Crossing North 1: Werewolves on Campus

Vilkači performs in a UW classroom


Latvian folkband Vilkači (Werewolves) discuss their music and worldview while Professor Guntis Šmidchens discusses the role folk music played in ending the Soviet occupation.

Jump to Show Notes


Colin Gioia Connors: Imagine this: early one misty morning, a peculiar man steps out of the fog and onto the quad at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is dressed in a woolen tunic decorated with colorful trim and fastened with a medieval brooch. Silver and amber pendants hang from his neck, and two animal horns hang from his belt. He raises one horn to his lips and blows.

[*horn blows*]

Five men, similarly clad, appear out of the fog behind him. Students on their way to class might have mistaken them for Vikings. But they carry no weapons. Instead, they carry musical instruments, and they are on their way to class, too.

[*Vilkači plays song “Skaistu cirtu”*]

Welcome to Crossing North: a podcast where we learn from Nordic and Baltic artists, scholars, and community members to better understand our world, our communities, and ourselves. Coming to you from the Scandinavian Studies Department and Baltic Studies Program at the University of Washington in Seattle, I’m your host Colin Gioia Connors.

[*song ends*]

Edgars Zilberts: Hello everybody! We are a folk band from Latvia called Vilkači. That translates into "Werewolves." It’s not the classical werewolves that you maybe think about when you think about old movies or Twilight or something like that. It has nothing in common with that.

Colin: UW was the first stop on Vilkači’s good-will tour of the United States to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Latvia’s declaration of independence in 1918. Their costumes are archaeological reconstructions of Latvian clothing from the 9th to 12th centuries, a period the band sees as the last moment of complete political and cultural independence for Latvia.

Juris Tomašūns: The Crusaders not only fought Jerusalem, but also the Northern Crusades during which mainly German Crusaders invaded the last pagan lands of Europe. At that time, Scandinavia was already long Christianized, but the Baltic lands gained their name as “the land of werewolves and witches.” At that time, the lands were invaded by the German Crusaders, most of the Baltic people were subjugated to their rule. But there were people who didn’t want to submit, and the place they could flee [to] and maintain their freedom was the forest. And imagine what a person looks like when he has been living in the forest for years. Imagine them, living in the forest for years: what are you eating? Berries? Are you eating some fish you catch? What are you wearing? You are wearing the skins of the animals you have killed. Once in a while, you want to get some good food. Where can you get the good food? From the farmers. From the landlords that are ruling the country. And imagine now, put yourself in the Christian mind in the medieval times. Everything you do not understand you explain as magic or some sort of mystery. And during the full moon, once every time, some weird half-human/half-wolf-looking person comes into your farmstead during the full moon steals some animal and drags it to the forest. Now you would think, “Oh, it must be those werewolves!” because “werewolves” in Latvian is called vilkači, which literally translates as “wolf eyes.” So it is a wolf-looking [thing], but like a person standing and stealing your animals. Now, why the full moon? I think it is pretty clear why during the full moon: because it is the brightest. During the full moon at midnight it is the brightest and you can walk around unnoticed. You see everything but they don’t see you. And the best that farmers and the landlords could see is really some kind of a wolf-looking thing stealing your animals and dragging them to the forest. So, we refer to Vilkači not only as the warrior-protectors, but also, sort of, political partisans, you know.

Edgars: Freedom fighters.

Juris: Freedom fighters! Not submitting to the invaders rule.

Colin: Werewolves carry a lot of symbolism for the members of Vilkači, both as defenders of Latvian sovereignty and as defenders of Latvian pre-Christian folk belief. The image of the freedom fighter werewolf holds a lot of cache because medieval Latvians preserved and passed on much of their pre-Christian religious beliefs.

Guntis Šmidchens: There is general consensus that it wasn’t 100% religious conversion.

Colin: This is Guntis Šmidchens, Professor of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Washington and a specialist on Baltic folklore.

