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St. George's Day Concert "I am weaving a belt for St. George",
Riga, April 25th 2004

      On April 25th 2004 a folklore concert dedicated to St.George's day took place in the Small Guild in Riga.

Maskačkas spēlmaņi and Zvīgzna

      The evening's hostess, Ieva Bērziņa, opened the concert with the words that "Juris, Jurģis and Ūsiņš are different mythological figures" but added that this time the emphasis would be on their common characteristics (Juris, Jurģis: St. George, celebrated in Christian calendar April 23rd; Ūsiņš: Latvian deity linked with spring and light (patron of horses)). The participants were invited with the aim of representing each region of Latvia - the traditional division of Riga, Livland, Latgalia, Semgalia and Kurland. The introduction of each ensemble came with a repeated reminder of the "different mythological figures" with encouragement to demonstrate/perceive the entire spectrum of traditions. However, each group clearly expressed its understanding of regional folklore traditions and materials without needing much encouragement.

Maskačkas spēlmaņi

      The concert began with a joint performance of two groups from Riga - Zvīgzna and Maskačkas spēlmaņi (musicians from the Riga suburb of Maskachka). The men and boys sang first and the tune was in many ways misleading - this was followed by a medley of melancholy popular songs albeit with the addition of witty lyrics. However, the obviously theatrical layout of the performance - the singers standing in sparse lines behind one another, like a choir facing the audience - and the "standing to attention" stance of the majority of them - created more of a school exam atmosphere than one of young people's joy about the arrival of summer. When the band began to play it seemed appropriate for dances to commence but the music turned out to be just another sugary addition.


      The formal formation gradually made way for a livelier scene when everyone formed a circle to do a dancing game - a summery version of chase. Although it wasn't much of a chase due to the setting and slippery floor, the youngsters moved and sang from the heart, without worrying too much about keeping in tune - this naturalness was what had been lacking in the rest of the programme. (There is something to be said for the literal meaning of the phrase "a shoulder to lean on" - which is why we shouldn't be shy about taking a friend by the hand on stage, if it's done in sincerity then everyone will benefit). The song What a good life boys have also came across well and sounded sincere. And at the end of the day, a dose of timidity and lack of conviction is one of the values of youth. Young people demonstrating traditional culture with the attitude of theatre professionals would come across as more vulgar and unacceptable than manifestations of natural shyness.


      As a contrast to the "staged" performance of the young people from Riga, it is precisely the confidence that comes with years of experience that was demonstrated by the group Rota from Renceni. From the very beginning they managed to take over almost the entire space and emotionally "hold it" throughout their performance.


      The women began with a theatrical display, demonstrating a variety of beliefs specific to St. George's day. They warmed to roles quickly and any initial stiffness soon disappeared and the audience responded well. As part of their performance they went round with a smoke can wafting the smell of burning wood onto the audience and appealing to people's sub-consciences, reminding them about their connection with bees, the sun and summer. Putting their theatrical attributes to one side, the group gradually came together and sang, freeing themselves of the theatrical gestures involved in the previous performance. (The singers stood in a semi-circle and addressed the audience but didn't miss an opportunity to demonstrate their ability to address each other). The songs sounded natural, well practiced as though they had been used in various situations.


      The musicians began to play, the men joined the group and dancing commenced. Those left without partners sang and kept the rhythm, one or two of the dancers and musicians also sang along and a "voluntary" principle emerged - if you want to show your soul, do so, if not, everyone can see it just the same. Once again, the age of the participants was demonstrated in the conviction that it didn't matter.

