22 January 2008

A Letter

Here you can listen to a song sung by the wives of Alsunga (German exonym: Allschwangen), about 30 km northwest of Kuldīga (Goldingen -- a town I'd like to live in at some point for a year or so, or at least spend more time in; Werner Herzog chose it for a recent film). The people of Alsunga and the neighboring parishes, called suiti, are unusual because Graf Ulrich von Schwerin, the local nobleman, married a Polish aristocrat in the 17th C, converting to Catholicism.

Cuius regio, eius religio
; what's now Latvia was fervently Lutheran with the exception of parts of Selonia (across the river from here, where we have our dachas) and the eastern region of Latgallia (where I live -- Latgola in the local dialect/language, this province belonged to Poland for quite some time [as Inflanty, a corruption of Livland] and was thereafter not part of das Baltikum but of Vitebsk guberniya; as a result, Latgallian developed separately, preserving some old forms [and being close to Lithuanian in some ways] but was also subject to more Russification, injured [and/or preserved] by illiteracy, etc. -- I wrote a bit about [fledgling] Latgallian activism here).

...Courland was quite Lutheran, but the Catholic suiti successfully defended their identity and traditions. Interest about them rose 82 years ago, when the composer, photographer, and ethnomusicologist Emilis Melngailis brought some to Rīga to sing (there's a bit on Melngailis here -- it's in Latvian, but there are tracks and photos). They're known for exactly the type of song I linked you to. As one of them put it in an interview, they cannot sing without an opponent. The song is accordingly an attack by the alsundznieces (women of Alsunga) on the jūrkalnieces and gudenieces, (the women from Gudenieki and especially Jūrkalne -- their neighbors).

A quick, crude gloss of the song's lyrics: Let those who need an organ buy an organ, I don't need an organ, don't need. My throat, my voice [dim.] is the organ [+ verb for organ -- I guess there isn't a verb in English?]. I've a wide throat when singing -- it's even wider when I bellow [howl -- but the word for instance is used also as auru laiks... not the time of auras /which it can also mean nowadays but not etymologically/ but the time cats mate]. I howled off the branches of the pine and the crown of the oak. The wives of the suiti sing splendidly; they drink sweet beer. The neighbors do not sing; they drink marsh water. When the jūrkalnieces sang, not a leaf rustled. When the gudenieces sang, the oak dropped its acorns. When the alsundznieces sang -- the oak itself bent, danced [līgojās... inf. līgot -- this is a word central to all things Lettish, so rife with meaning; to dance, to sway, to sing līgo songs, i.e., the songs with that refrain, ļeigū in Latgallia, sung on Līgo eve, that is Johannesnacht/solstice eve /Pound mentions the refrain of the Lithuanians in this regard, in connection with the pre-Christian "authenticity" he sought/]. The word līgava, bride, is from the sway of her hips.

Now that I gave you a discursive version of the history/identity of those suiti -- it turns out there is a bit in English on them, here. I attach a photo from Diena of their massive demo in front of the Cabinet, against splitting the region in the territorial administrative reform that was adopted over the objections of many and will soon be implemented. The signs say "the same fate for the suiti as for the Livs?" and "don't decide in our place" ...and "ēēēēē, Latvija!" (which needs no translation... the "ēēēēē" can be heard at the link in the very first word of this post).

As I mentioned when recounting my adventures at the Ventspils bus station with those seductive teenagers at the crack of dawn -- the character still exists. They themselves call it "of coarse fiber, somewhat impolite" -- to the teens of the villages, even when steeped in technopop, a suitu girl is still of another species.

This was adapted from a letter to Ken Irby. The suitu song and many other free .mp3 files, as well as additional information on folk and ethnographic ensembles in Latvia, can be found at the marvelous folklora.lv site.

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25 January, 2008 13:21  
Anonymous Irena said...

A while back, a friend gave me a 'suiti sievas' CD. I played it once, didn't think anything much, relegating it to some obscure group in Latvia. Now, I know more...paldies!


29 January, 2008 01:45  

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