Latvian Music, Jewish Music

Kevin C. Karnes (Emory University)

It is common now among scholars of Baltic history and culture to regard the region’s historical Latvian and Jewish communities as separate and distinct—even, as Wohlfart and Oberländer put it in 2004, as “isolating themselves from each other” (Sich-Voneinander-Absondern). In my talk, I consider an array of archival and published musical sources that complicate and challenge this view. I consider folk songs transcribed in the 1920s and 1930s that attest to personal and communal encounters and exchanges between the region’s Latvians and its Yiddish-speaking Jews. I examine manuscript traces of varieties of cultural hybridity that proliferated in Latvia’s public and private spaces prior to the Second World War, spaces where the musics of Jews and other peoples could coexist and intermingle in a single concert, even in a single song. And I consider folk songs and published broadside ballads that reflect as well upon cultural distance, in which Latvian singers and composers regarded their Jewish neighbors as exotic and unknowable. In conclusion, I propose a complex picture of vernacular Latvian music making prior to 1941, in which much of Latvian musical culture bore marks of encounter with those Jewish peoples with whom Latvians shared land along the Baltic coast.

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