The Dainas (Lat­vian Folksongs) 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 Folksongs” is in­scribed in the UN­ESCO Mem­ory of the World Program.

History of Latvian Folksongs

The oldest written documentations of Latvian folksongs that have survived are dated 1584 and 1632.

The first collections of Latvian folksongs, 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 traveler 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 folksongs. 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 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 the 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."

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