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Courtesy of Suitunovads

Suiti: Latvia's Island of Singers

Picture of Kasparas Asmonaitis
Updated: 10 September 2017

The Suiti people live in a triangle between Ventspils, Kuldiga, and Liepāja, and their culture fascinates people from all over the world. Living as Catholics surrounded by Lutherans was never easy for the Suiti people, but they stuck to the old traditions, appreciated their ancestors’ heritage, and have preserved their identity throughout the centuries. Sadly, there are only 2,800 Suitis left today, and that’s why UNESCO has recognized their culture as “intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding.”

Romantic history of the Suitis

The Suiti people’s history dates back to 1623, when the owner of Alsunga region, Johan Ulrich von Schwerin, re-converted to Catholicism and abandoned Lutheranism. His intentions to convert had nothing to do with religion, however. Johan Ulrich von Schwerin just wanted to marry the love of his life, a Polish court lady named Barbara Konarska, but Barbara’s father refused to give permission for the marriage until Johan Ulrich converted. That’s how the Suiti people were born, and they still remain up until this day, which was never a given. The Suitis faced many problems throughout the centuries, living in Lutheran land while following Catholic traditions, and only their will and loyalty helped them to survive and maintain all of the unique traditions, including their dialect, singing, and folk clothing, to this day.

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Cornerstones of Suiti culture

The capital of the Suiti people is Alsunga, a small village in the west of Latvia. The main attraction in Alsunga, besides meeting Suitis, is an old Livonian castle and a small inn, Spēlmaņu Krogs, where all the visitors stay. It would be a crime not to try sklandraušis, a traditional Suitis’ sweet cake with carrots and potatoes. You would also want to hear how the Suiti people talk, as they developed a unique dialect throughout the centuries that cannot be heard anywhere else apart from the Alsunga region. This phenomenon can be explained by looking at the history once more – the Suiti people lived on an island for centuries, surrounded by the Baltic Sea on one side, and Lutheran people, who never interacted with the Suitis, on the other. In order to survive, Suitis had to be completely self-sufficient.

Today, the remaining 2,800 Suiti people still follow their ancestors’ traditions, including wearing traditional folk clothing. Visitors are always surprised to see women wearing colorful and unique folk dresses, because in most parts of the Baltics, locals no longer follow the old traditions on an everyday basis. However, the main reason why the Suiti people are so unique is their drone singing.

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Drone singing

Every weekend there is a little party in Alsunga, during which locals cook their traditional food and sing together. Suitu Sievas is a band of Alsunga grannies who make sure that singing will never be forgotten by the Suiti people. The entire community, including men and children, join the band, creating a massive drone-based music. However, the Suiti people put a little twist on drone singing with an improvisational rap, during which the singer rhymes about the presence of everyone around him or her. This unique tradition has been carried down through the centuries, and it is extremely important for the Suiti people to preserve it; however, it will not be an easy task as only 2,800 Suitis are left today and globalization has a serious effect on this wonderful, UNESCO-protected culture.

Courtesy of Suitunovads