Guntis: ...Partly because it was not voluntary, and partly because the old beliefs persisted—even when people converted, if people converted to Christianity—alongside the Christian faith. So beliefs about nature, about spirits in forests and trees and in the sea, kind of fill a void that is not filled by organized religion and that is why it survives even today. So you find even in current times people have special feelings toward trees, toward certain animals, toads and snakes, that probably have been passed from generation to generation, never really explaining it as doctrine, but simply this attitude toward nature, which survives not really in opposition to Christian faith, but just kind of coexisting.

Jumis Ločmelis: Latvia is kind of unique, I mean, you do study Scandinavian culture but Latvia is very unique in the amount of songs and the amount of lyrics that we do have and that we still know. And the number is, for the summer solstice there are 23,000 different verses. 23,000 verses and countless melodies.

Juris: That is for a population that has never been higher than 2 million.

Edgars: Yeah. It is difficult and hard for me, particularly, to talk with young people about mythology, religion, and beliefs that I believe in because I think always it kind of makes me look weird. It becomes uncomfortable for me to explain because… [*trails off*] Well, the thing is: you look at us right now, we are some kind of people that climbed out of the Iron Age with weird clothes, with wooden instruments, and we sing some kind of ancient songs and talk about thunder and god and things we believe. No! We are fully functional members of society. [*laughter*] We have our day jobs that are paid, we go to work every day, we have families, and it’s not like we have like a huge tree stump in our living room that we bow down to, no.

Toms Grīnvalds: We don’t live in forests. [*laughter*]  

Edgars: No, we don’t live in forests, we live in suburbs or the center of the city. Our days are very much like the days that all the other people have. The only difference is when there is the summer solstice or the winter solstice or the autumn or the spring equinox, there are things that we do: we come together, we sing, we celebrate, and we keep the tradition alive. A lot of people who do that maybe do not deeply believe those things, but still they believe that the tradition is the greatest value that a small country can have. We are a small country, but we are very proud of our traditions.

Colin: Like the songs that are sung during the summer solstice, there are many folk songs which delve into Latvia’s pre-Christian mythology. The mythology in these songs may be difficult to express in speech, but it finds compelling expression through song. The songs have survived for centuries because each generation finds their own meaning in them, and sometimes the songs find a place in people’s daily lives.

Jumis: Yeah it is kind of difficult to explain. Well, essentially, Latvian mythology personifies the nature. So we have the sun and in the morning or in the evening I sing to the sun directly. I also sing to the thunder, and I guess you could kind of relate him to the Roman Mars. It is kind of difficult to explain because we have deities that are responsible for certain things, and then there is god, and he—

Edgars:  Well, he kind of unites them. But he is not like the Christian God, he is like the Dude. [*laughter*]

Jumis: [*laughs*] The Big Lebowski!

Edgars: ...He is the wise one, the good one, he doesn’t punish you, it’s not like he will send plague to your country because something, you didn’t pay the tenth of your salary to him. He’s not like that. He’s a good guy.

A very big and important role [within] the deities is the thunder god, Latvian thunder god, and he is very similar to, maybe, Scandinavian Thor. But he is the god of action, protector of hunters, of fighters, and he’s a force that has to be reckoned [with] because he’s also the force in nature but also in the spiritual world. The next song that we are going to sing is a dialogue with the thunder god with a young warrior, where the young warrior has just slaughtered a nine-headed beast. But now he has a big problem: he has blood all over his clothes, so he asks the thunder god, how can he please clean those clothes, because that is the important thing for him.

Juris: Because they are very nice clothes. [*laughter*]

Jumis: Well, so, it is a kind of a mix, I mean, it’s mythological, and yet you are asking advice from somebody, who maybe represents the masculine side of things, and yet the advice is very specific and very practical. Like, “How can I do my laundry?” “Well there is a laundromat over there.” It’s kind of what the song is saying, instead of the laundromat, you dry the clothes on the oak in which nine suns set.

