The Dainas (Latvian Folk songs) are little quatrains of ancient Latvian wisdom captured in song. Created well over a thousand years ago, Dainas were part of celebrations, daily work, reflections on life preserved in oral form. There are more than 1.2 million Dainas, with references to them in all forms and layers of culture, from theatre plays to everyday conversations. The collection of Dainas under the name “The Cabinet of Folk songs” is inscribed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Program.
History of Latvian Folksongs
The oldest written documentations of Latvian folk songs that have survived are dated 1584 and 1632.
The first collections of Latvian folk songs, which were compiled by the German clergymen G.Bergmann and F.Wahr, were published in 1807. Despite the wave of modernization in the 19th century, Latvians managed to preserve their tradition of Dainas, mostly because it was passed on from generation to generation. As the German geographer and traveller J.G. Khol wrote in his memoirs in 1841: “[..]Every Latvian is a born poet, they all compose verses and songs, and they can all sing these songs [..] They deserve to be called the nation of poets.”
Collecting and publishing folk songs became an essential activity during the period of national awakening. Krišjānis Barons (1835-1923) is the one Latvian who to this day can be held responsible for summarizing the most complete anthology of Latvian folk songs. Between 1895 and 1915 he published six volumes and eight books containing 217 996 folk song texts. Nowadays the collection has grown to approximately 1.2 million texts and more than 30 000 different melodies.
Symbol of Latvian Identity
The central role of dainas in Latvian life has long been viewed as one of the distinguishing features of Latvian culture. It describes the three essential elements of this uniquely Latvian phenomenon: tradition, literature and symbolism.
The Latvians call themselves a nation of singers and folk-song tradition is the main symbol used for the nation's self-identification. Dainas has a history of tradition for more than a century. It goes back to the New Latvians (Jaunlatvieši) who were ideological forerunners of the first national awakening. They used the folk songs as a reference to demonstrate that Latvians had a common national distinguishing characteristic long before.
As the former president of Latvia and also a folklore scholar Mrs. Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga once said:
“To the Latvian, dainas are more than a literary tradition. They are the very embodiment of his cultural heritage, left by forefathers whom history had denied other, more tangible forms of expression. These songs thus form the very core of the Latvian identity and singing becomes one of the identifying qualities of a Latvian."
© Dr. Dace Bula, The Institute for Literature, Folklore and Art; Latvian Institute 2015; Photos © Aldis Putelis