Shkylbani ethnographic ensemble

      Women of the Shkylbani ethnographic ensemble was present in full force. Their introductory speech noted that they represented a region very active in the maintenance of traditional culture, paid homage to old song-tellers and also introduced new group members. They devoted a range of songs to life, spring and traditions associated with St. George celebrations. They sang songs from their region, some of which are still used today by ordinary folk as they go about their daily activities. (It was a shame that no "archaic" voices from the past could be present, as they would have been appreciated by people knowledgeable in folklore). As an obvious contrast to the previous performance by the group from Renceni, the Shkylbani women's actions seemed to contain underlying secrets known only to them, and that revealed to the audience was only the vocal "surface". Their semi-circular formation was almost flattened against the wall furthest away from the audience but with an inner tension underlined by the hook-like bends at the end of the formation. Nearly every exchange of looks and body movement reflected the logical structure of the songs with instinctive preciseness. Seeing something like that - unknown and deep - one is taken over by fear every time that it can all be destroyed in an instant, the singers subconsciously submitting to the general desire of becoming "available to a wider audience" and getting carried away with the fine-tuning of the technical side of the music, neglecting the human side.


      The group from Svitene came onto the stage energetically singing popular songs and beating a rhythm. However, this introduction also proved to be misleading - as a continuation the audience were invited to imagine the beginning of summer in Semgalia as witnessed and described in the book Straumēni by E.Virza. The chosen lines read in harmony with the singers' songs occasionally really did manage to conjure up a magical atmosphere in the spirit of the cited writer, but unfortunately the mood was not retained through to the end. Many of the songs were sung as choir variants robbing the performance of its desired mysteriousness, in one of the song endings magnificent Slav octaves "appeared", in turn those songs that were nearer to ethnographical singing weren't even attempted to try and fit in - some of the song-tellers were hidden behind the others' backs and the words were often inappropriate for their age, gender and status; the song-tellers also changed with no good reason halfway through a "four-liner". Occasionally it appeared almost as though the "choir" standing in two lines behind each other, with their last strength turned towards the audience desperately trying to tell them something. After the dancers came onto the stage, the false line-up of the singers wasn't renewed. One or two of the soloists were invited to the middle, including a young boy who turned out to be one of the most convincing Svitenes singers and whose face seemed to say, "Why are they struggling, is it really that difficult?"


      The group Laipa from Ventspils said to represent "robust folk from Kurland" (in all honesty, this was in response to jibes from other regions' representatives) but their "robustness" sounded more like sparrows being shot by cannons: lack of mutually coordinated activities and no advantage taken of the potential of the group members. The emotional link - communal singing - was held in separate duos/trios who stared fiercely at the rest of the group as though to say "What are they going to do?" The leader continuously shifted nervously, unsure whether to lead the others with her eyes or to go to the front and show herself off. The men were "cordoned off" from the audience by a line of female singers - when they were allowed to stand at the front to sing a few tuneful songs, the leader looked visibly worried, wondering what the outcome would be. We could excuse the folk from Ventspils as having a "black day" (which can happen to anyone or any group) and for apparently not having rehearsed their performance. However, they tried to redeem the situation by singing, overall weakly, songs from all corners of Latvia, that have been well-known throughout Riga's folklore circles for 15 years. Here it was completely remiss of them to introduce these as "little-known songs to be sung, as befits a folklore group". In a way, we can understand why a group that often performs in non-folklore settings might have "drilled" themselves to take on a theatrical "montage", however, their nervous hand gestures and TV show intonations weren't appropriate and even annoying. This wasn't the right audience to try and fool. At least some of the individual group members had the taste, self-respect and tact not to overdo their performance.


      As their finale, Laipa invited the other groups to join them in a roundelay with audience participation and at least the popular I had a wager with the sun was a good start to the remaining dances.       The Maskachka's musicians played the accompaniment, joined by the musicians from Renceni. The audience was responsive and the last hour was spent doing dances and dancing games. In this way, the overall poor performances were forgotten in the simple, heartfelt enjoyment of being together. Of course, those present were grateful for the hosts' provided tasty food. Even the props used by the group from Renceni - peas, used to illustrate a folk tale - were eaten by everyone.

      Article: Anete Simanovska, April 27th 2004
      Photos: Artūrs Medenis
      Translation to English: Zinta Uskale, Līvija Vārna-Uskale

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03 September 2018

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