Toms: Not only this song, that…[*trails off*] In Latvian mythology there’s this thing that you don’t have to be a special person or someone who has special education or someone who has special knowledge. Anyone can speak to the gods in his head. And this song actually shows that if you have some question, if you have some problems, then you can directly speak to the gods and you can ask the thing that is important for you at the moment. So, you don’t have to be a special person, you don’t have to have a special knowledge. You have this possibility to ask. And for me, and I think for the other guys, that give a special power, the inner power, that you know you always have someone behind your back who is going to help you in the way you are going to do things.

Edgars: You can interact, like Toms said. You have god on speed dial.

[*Vilkači plays song*]

Colin: Like what you hear? Be sure to subscribe to Crossing North wherever you get your podcasts. Crossing North is sponsored by the Scandinavian Studies Department and Baltic Studies Program at the University of Washington in Seattle, and we need your help to grow our podcast. Consider donating to one of the many funds that help support the department’s mission to “discover, preserve, and transmit fundamental knowledge about the languages, literature, history, politics, and cultures of the” Scandinavian, Nordic, and Baltic countries. A gift to the Friends of Scandinavian Languages and Literature fund will be especially helpful to production of Crossing North. Go to to learn more. Once again, that’s

Guntis: Before the modern world, singing was a part of daily life.

Colin: Again, Professor Guntis Šmidchens.

Guntis: People would be speaking poetry while they were working and singing in poetry while they’re working, at morning, at night. It was much more common to be singing in everyday life. Now with urbanization, moving to cities, there is a different kind of singing that started in the 1800s with an organized choir movement, which at that time under the Russian tsar’s rule was one of the forms of free expression, of less censored expression. And that was a place where Latvian met, in the choir, and that grew into a movement of choirs, coming together to sing in larger choirs and larger choirs, where other kinds of social organization wasn’t possible. The choirs were a supposedly non-political way of gathering and expressing your feelings and community. And so, song became the meeting place for Latvians in the 1800s, and the choral movement has just grown and flourished since then.

Colin: Vilkači is part of a larger network of folk reenactors who make traditional clothes, play traditional games, share traditional foods, and above all, celebrate Latvia’s rich folk traditions. The band has existed for over 18 years. Members come and go, but the current members, Edgars, Toms, Jumis, Andriz, Juris, and Eduards have been singing together for the past five years.

Jumis: I joined this choir because they had a vocal coach for free if you sang in the choir, and that is basically the reason I joined. So...thanks, choir! You have improved the sound of Vilkači. But actually, I grew up in a very traditional family. My mother is a traditional singer, and I don’t remember this but she told me that I used to know about a hundred songs when I was two years old. So, the Latvian roots have been with me since birth, basically. And I have this opportunity to pass it on and practice it myself, thanks to these guys.

Edgars: Opposite of Jumis, I was brought up in a very classical family where my father is a professor of music, so classical music only has been played in my house while I was growing up. But I found folk music because I was trying to get in touch with my roots. I wanted to find some kind of deeper meaning, and classical music, of course, is very likable and something that I still listen to very often, but in Latvian traditional music there is something deeper inside that triggers the “inner voice.” We call it the “blood voice,” but that’s a bad translation. It’s the thing that vibrates your inner feelings, that you feel you are in the presence of something more spiritual and very meaningful to you.

Jumis: What Edgars is talking about, this feeling I definitely got it when I started going to Vilkači rehearsals. What’s interesting is that I get the same feeling when listening to American gospel. I actually play guitar in a gospel choir, and physically, the sensations are very similar. And it is definitely not religious; it has to do with the harmonies, and maybe with this power that you get from hearing that amount of people singing in specific ways. Well, you know, it’s like shivers down your spine, those kind of tingling sensations. Teary eyes sometimes. To me, music is physical. I wouldn’t say spiritual or anything. Or spirituality to me is physical.

