Musical Riga: a photo essay

Riga is music; any season, but in summer, everything and everyone moves outdoors. The winters are long, dark, and cold, and Latvians figure to get the sun and fresh air while it’s available; plenty of time to rest after the leaves start to fall.  Everywhere you look, people are picnicking in the parks, or boating on the canal, or just sitting at cafes.  Nobody sleeps, really.  Many are the deep, peaceful slumbers, when it finally gets dark, interrupted by a full-throated early morning choir of well-lubricated revelers, their songs echoing back and forth between the buildings, much as they themselves might bounce between the same walls.  Latvians love their beer, and it is excellent; this fact in turn invites like-minded tourists to join in.  The saving grace is that the most violence you’re likely to see is perpetrated against the principles of harmony, and not people.  My view is that if I must put up with drunks, I much prefer them prone to outbursts of song than to outbursts of violence!

There is a plethora of music in official venues: concert halls, arenas, amphitheaters, and bars.  But to me, what really defines Riga in the summertime is the street music.  It is actively encouraged; the many local music schools even send their students out on the streets to perform, as a way of getting experience.  And, of course, there is the usual variety of street buskers, although it’s not everywhere that they set up complete with generators and amplified instruments.  The sheer range of talent and production value on the street is astonishing.

I wish I could have sampled the sounds for you, but I’m afraid it’s beyond my small competence to putt something like that together.  So here’s a photographic journey instead.



This trio was playing a Boccherini quartet.  If they had another person, I guess they could have gone for a quintet.  They were fantastic.


There was even the occasional official paid gig, like this one at an upscale hotel.  Outdoors, of course.


Big production number here; very professional, great vocalist.  They had a gas generator with a long enough extension cord so that it didn’t interfere too much.


Then there was this guy, a marvelous operatic baritone.


Cello chiller.


I actually thought I might know this blues harp player from my checkered past.  Then I realized I’m old enough to be his father.


They start young.  Good posture, sweet sound.


A one-woman band, and with an attitude.  Her schtick was to ask passers-by to sing a verse of their national anthem.  Then she would make it sound like everything else she played.


Ragtime Cowboy Joe.


Not a cowboy.  Some people apparently just needed the money.  The quality of this group was variable, but you had to give them credit for doing something, and not just begging.


Even Anonymous apparently was represented.  An interesting cure for stage fright!


Very proper, and with a beautiful clear voice.  She played a traditional instrument and sang Latvian folk songs, even dressed the part.


Of course, it’s always nice if you have a buddy to help with the music.


Uh, no comment.


More solid traditional music, despite the cowboy hats.


Some interesting combinations…


Lots of brass bands.  These guys were excellent; no need for amps here!


Or here, for Mr.Cool.


Another brass band.

That’s all, folks!

Riga party line

If you doubt that Eastern Europe is very different, consider this comment I heard at a party in Riga:

“I can’t drink beer or wine; my doctor told me to stick to the hard stuff.”

Someone else, having been told the stuff he had just poured into his glass was wine, and not flavored hooch, recoiled with horror, poured it out, and went straight for the vodka, hoping, no doubt, it wasn’t just water.

And these are the sober types.

I told a story of my profligate grandfather, who drank a bottle of vodka every day, finally expiring at the age of 85. Well of course, they said. What pathogens could survive such an environment?

Of course, all that booze was accompanied by heroic amounts of food: pickled herring, lox, unidentifiable but delicious cured meats, olives, pickles, cheeses of every variety, salads composed of any and all imaginable vegetables, all accompanied with sour cream and dill. Copious dill, always. Someone brought a massive traditional klinger, a thing like a giant pretzel, filled with fruit compotes and dressed with fresh berries. To be eaten with shots of cognac or vodka interspersed. Moderation, you know. Of course, you could always go one-stop, and eat the heavenly en-booze-iated fruit salad. Did I mention that all of this was unspeakably delicious?

This was followed, as the evening grew long, by the actual meal: marinated pork kebabs grilled to perfection. And, had I tried the klinger? I really should, you know. Perhaps a bit of cognac, to settle things?

There was, all in all, approximately a week’s worth of eating and drinking in one sunsetless evening in late June Latvia. I begged off and left the party as twilight began its descent, a rather late and hesitant affair up here at the 57th parallel. My host was dismayed at my early departure, and asked if I was well.

Walking to the trolley stop afterwards, I passed reeling youth, shouting, singing, ignored by more sober pedestrians, treated like a late spring squall, alarming, but not serious. It all seemed oddly calm.