Sounds of summer
[b]Guests from all over the world gather at arts festivals in Slonim, Alexandria, Strochitsy, Postavy, Vitebsk and Grodno [/b]Belarus has few warm days to boast of, so it appreciates the sun when it does appear, organising events to allow everyone to enjoy the summer weather. As usual, festivals are being organised nationwide — including races and knights’ tournaments. Meanwhile, musical and folk events prevail, gathering crowds in both large cities and small villages. Everywhere, a reason is found to organise a song contest, with some welcoming international performers.
Belarus has few warm days to boast of, so it appreciates the sun when it does appear, organising events to allow everyone to enjoy the summer weather. As usual, festivals are being organised nationwide — including races and knights’ tournaments. Meanwhile, musical and folk events
prevail, gathering crowds in both large cities and small villages. Everywhere, a reason is found to organise a song contest, with some welcoming international performers.
Solstice on the Dnieper
Kupalle is the major folk holiday for Belarusians, celebrating the ancient summer solstice. To feel the true energy of this pagan custom, you need to travel to Strochitsy, near Minsk, where the Museum of Folk Architecture and Life is situated. Besides seeing old wooden houses (relocated here from all over Belarus), you can take part in traditional folk games. A festival is organised every Kupalle.
Each house at the museum is a rare architectural example. No doubt, Kupalle celebrations impress everyone who sees these local houses, church, forests and fields. “We stage all the holidays of the traditional calendar, including Kolyady, Maslenitsa and Spring Calling, explains the museum’s Director, Svetlana Lakotko. She is constantly searching for new ways of promoting our folk legacy to guests from Russia and Europe.
Kupalle is celebrated in many areas of our country, including in the village of Alexandria, on the border of Vitebsk and Mogilev regions. This year, it was attended by the President, who said, “We’ll do everything possible to make this event traditional. Probably, we`ll link it to our state holiday, gathering here for Kupalle.” Alexandria is the homeland of Alexander Lukashenko, who was born there. He admits that he hardly imagined that the village festival would ever become such a grand holiday, gathering people from neighbouring villages and, even, cities.
This year, the Alexandria Gathers Guests festival was attended by over 3,000 people. The ‘City of Masters’ is located on the banks of the Dnieper, near the bridge connecting Mogilev and Vitebsk regions, Alexandria and the city of Kopys. Traditional Belarusian cuisine was the order of the day. The possibility of launching tourist routes along the Dnieper is now being discussed.
Until 1939, it was traditional for a musician from the Slonim fire-fighters’ orchestra to climb the watchtower in the centre of the city at 8am and 8pm to play Ogiński’s polonaise. The Farewell to the Homeland melody was heard twice daily over the city. Later, Slonim Radio began morning broadcasts with the polonaise; now, this beautiful custom is being continued at the annual polonaise festival.
Since 2005, the holiday of music and dancing has been organised in late spring-early summer, starting with a church service at St. Andrew`s Roman Catholic Church. Here, I met the Chair of the Slonim Branch of the Union of Poles in Belarus, Leonarda Rewkowska, who initiated the contest for polonaise performers. She notes especially the role played by the Ogiński family in Slonim’s history, “The city once belonged to Lev Sapega’s heirs. In the 18th century, Alexandra Sapezhanka married Michał Kazimierz Ogiński, who received Slonim as a ‘dowry’ — becoming its head. He founded a theatre and composed music for it while his nephew, Michał Kleofas Ogiński, lived in Zalesie, near Smorgon. The Farewell to the Homeland polonaise was composed by Michał Kleofas but some speculate that he was influenced by his relative.”
Slonim City`s Executive Committee supports the festival of polonaise and, this year alone, six (out of ten) local schools participated. Maria Girko, a lecturer at the children’s school of arts, teaches her pupils how to play the polonaise on a Russian balalaika. This year, Vasily Andreev performed, having revived the folk instrument forgotten in the 19th century.
The festival is always attended by guests from Poland. Ms. Rewkowska hopes our heirs will preserve our joint Belarusian-Polish cultural heritage while continuing the tradition of the festival. “Its beauty must remain. Listen to how beautifully an ancient melody flows and how nightingales sing over the Shchara. Isn’t it wonderful?”
Dulcimer sounds for the whole world
This year, the Dulcimer and Accordion Ringing Festival was attended by folk groups from Poland, Ukraine and Russia. However, the largest number of guests arrived from neighbouring Lithuania. Postavy festival of folk songs is the oldest such musical show in the country, with a twenty year history. It first began in Vitebsk but then moved to Mogilev. Since 1992, it has been hosted by Postavy (organised as an international event for the 13th time). Even the Italians and Venezuelans have attended.
“When Belarus` only festival of folk music was first launched over 20 years ago, we hoped to revive forgotten customs but could hardly imagine that people would become keen on these traditional instruments,” smiles Deputy Culture Minister Tadeush Struzhetsky, who witnessed the festival’s initial steps and is now surprised by its scale. “It’s difficult to imagine that over 500 groups have made their names in Postavy.”
