By Ethan Alley on November 15, 2012
Tell people in America that you’re going on a trip to Latvia and you’ll consistently hear doubt that it’s actually a real place. “Isn’t that where Borat is from?” some will ask. Or worse, others may think it a code word for a Southeast Asian pleasure paradise.
As it turns out, Latvia is in fact very real. Since it only gained its independence from Russia a little over 20 years ago, its profile in the Western world still has a ways to go. The country is one-third of what is considered the Baltics, sandwiched in-between Lithuania and Estonia, just across the Baltic Sea from Scandinavia.
My journey to this far-off land came by way of invitation to the Positivus Festival, an up-and-coming music bash held annually on the Latvian seashore, not far from the Estonian border. Although the area is popular with tourists, I was to stay two hours south in the 800-plus-year-old city of Riga, the largest Baltic capital with a population of over 700,000. Nowadays viewed as a new cultural hotspot to be reckoned with, Riga—like many traditional European cities—boasts an ancient “old town” around which most everything else centers, and my hotel was literally at its entrance.
Hungry and curious about the local cuisine, my inquiries about what to try were met with discerning apprehension from the locals: “Well, it’s mostly meat and some potatoes.” Asking where it could be sampled brought even more apathy. Riga is a city moving past its cultural roots, anxious to redefine what the region is known for; meat and potatoes is swiftly being replaced by French wine bars. However, in this revelatory region the one traditional item no one wants to see go is the Black Balsam, an herbal liqueur made with different natural ingredients mixed in pure vodka, yielding a dangerous 45-percent alcohol-by-volume. I’m thinking this syrupy killer has something to do with the population’s propensity, come October, to pass out until winter is over.
As so many cities in Eastern Europe are trapped in time listening to ’80s rock or ’90s hip-hop, Latvians are hungry to dive into the newest American and European music. This progressive attitude has developed into a small but steady scene. After merely a few minutes of walking around the old town I stumbled into a stone tavern that doubles as a record label and tiny live music venue, the I Love You Bar (home of I Love You Records). Photos of prominent DJs who spin there regularly and vinyl copies of the new release from rising Estonians (and Positivus Festival mainstagers) Ewert and The Two Dragons are prominently on display. The English-speaking bartender actually refused to serve me a “regular” Cesu beer in favor of a more exciting Valmiermuiza craft selection; Latvians seem to be taking their hipsterism quite seriously.
A quick 10-block walk from the old town is the city’s most prominent music club, the new Palladium, a modern, 2,000-capacity venue attracting indie rock bands from all over the world. The space was renovated and is operated by Positivus, and it, along with the festival, is helping to put Riga on the musical map.
Now in its sixth year, the two-day Positivus Festival takes place in a most surreal environment. Ten miles south of the Estonian border, eight stages are spread throughout the forest wilderness and neighboring beachfront to create an astonishing backdrop for one of the most inspiring cultural festivals in Eastern Europe. This year’s lineup boasted such talent as Keane, Manic Street Preachers, Damien Rice, Friendly Fires, Niki and The Dove and dozens more. Tickets go fast as it has quickly become the premier fest in the Baltics.
One lap around the grounds and it became clear that Positivus is not your average 25,000-person event. Roaming the woods and seashore, festivalgoers are invited to relax on hammocks, dine at over a dozen handpicked food stalls, play carnival games or even hang upside-down to pose for a Mini-sponsored photo. As you approach the beach stage, signs politely advise against swimming at night; all other activity is perfectly welcome, including leaping from a stories-tall sponsored scaffolding into a large, inflated crashpad. I had never seen such gleeful, unbridled, selfless interaction with paying sponsors, smiles all the way around. There might as well have been an addendum to the sign, prohibiting cynics along with the nightswimming.
Bellying up to one of endless pop-up bars, I was greeted by a unique festival offer: buy four beers and get a discount. Considering my arm sufficiently twisted, I kicked back in the 10 p.m. sunset to watch Niki and The Dove cast a trance on the hyped crowd from the main stage and began to understand what makes this festival and region so special.
Festivalgoers—and, for the most part, Latvians—seemed to take a personal responsibility for their actions and overall behavior. Positivus is not something to be taken for granted. The fans genuinely appreciate that this is a special event and act accordingly. Responsibility and respect for those around you is not exactly what Western festivals have become known for.
As Keane was finishing its headlining set at 2 a.m., the 25,000 revelers began to depart from the grounds. Some made a short walk to nearby tents while others began the two-hour drive back to Riga. Among the mass of people, one significant festival staple was noticeably missing: There were no police and hardly any security around to enforce any wrongdoing. This wasn’t an oversight. There simply wasn’t anything wrong.
Standing aside, watching the crowd go by, I marveled at this achievement with festival organizer Girts Majors. He glanced happily around the grounds, obviously proud of the achievement. “Here in Latvia we have the best of all the legal drugs,” he said, explaining the secret to his great success. “Here, we have the music. ”
Who could argue with that? F