The Baltic Nations and the Social Power of Music
This year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival celebrates the social power of music—specifically how music is able to strengthen identity and build community. One of the foremost examples of this power occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s along the Baltic Sea, on what was then the western edge of the Soviet Union. Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians repeatedly and courageously defied Soviet authorities by proclaiming their social and cultural identities in song. Known today as the Singing Revolution, this grassroots movement throughout the Baltics led in part to the three nations regaining their independence in 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union that same year.
Recognizing the significance of this movement, and particularly the influence of local folk traditions, the 1998 Folklife Festival featured a program titled The Baltic Nations: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The program highlighted not only the social power of music and dance, but also many of the traditional crafts—such as blacksmithing, boatbuilding, ceramics, egg decorating, textile weaving, and woodcarving—as well as the rich foodways traditions found in homes throughout the region.
Twenty-one years later, the Baltics are back! On Sunday, June 30, the Folklife Festival will present Latvian singing, Lithuanian dancing, and an Estonian sack race. Starting at 3 p.m. on the Freer Plaza, the Latvian folk ensemble Sudrabavots (meaning “Silver Spring”—referring to their home in suburban Maryland) will present a cappella singing traditions, and also teach some lyrics to Festival visitors so they can join in the singing. At 3:30 p.m., also on the Freer Plaza, the Lithuanian folk dance group Malūnas (meaning “The Windmill”) from Baltimore will present their dance traditions, and also teach some steps to Festival visitors so they can join in the dancing. Shortly after 4 p.m., the Estonians will organize a sack race for younger visitors (ages five to twelve) on “The Lawn,” just east of the Main Stage.
This year’s participation of the Baltic nations serves as a small preview for 2020, when the Folklife Festival will explore some of the many ways in which folk communities around the world use their cultural knowledge to address environmental changes and concerns. By virtue of their location along the Baltic Sea in northern Europe, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania embrace a mosaic of landscapes, including forests (which encompass roughly forty percent of their land area), rivers, lakes, meadows, and shorelines. The Baltic cultures—particularly as expressed in music, song, dance, art, architecture, crafts, and foodways—unquestionably reflect their natural environments.
This summer also marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Baltic Way on August 23, 1989, when close to two million people joined hands and sang songs in a line that connected the three capital cities of Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius. Said to be the longest human chain ever recorded, this massive demonstration peacefully protested the Non-Aggression Pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which had been signed in secret on August 23, 1939, and which led to the Soviet occupation of the Baltic nations. To commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the Baltic Way, Washingtonians will gather on the west side of the U.S. Capitol on August 23, 2019.
James Deutsch is a program curator with the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage—working on the participation of the Baltic nations at the 2019 Folklife Festival. He has conducted research on folk traditions in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and has written reviews of the Estonian National Museum in Tartu and the Žanis Lipke Memorial in Riga.