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Friday, July 21, 2023: The Land That Sings

Ironically, Riga was the biggest city of the Swedish empire during the 1700’s!! In 1918, newly independent Latvia was built on the ruins of the Russian empire.

US and UK would not recognize the occupation of Latvia by the Soviets after WWII.

Latvia is linguistically complicated. Previously Livonia, founded by the Teutonic Knights, included Latvia and Estonia, and many people spoke Liv. The last native speaker of Liv has died. There is a renewed interest in indigenous languages.

Latvians have a complicated past concerning Christianity: From pagans to crusades to Catholicism to Protestantism to Communism.

No one knew Latin that was used in the churches. Latvians are close to nature. In fact, the most important calendar holiday is not Christmas or Easter, but midsummer’s solstice on June 23.

This started as a pagan holiday. It is rooted in nature. People go out into the forest and gather flowers and herbs to decorate yourself and your house. One makes a crown for themselves, and even cows and horses. Today, one might decorate their car. There might be fortune telling, magic, or even healing. For some people it has spiritual significance.

They make a bonfire before sunset that must last the night. It is like a picnic in the dark. They put a resin-coated barrel on top of a pole to create light. Many people come to celebrate. On a flight the pilot noticed the country was aflame and turned off the interior lights so the passengers could see the countryside below.

It is a five hour celebration. It lasts until the morning dew. One washes their face with the dew.

University of Latvia Folk Stories and Enthnomusicology, Prof. Vakdis Muktupāvels, The Land That Sings. This slide illustrates the language similarities of the word for beer.

The Land That Sings was a branding for tourism. However, a tourist from the UK didn’t hear anyone singing. He was expecting to hear singing in the pubs. Their singing is done more in homes and gatherings.


Folk music or traditional music is often four lines of 7 to 8 syllables on each line. It doesn’t tell a story. Ballads are longer and tell a story.

Recitation singing is between singing and speaking. It is very rare except in Latvia. A group of people repeat the soloist while there is a constant pitch called a drone. Maybe this is where the term “drone on” comes from.

Refrains are unique to calendar celebrations. Thousands of folk songs have the same refrain. Song festivals have been around for many years in this area. They originated in Austria. Today it is a song AND dance festival with 16,000 on the stage singing a cappella.

The people in the Baltics could not fight the strong military of the Soviet Union, but they could express their feelings through singing. Folk songs are associated with a nation. The Soviets allowed singing but required them to sing the “right songs”. There are not as many people in singing groups or members of choirs anymore.

Kokles is a plucked stringed Latvian instrument similar to a zither that exists mainly for the enjoyment of the player.

Bagpipes are universal not just Scottish. Bagpipes originated as an instrument for wedding music. Soon the violin overtook bagpipes. There is a Bagpipe Museum outside DC.

The most famous choral poem is The Castle of Light which is also the nickname of the Latvia National Library.


Latvia National Library was established in 1919. The current building was completed in 2014. The Latvian-American architect, Gunnar Birkerts, donated his plan for the library. It was his last and greatest work. He escaped the Soviet Occupation and studied in America. The building is full of symbolism important to Latvians.

Crown and Castle of light. Vertical stripes symbolize how a birch grows.
Statues outside the library. It rains most everyday, but it isn’t very predictable in the weather app.
Our tour group is walking one level down. The building brings in lots of natural light, and the floor is also light and made out of maple.
The staircases are open.
Another view of the staircases
The Cabinet of Folk songs contains an original handwritten collection of 268,815 Latvian folk songs. It is considered by UNESCO to be a Memory of the World.
Here is the audio section. Rob is trying it out.
Interesting furniture and beautiful views.
Book lovers from all over Latvia donated a book. Over 6,000 books were donated with an inscription written on the title page. They are displayed on two stories … and are not accessed.
These posters are hung this way so that you can read what is on the back.
This is a bird’s eye view of the first floor. It is meant to resemble linen, an important fabric in Latvia.
This chair was designed for Pope John Paul II by Gunnar Birkerts. Our friend, Bill, said that it was comfortable. He looks very Pope-like, don’t you think?


Before WWII ten percent of the population, 40,000 people, was Jewish. There were only seven synagogues. Only one synagogue remains and during the Soviet occupation it was used for storage.

During the war, 25,000 of the Latvian Jews were taken out to the Rumbula forest and shot. They were lined up in front of a previously dug trench and shot in the back of the head. Then a kicker would push the body into the trench.

This is the foundation of one of the destroyed synagogues. It was set on fire with people locked inside.
This monument lists the names of those who perished in this fire and others that were killed in the other synagogues.
Later we went to the Ghetto Museum. This is a picture of a railcar that was used to transport Jews and other Latvians.

Museum of Occupation

This Museum of the Occupation of Latvia was dedicated to information about Soviet, German, Soviet (again) occupations. No wonder they are worried about Russia’s future plans.


We went to a restaurant called Forest that was voted the best in Latvia. It was a little hard to find: Can’t see the Forest for the trees.
We were told to go to the food court. This was like going to a night club. No KFC nor Sbarro nor Chick-fil-A.
There was even a DJ and a bar.
Rob and I ordered Bao Burgers. It was an interesting twist on a Chinese favorite.

How Bao That?

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