At present, 17 folk bands work in Postavy district, having begun with the Gruzdy Dulcimer Ensemble — which was much appreciated at the Festival of Folk Art in Moscow in 1987. The Matskevich family, from the village of Pozhartsy, established it and their work is now continued by the honoured amateur group from Postavy children’s arts school — Poozerie.
The holiday in Postavy is international, yet cosy. Tourists love this small town, which can accommodate over 500 guests in its two hotels, Vetraz sanatorium (near the city) and Tizengauz’s former palace. The latter is a special attraction on the tourist map. Alla Keizik, the Deputy Chair of Postavy District Executive Committee, and Pyatras Blazhyavichyus, the Head of the Culture, Tourism and International Relations Department at the RokiЁkis District’s Self-Governing Administration, have disclosed grand plans. Lithuanian RokiЁkis also boasts Tizengauz’s mansion and, with this in mind, a trip — Following Tizengauz’s Roads — has been planned, with EU sponsorship applied for. If approved, the two regions shall receive money for their cultural integration.
In search of New Holland
Every two years, Grodno hosts the Republican Festival of National Cultures, held for a weekend. It gathers thousands of people from all over Belarus, ready to enjoy the events held on Sovetskaya Square and its surrounding small avenues.
The festival is always crowded with city residents and tourists, with every ethnic community finding a place to represent their culture — among them are Armenians, Gypsies, Azerbaijanis, Russians and Hindus. This year, forty concert sites were used, hosting groups from 30 nations on the Old Town’s streets. For three days, Grodno became a small version of our motley planet. Walking through its streets, you could meet people from almost every race and nation.
In 2010, the ‘Veil of the World’ was the festival’s symbol. A 12m long patchwork, sewn from pieces sent from all over the globe (including Poland and Ukraine) was on show. The ‘Festivalny’ fountain was launched on the bank of the River Nieman, with a time capsule buried in its foundations — urging future generations to preserve peace between nationalities.
Logically, the Dutch (attending the festival for the first time) were accommodated in Gorodnitsa (a district along Ozheshko Street, which was once occupied by their forefather-craftsmen). Grodno’s head Tizengauz (known all over Belarus) named this district ‘New Holland’ 200 years ago. He opened workshops there and built Dutch-style houses for invited masters. Sadly, only one mansion has been preserved — now hosting a museum. The guests from Holland were accommodated in Sovetskaya Street, where the major festival events were organised. This year, a special jazz-rock band was formed in Holland especially for the Grodno festival — called The Dutch Grodno Groovers.
In the Jewish corner, guests were attracted by paper decorations — ‘vytinanki’. Host Valentina Slyunchenko explained why her works feature Judaic symbols, “These are reizele — or ‘vytinanki’. According to one story, this art came to Belarus from a Jewish shtettle (village). People of modest means would make decorations from paper for their homes.” Valentina is a Minsker and is among thirty acknowledged masters in the art of paper pattern cutting. Having chatted to her, I`m convinced that different nationalities have much more in common than might be seen at first sight.
“Next year, we plan to organise a festival for Belarusians living abroad,” notes Culture Minister Pavel Latushko. “Belarusian associations from 40 countries have expressed their desire to participate.”
All roads lead to the amphitheatre
On a summer evening, the sun is setting by the ancient domes on the Dvina River, as the International Slavonic Bazaar in Vitebsk Festival of Arts launches at the Summer Amphitheatre. Traditionally, its guests and participants are welcomed by the President; this year’s 19th festival was no exception.
The atmosphere at the festival is always hot, as it is organised in July. This year, the temperature outside was over 30 degrees Celsius. With music heard on every corner, artistes painting portraits of passers-by and national cuisine cooked in cosy cafes, the atmosphere was certainly holiday-like.
Not only Slavonic music is performed, of course. In 2010, Toto Cutugno was the festival’s honourable guest, arriving with a company of artists who’ve been working with him for over 25 years. The final concert was a sensation, with Toto singing an old Belarusian hit. This was wonderful, as the audience had not expected it at all.
It’s now becoming more popular to sing in Belarusian. Following Cutugno, Georgian Lasha Ramishvili performed in Belarusian at the Young Performers Contest. After his song, the applause was great and the party’s host, Anzhelika Agurbash, showered compliments on Lasha saying, “You’ve conquered my heart. I’ve never heard a foreigner singing in Belarusian so wonderfully!” Ramishvili performed `Charmed`, from Pesnyary’s repertoire, with his less than perfect accent adding to his own charm. “I didn`t spend much time deciding what to sing at the contest. I listened to Pesnyary’s repertoire and it seemed to me that everything they’ve done is genius. The Belarusian language is very melodious and easy to learn. Every Belarusian should be proud of having such a language,” he said. Lasha is now considering a joint performance with Pesnyary.
In this way, every year, artists from all over the globe meet in Belarus. Here, at the centre of Europe and the Slavonic world, a dialogue of many cultures commences.
By Viktar Korbut