[*Vilkači plays song, “Ozoliņi, ozoliņi”*]

[*song ends*]

One of the things that we try to do is stay as authentic as possible. So our instruments are: bagpipes, as much as we can find the tradition. It is a lot stronger in Estonia, in Spain, and France, and Bulgaria, than it is in Latvia. For example, one of the bagpipes that we play is made after an Estonian example and the other one is maybe just an improvisation of the master. Also, the drums, they are made out of a whole tree stump that has been hollowed out, with cow hides. And the recorders, for example, we tried to play wooden ones, and then we kind of feel guilty about playing plastic instruments even though they are more precise. But then we do listen to hip hop, we do listen to rock music, and we understand that the ear of today’s listener is used to certain things, and maybe we even add harmonies that we like, but some hard-core traditionalists would say that that’s wrong and that we are doing some things that are wrong. So we maybe add these things slightly, as rarely as possible. So we kind of do a combination of all of those things.

Edgars: One of our primary goals is not to keep the tradition encapsulated and frozen in time. We try to bring it to the modern listener. We are interested to spread our tradition, to make it more popular among teens and youngsters in our country so it would be alive and would be passed on from generation to generation. And they have some standards and they demand some kind of quality. The trade off is, for example, not playing the wooden instruments in recordings but plastic ones because they are more in tune. So we are cheating on the traditional purists’ sound, but we gain the sound quality that the listener requires. Because we have to engage the ones that are not aware of our songs, or of this folk movement. If we can capture their attention with the music, the sounds, the quality, then after that we can go on and teach them about the values, about the meanings of the songs, and the history, and everything that comes with it.

[*Vilkači plays song “Raganas, Vilkates”*]

[*song ends*]

Juris: I also grew up in a pretty traditional family, but we actually sang together rarely. But the times we did, I know the first songs that I have ever learned to sing were from my father, although my mother was a music teacher, I learned them from my father. And it played out nicely when, during my teenage years, I realized that I don’t have to just listen to music. I can sing along. And the words that really got to me, the lyrics, were from Latvian warriors’—men’s—songs. I listen to them, I sang them, and I thought, “There’s such power and independence in them. I want to be like that.” Then I joined a national guard ensemble where we sang these traditional songs, and then I just went on at some point to join Vilkači to sing more ancient songs, you know, something more basic. And I really enjoy it. 

[*Vilkači plays song “Kurkungami tadi viri”*]

[*song ends*]

It’s more about the song itself—about the lyrics. I believe the music is just the way to make the listener really listen and hear it out. So you can make adaptations to music, but the words don’t get changed, because they are the message.

Jumis: There is also a very good point how Latvia is maybe different from the nearby countries, even the Scandinavian countries, you know, like Finland, Norway, Sweden. For example, Norway and Sweden, they have such beautiful music. Their fiddle, or violin—those melodies are incredible. Latvians don’t have that specifically, but the thing about Latvia is that we have way, way, way more young people that practice folklore, or these traditions and sing these songs because—  You know, our friends from Sweden come here and they are almost envious in a good way. They say, “The stereotype in Sweden is that folklore and folk music is for old people only.” So we do have to make these kinds of adaptations, and I think Latvia is a very good success story in this case because it is a country that is less than two million people, and yet we have about 220 folk groups, and it is not only the older generations, it’s also the younger people. And you can even say that there are some core people that teach the joy of music, the joy of the tradition to younger people. They grow up, and then they teach their kids and their friends, and then they get pulled into this whole thing.

Andris Lejnieks: It’s maybe not only the folk music but this Latvian tradition of singing is very common in all of the nation. Maybe not folklore, but choirs and all this stuff. We have these singing festivals every four years, where 20,000 people are singing on one stage, and this is like a whole week festival and it is a holiday, an official state holiday, when the concert is going. So it's very famous, it’s very ordinary that young people sing in choirs, for example, not old people. And not only in choirs but in all other music engagements. Music and singing, it's one of the really big traditions in Latvian culture in every way. So, the folk music is a very big one, as well, but not the only one.

Jumis: There is also another point that I find very fascinating: traditionally, the post-Soviet countries aren't very happy about having been within the Soviet Union because of the economic and social setbacks. And yet, the fact that Latvians had to hide their heritage from the Soviet regime made us very spiteful, and this is one of the motivations that has kept this tradition alive. In spite of it actually being physically dangerous, we have kept it alive. And that’s maybe why it has recently exploded so much.

