The effect of Unicode on new product releases for the Latvian market was regularly documented by the blog that ran from 2006 to 2009. Unicode permits Latvian domain names such as pīrā and bērziņš.lv and the .lv domain registrar will even offer you a 30% discount for the privilege.

Thanks to Unicode today’s smartphones including tablet computers will enable you to read and write in Latvian. The latest Apple mobile operating system iOS 8, which powers the popular iPhones and iPads has a staggering 287 Unicode fonts all of which are compatible with the Latvian language. Even the wearable technologies such as Google Glass and the Apple Watch are Latvian friendly.


As each new technology is introduced, whether it was the first specially crafted letters for the typewriter, the desktop and laptop computer with custom fonts and keyboard drivers, the palm computer with the stylus driven letter strokes or the latest touch devices with predictive text algorithms – Latvian language support has always caught up.

However the emerging trend of talking to our devices will also become the biggest challenge for the Latvian language. Already we use simple voice commands to initiate phone calls, select radio stations and play music from a compatible smartphone while driving a car. All of the software industry giants such as Apple, Google and Microsoft are investing considerable resources in speech recognition technologies for their mobile operating systems. Devices are getting smaller and it will be simply more practical to interact with voice commands rather than tapping on tiny screens.

The Artificial Intelligence Lab at the University of Latvia has for several years been developing a Latvian speech recognition corpus and offers an experimental page where you can upload your own voice samples. The corpus already includes just over 100 hours of audio data comprising of different types of background noise including office, street, in-car and hall, different speech styles covering TV and radio news, audiobooks, public speeches and presentations, male and female speakers of different ages and different dialects and accents such as Latgalian, Belorussian, English, Russian and Ukrainian. This is only a fraction of what will be required and you can monitor the progress at

Considerable more investment is required for the continuing development of the Latvian speech recognition corpus. It should become an open system and freely available for software developers to use in their future software applications and technology platforms. It will provide the opportunity for our kids and the next generation to interact with the latest voice-driven technologies in their mother tongue rather than switching to a major language such as English or Russian.

Is this the dawn of Latvian e-services?

The e-signature was officially introduced in Latvia more than 8 years ago (see Is Latvia ready for e-signatures?), but has remained stagnant for most of these years. Recent developments including the major redesign of the government services portal as well as a recent video campaign featuring “Suitu sievas” (which has already gone viral in the social networks) to promote more than 200 e-services may be a sign that things are about to change.

My first experience with e-services about a month ago was totally unexpected. As a Latvian citizen currently residing in Australia I had to track down a bill which was supposedly mailed to a Riga address, but got lost in the process. Dreading the reaction that I would receive from ringing yet another bureaucrat at the Riga City Council I was instead greeted by a helpful person who not only provided all the necessary details, but also suggested that I go to to retrieve all future bills electronically. Hesitant at first, I decided to give it a go. Five minutes later I was already finalizing the payment of the bill on my computer many thousands of kilometers away from any of the Riga City Council offices.

If you are a Latvian citizen you may be curious as to what data is being held about you by the various government agencies. Go to and search for “mani dati” (or click on the English version and search for “my data”) and choose from a host of databases including individual and passport details, property ownership, registered pets, outstanding fines as well as a list of application forms. Over a 100 more e-services will be introduced in the coming months. In order to access these services you will need to authenticate yourself within the system using your Latvian bank details or by using the eID (electronic ID card).

If you have had to renew your Latvian passport in recent years you would also have been offered the eID card. Estonians have had these cards for a number of years and being the size of a credit card they are a convenient alternative to carrying your passport when travelling within the EU or if you require further identification at various government institutions and service providers.


The eID also comes with 120 free e-signatures. What this means is that you can digitally sign a document from wherever in the world and avoid the hassles and expense of a notary lawyer. In practice however, it is still not quite there in the usability stakes. First off you will need a card reader. Secondly you need a Windows, Macintosh, or Unix computer to download the “eParakstītājs 3.0” software. Thirdly you will need to dig out both the PIN1 and PIN2 codes that were issued with your eID card. And lastly you need to ensure that the receiving party accepts a digitally signed document. A new virtual e-signature option has become available, but then you no longer need your eID card, as authentication occurs via your bank login details.

My eID card was issued nearly two years ago and the e-signature facility is about to expire in June. I am still trying to find out how to extend this, but I keep going around in circles when visiting the website.

With the relaunch of and the Latvian Presidency of the Council of the EU highlighting e-government and e-Europe as a priority we should see more widespread adoption of the eID card. But we have some catching up to do: 90% of Estonia’s 1.3 million residents have active eID cards and they are already using their eID in new and innovative ways: as a national health insurance card, a pre-paid public transport ticket in Tallinn and Tartu, for digital document signing, internet voting that allows voters to cast their ballots from any internet-connected computer and for picking up e-prescriptions.