Perhaps those interested in history have heard about the Livonian War, the Knights of the Livonian Order and the geopolitical formation called Livonia, which was located on the territory that now makes up Estonia and Latvia during the Middle Ages. When I studied Finno-Ugric philology at the University of Tartu, we also had lectures on the Livonian language and culture. But back then, I regarded Livonian as an extinct language that only linguists and folklorists could find some interest in.
Therefore, I was astonished when, 20 years later, I discovered that Livonian culture was still alive. I had been invited to the release party of the first CD of the Estonian-Livonian joint project, Tulli Lum ("Hot Snow" in Livonian). The emotional power and expressive performance of lead singer Julgi Stalte captivated me completely. I got the album and, as I liked it more with every listen, I wanted to learn more about the group, its singer and the history behind the album. Why would anybody in Estonia want to unite modern ethno-jazz with the cultural heritage of an almost extinct national group that is as good as unknown to the outside world; not to mention sing in a language, which, although beautiful, is understandable to only a few?
|The Livonians are an almost extinct Balto-Finnic nation, living in the coastal villages of northern Couronia in Latvia by the Baltic Sea.|
In order to find answers to these questions, I arranged an interview with Julgi Stalte, after the group performed at the annual Jazzkaar festival in Tallinn. The musicians in Tulli Lum, all of whom have also been involved in other groups, had already played together for some time, and the uniting factor was probably their mutual interest in ethno-jazz and folk music.
After listening to a recording of Livonian folk songs, the leader of the group, Alari Piispea, expressed a desire to use an authentic folk singer, most likely an old man. But, after they met Stalte,
There are only about a handful of people who speak Livonian, which is closely related to Estonian and Finnish, as their mother tongue. Stalte is
Carrying the torch
Julgi Stalte is a fighter. Not only is she proudly declaring her own nationality and cultural belonging (although she is married to an Estonian, she has no doubt that their son, Karl Oskar, is Livonian), her heart's desire is that everybody who regards themselves as Livonian should also show it in their actions and words. Stalte knows that there are many more "hidden Livonians" than the official statistics maintain, with Livonian blood in their veins, in both Latvia and southern Estonia.
|Today there are only about 300 Livonians, most of whom have become Latvianised. Approximately 70 of them understand Livonian partially, maybe ten speak it as their mother tongue.|
The fate of Livonians can also act as a warning to the relatively bigger Baltic nations, who are still in danger of losing their cultural identity, as they aspire to become members of the EU. Music, of course, can sometimes speak louder than words, and Tulli Lum's first album is just a beginning. There is so much more material from the rich Livonian heritage that is waiting to be made known. Tulli Lum wants to bring the message of a tiny nation, with its tragedies and hopes, to the world outside.
As Julgi Stalte says: "If you dare to say who you are, if you dare to fight for it, then you have actually won the whole world. But if you steal it from your children, then you have indeed stolen the whole world from them, language-wise, culturally, in every sense.
Hubert Jakobs, 10 July 2000
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