Edgars: But that is also the reason why we don't have the fiddles and the fiddle players and violinists that you mentioned, is because in Sweden the tradition still kept going on and they just practiced more, but we got set back like 50 years because it got stopped. You couldn’t publically practice your craft, and that’s why after the collapse of the Soviet Union you just began almost from point zero to evolve. The new generation tried to get a grasp on things that other countries just went on. For example, I am playing an instrument, kokle, that is a Latvian traditional instrument. The levels between, for example, in Sweden where they have kokle-playing studies in the academy of music—there is an official kokle course. They have theory and they have praxis and they have very talented players, and their technique is so exquisite and breath-taking. And I cannot wrap my head around it. How can they do it? They just say, “You have been stopped for 50 years and you haven’t been evolving.” So now we are beginning the journey where it just stopped. So I am a bit disappointed by that because I see where we could have been if not for the Soviet Union occupation.

Guntis: So under Soviet rule, on the surface, the official declarations were that the Soviet Union supported cultures of all languages and of all peoples, all nations.

Colin: Once again, Professor Guntis Šmidchens.

Guntis: The policy was different than that. The policy was one of gradually merging all the different languages and nations of the Soviet Union into one, single, Soviet nation. And the path to that would be—the phrase is, “National in form, socialist in content.” So where people are speaking in different languages and singing in different languages, the content of they are doing would be uniform all over the Soviet Union. In the ‘70s three was a gradual shift in policy toward assimilation of all the Baltic populations to Russian language as they were building “the Soviet man.” And so, this kind of formal manipulation of what people can have in the culture, and in their language led to—it can be called “resistance,” you know, doing things that aren’t allowed, or just “persistence,” persisting in singing things that you had been singing before. And I see the folk song movement as a persistent movement of people saying, “Our parents and grandparents and these people we meet in the countryside sang this way and sing this way and we just want to continue this kind of singing.” And that is the kind of movement that Vilkači grew out of. It is a movement which was constantly in friction with the Soviet government and Soviet cultural policies because it was “national in form,” or regional in form, but the content, making that content into socialist content was complicated and problematic. And so when people are not following the directions of the cultural organizers, they are actually resisting cultural policies of the Soviet Union. This is why the folk song singers were, in Latvia, treated as dissidents. They were persecuted by the KGB. Their performances were banned. All kinds of attempts to stop this non-regulated, un-organized, not Soviet-organized [*laughs*] movement of singing in a different way.

Colin: Were folk singers arrested? Deported? Or…?

Guntis: In an earlier time, under Stalinist rule, yes. Cultural activists who did things that weren’t allowed would be arrested, sent to Siberia. But now this would be the 1960s, 1970s, when it’s no longer violent control of the population. What would happen, say, in Latvia’s conservatory, the music academy, a student wants to start a folk song group, the group is not given permission to perform, and the student is not given permission to take final exams, meaning their career is done [*laughs*]. That would be an example of how control of culture was happening in the 1970s when in Latvia the folk music movement broke out. So, there are earlier examples of people being arrested, which people remember, and the danger of performing things. It was illegal to go on stage and perform something that had not been given the stamp of approval. Everything that was performed on stage had been on a program, given to the government censors, who put their stamp on it, and then there would be people in the audience who are watching to make sure that they are not singing or even saying anything that was not planned in advance. So with the folk song performers, starting with just the music, the instruments, where improvisation is a big part of it, there is already this complicated relationship between the performers and the censors. The censors don’t quite know what to do when a fiddler place a dance four times instead of three times, for example [*laughs*]. And so this is where they were pushing the boundaries, and same with the songs. They would be singing songs that are written down, word-for-word on pieces of paper from earlier folk tradition. They would perform those, but then when the tradition requires improvisation, then they would improvise, and sometimes the improvisation would leak over into other performances, and that was a problem that the government censors couldn’t quite solve in any other way, other than simply by banning groups from public performance. There was a folklore festival going on where these groups would be coming and performing for each other. Early 1980s that was shut down. Simply no more stages for them was the Soviet government’s response to these movements. 

Colin: So performers found ways occasionally to speak to the rest of the nation through their performances?

