The Lithuanian word for song – “daina” – can be traced back to the Indo-European “dhaina,” which means, “to give thought to.” It has been an integral part of Lithuanian life since time immemorial, and some of Lithuania’s most haunting ballads hearken back to our pagan roots, a time when vestal virgins kept round-the clock vigil over the eternal flame and the sun and moon were animate entities.
Lithuanians sing. We sing to our children. We sing in happiness and we sing in grief. Wherever Lithuanians are gathered, you can bet someone is standing at their center with an accordion. We even sang our way to independence – the term “Singing Revolution” was coined to describe the Baltic independence movement of the late 80s, when Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia used song to protest peacefully against the Soviet occupation.
Last weekend, over 1,000 Lithuanians from America, Canada, Lithuania, and England gathered at Toronto’s Hershey Centre for the IX Lithuanian Song Festival. Yup. We got together just to sing. It was a huge event four years in the making, and it was worth every hour of the many rehearsals leading up to it.
The song festival tradition started in Lithuania in 1924 (where it is still held annually). The first such event in North America occurred in 1956 and has been held seven times since then. The people who gathered in Chicago in 1956 were first generation Lithuanian Americans who had fled their homeland during the Second World War. This year’s festival included members of that generation, and three generations following it.
This year’s logo was a sun, half obscured by night. It represented the dawn of civilization and the songs that gave voice to the human condition. We began with songs of the dawn and, in the space of three hours, sang our way through a full 24 hour cycle, ending with a new morning, symbolic of continuity, of the migration of people from east to west, and the passing of the cultural baton. Fittingly, I had the pleasure of watching one of my closest friends – who has dreamed of conducting since we were children at summer camp – direct one of my favorite songs, and I had the privilege of singing a brand new composition written by another friend – the one who always dreamed of composing and used to walk around summer camp with an accordion around his neck.
The experience of singing in an an amphitheater with over a thousand people and accompanied by a full orchestra is hard to describe. When a perfect chord is struck, the sympathetic vibrations are overwhelming. The tidal wave of sound takes you back to the forest primeval, to your ancient roots, and reminds you that you are a part of something much bigger than yourself.
It reignites the creative spark, and it gives you the strength to ignore you childrens’ nightly request for “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and instead keep singing them the ancient lullaby that saw you to adulthood, in hopes that it will leave the same imprint in them that it did in you.Subscribe to the blog. (It's free!)