Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Where is a culture’s music tradition to be found?

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as Hidden culture in August 2007

A few years ago I spent two weeks travelling through the Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. I was really looking forward to hearing lots of traditional singing since I had been told that all three countries have a rich and well-preserved history of song.

Baltic traditions

Women in Saare county, Estonia dancing in traditional costumes by Avjoska

But I didn’t see or hear a single singer in the whole of my trip! I did manage to track down a few traditional CDs, but there were hidden amongst the usual pop and heavy rock. Where had they hidden their traditional culture?

the Baltic tradition of song

The Lonely Planet Guide says: “Song is the soul of the Balts. And nowhere is this expressed more eloquently than in the national song festivals that unite Estonia, Latvia and Lithuanians worldwide in a spellbinding performance of song. The crescendo is a choir of up to 30,000 voices, singing its heart out to an audience of 100,000 or more, while scores of folk dancers in traditional dress throw a bewitching kaleidoscope of patterns across the vast, open-air stage”.

And the Rough Guide says: “The characteristic Baltic singing festivals – hugely popular events – played a major role in expressing the national identities of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania during their move to independence.”

Unfortunately most of the big folk song festivals had already happened earlier in the year!

In the 19th century, great collections of folk lyrics and tunes were made: over 1.4 million folk lyrics and 30,000 tunes have been written down in Latvia and the largest archive in Lithuanian folklore alone contains over 400,000 collected songs.

I also read in a local guide book that if you ask a Lithuanian about his country’s traditional culture, you would most likely hear about Lithuanian songs and love of singing. Apparently, only a few decades ago, most women of the Dzukija region still knew a hundred songs; the most accomplished singers remembered as many as four hundred. Often, people sang more than they spoke!

The choral folk and runo-song arrangements of Estonian composer Veljo Tormis are very popular, having influence as far away as the Estonian community in Australia! And it’s not just old, dyed-in-the-wool folk fans who follow the traditional songs, the annual Viljandi folk festival in Estonia each July attracts a young audience to see a variety of roots bands. And only the other day there was an article about how Estonians are keeping their singing traditions alive.

are today’s ‘traditions’ populist rubbish?

So how come in the restaurants and shops the music was Russian pop or Bob Marley or classical muzak, and the new Baltic MTV was full of Baltic rock of the bad 1970s kind? Where was this vibrant traditional culture that I’d been reading so much about?

I was also yearning to see some kind of authentic folk craft in the shops rather than the usual watered-down tourist rubbish (is that what people really want, or do we buy it because it’s the only thing on offer?).

It got me thinking about how visible so-called traditional culture is in any particular society.

There is clearly a rich and vibrant folk tradition in the Baltics in both music and applied arts, yet on an everyday level it is invisible. What happens to all those thousands of people who join in the song festivals the rest of the year? Do they simply stop singing?

What is a culture’s ‘folk tradition’ any way? I guess you could say that the derivative Baltic pop music on the radio, and the buying of cheap Russian clothes imports in the markets is an expression of today’s traditional culture.

invisible culture and tradition

Yet my background reading suggests that there is a lively, current interest in songs and music that has been handed down over generations – songs for every occasion: weddings, rye harvest, summer solstice, funerals. It is an integral part of Baltic society and runs deep. So why did I have to go hunting in modern record shops to try and find recordings of folk music hidden amongst the stacks of death metal and American pop?

What would a foreigner’s impression of our folk traditions be if she arrived at Heathrow, took the tube into London and wandered down Oxford Street? Sure we have many lively and well-attended folk clubs throughout the country, but they’re not that visible at first glance.

A country’s traditions and artistic culture is part of what gives it an identity. But if that culture is invisible, it seems at first glance that all cultures are merging into one: shopping malls, light entertainment on TV, pop music on iPods, street fashion and leisure-wear, fast food.

But scratch the surface and you will find a rich hidden culture that seems to survive the onslaught of globalisation and commercialisation. You just have to go and look for it. I guess if something comes too easy, then it’s not appreciated.

So when you visit a foreign country, don’t jump to conclusion. Wait a while and see past the Americanised trappings of the modern world and you will find cultural riches which will surprise you.

And to those of us who enjoy traditional music-making, culture and arts – keep on doing it or it will not survive!


Chris Rowbury's website:


Chris Rowbury


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