Guntis: Yeah! What they would do is— The discussion was about authentic culture. That authentic folk songs meant something to the people singing them, and we are singing songs that are meaningful to us. In Latvia, we have these old wedding traditional songs, well, we should sing them at weddings. We have traditional funeral songs, we should sing them at funerals, because that is the context in which they are authentic. This feeling, or belief, that folklore is somehow more authentic because it responds to actual personal needs took really deep root and by the 1980s this was probably what was the main driving force for the movement. In many ways, it was not a political movement only in the idea that the Soviet government required, in performances, declarations of allegiance to the Communist Party, to socialist ideology, to this, this, and this, and because the folklore performers said, “Well, in the earlier traditions there was no communist ideology so we can’t sing about that.” [*laughs*] So by finding an argument to not sing government propaganda, it was a political movement, too. 

But where politics came out in the open was in the late 1980s. July, 1988 in Latvia was this folklore festival that was happening, where at the opening of the festival, there was going to be songs about sunshine and nature, but the singers went on stage and took out flags of the Independent Republic of Latvia. And there were also Lithuanians taking out Lithuania’s flag and Estonians taking out Estonia’s flag. They were declaring that, “The flag we’re performing under, now when we are singing our folklore, is not the Red Flag of the Soviet Union. We have our own flag.” And so it was a very visual action, but that visual action was a declaration of independence. Up to that point you could say, “Well, folk songs are not really explicitly for or against the Soviet Union. They are still kind of allowed.” But once, visually, they said, “We are singing these songs to declare independence,” that’s where the folklore movement took off in a very political direction.

And built into folklore and folk songs is the fact that it is very easy to perform and to learn them. There are call and response songs, so, you know, a couple of people know the words, and people who don’t know the words repeat the words. Or there are refrains that everybody learns and it is very easy to sing along. The folk dances are very easy, you just learn a few steps and suddenly you are dancing, too. Where Soviet culture was very professionalized, very specialized, the stage culture, this was culture that could easily come off the stage and lots and lots of people could get involved in the singing and the dancing. And in Latvia, that is the mechanism by which this whole movement became a mass movement in 1988.

By 1988 Soviet censorship collapsed. There was no longer a will. Early 1998—so this person who carried the flag openly in Riga in early June, 1988 was arrested and sent out of the Soviet Union, deported out of the Soviet Union. And by July, because there were so many people all over, it would have required mass repressions, and I think two things happened: one, it was almost impossible to get the repressive apparatus to arrest everybody who was not obeying, and second, I think that the entire government of the Soviet Union, all these individuals there, got tired of forcing people what to do and basically stopped censorship, allowed elections to happen, and then in 1991, let these countries go and become independent countries. And that is a big credit to those people, Mikhail Gorbachev and the other leaders of the Soviet Union, that they decided not to go the violent direction when people were self-expressing politically, to let them do that.

Colin: So I saw you give a lecture in SCAND 100 about “the singing revolution” as a nonviolent revolution...

Guntis: Yes, this is an important part of the story, which I kind of glossed over very quickly. The communist government of the Soviet Union did, in late 1990 and particularly 1991, use violence to try to put down these mass independence movement. It wasn’t mass violence. It was generally targeted. So when in January, 1991 the government decided to shut down television in Lithuania, they sent in soldiers and tanks. The nonviolent resisters standing around as a human shield were run over by tanks, [*voice falters*] were shot by soldiers, as that one television tower fell. But then there would be more television towers. There were printing presses to take over. And so, where I think the tactics was to frighten people away from being unarmed human shields around every item that the Soviet Union now needed to control, instead what happened was people were inspired. Seeing the television tower, or the printing presses of Vilnius surrounded by singing people, who were defeated in that one battle, but instead of hiding in their houses, more and more people came out to defend the next object that the government wanted to take over. So the parliaments were defended in this way and there were no clashes anymore, then.

Colin: What was the role of song in that moment?

Guntis: So historians might disagree. With my own research, I was finding that historians couldn’t quite deal with songs and singing, that generally, when they describe these events of nonviolent defenders the Parliament facing off armed soldiers and tanks, they kind of very quickly told that story and then move on to how these countries negotiated their independence with Moscow. And so the question of whether songs were necessary in a so-called Singing Revolution— it was called a Singing Revolution while it was taking place because people were saying, “Songs are our weapon. They are our sword and our shield, and that’s why we are singing and we’re not gonna fight these soldiers.” But whether singing was needed for this nonviolent movement is an interesting question. When I look at the videos or listen to stories about people at these very tense moments of confrontation with armed soldiers and the stories that they were singing amongst themselves, my quick answer is yes, songs were necessary. What the songs do for people. Here I work with singers today, too. Songs build self-confidence. If you can stand up and sing in front of people, you have self-esteem, self-confidence, you have trust in the people around you. And for a nonviolent movement to succeed, you have to have trust in the people around you, you have to have self-esteem, you have to have bravery. And where does bravery come from? It comes from things people say and things people feel, and in Latvia, and Estonia and Lithuania, too, songs were expressing unity in the face of oppression. That’s what gave people bravery to go out there unarmed. [44:40] So that’s the mechanism by which songs were— [*laughs*] without songs, I think there wouldn’t have been these masses of people defending the Parliaments. It would have been very easy to just send in a few soldiers, take over Parliament, arrest those few hundred government officials, and then it would be over. But there were tens of thousands of people that a tank would have to drive across and soldiers would have to beat their way through. Every soldier has this very difficult choice to make, whether to aim their weapon at people who are only singing, and that cost was too high of a price for keeping the Soviet Union together. And those people got their energy from singing. 

Toms: I would say that one of the best answers for this, for your question, is: we play for ourselves. That’s what I do. And I would say that all of us do it. Because if you enjoy what you’re doing, if you do it for yourself, then it doesn’t matter who is listening. But the person who will hear us, or the person who hears that someone is doing something for himself, he will always hear that [to be] very beautiful. Because we always talk about it, that it’s not work. It’s not something hard. It could be, and it is, but it always is for ourselves. And if we do a concert, and if we are tired, it doesn’t always sound that comforting. For example, the person who’s listening to us when we’re tired, they can see this, because we are not professionals. We could be professionals if we would study in the Swedish University of Kokle, but we are not. So we’re still amateurs. And the best thing is that we do it for ourselves. So it— we have had big concerts in big halls; in Latvia, for example, there are— it doesn’t matter which city, but— there are very freshly built, huge stages that we have sang in, and the feeling there is that we still sing for ourselves. It doesn’t matter if the hall is full or empty, we still enjoy it, because we do it for ourselves. And that’s the most beautiful thing, because we can sit around a campfire and gain the same emotions that you gain singing in front of hundreds of people. That would be my answer for myself. 

[*Vilkači plays song “Balti zirgi*]

Colin: Crossing North is a production of the Scandinavian Studies Department and Baltic Studies Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. Today’s episode was written, edited, and produced by me, Colin Gioia Connors. Special thanks to Visiting Lecturer of Danish Kristian Næsby. Today’s music was used with permission from Vilkači and is available on Spotify. Search for Vilkači, V-I-L-K-A-C-I. Visit to learn more about the podcast and other exciting projects hosted by the Scandinavian Studies Department. If you are a current or prospective student, consider taking a class or becoming a major. Professor Guntis Šmidchens teaches several courses on the history, literature, cultures, and politics of the Baltic countries. Don’t know where to start? Consider taking his “Introduction to Folklore Studies.” You can find complete course listings for the Scandinavian Studies Department and Baltic Studies Program at Once again, that’s

[*song ends*] 


Release date: January 15, 2019.

This episode was written, edited, and produced by Colin Gioia Connors. Special thanks to Kristian Næsby. Interviews feature Professor Guntis Šmidchens and the following members of Vilkači: Edgars Zilberts, Juris Tomašūns, Jumis Ločmelis, Andris Lejnieks, Eduards Krūmiņš, and Toms Grīnvalds.

Music used with permission by Vilkači.