An American's Guide to Positivus Music Festival and The Emerging Baltic Scene

Photo by: Alfreds Ulmanis
by Hilary Saunders | @Hilary_Saunders Thu July 13, 2017 | 10:45 AM

At this weekend's Positivus Music Festival , 35,000 people—mostly from Baltic, Scandinavian, and European countries—will descend on the Baltic corridor comprised of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. These states clustered north-to-south along the Baltic Sea represent a part of the world so close to, and yet, so far from the traditional European regions frequented by Westerners enacting some sort of the "American in Paris" or gap year stereotype.

The region, and Latvia in particular, has endured a long and embittered history of occupation by the Medieval Poles, 18th century Russian Empire, Soviet Union, and Nazi Germany until gaining its independence in 1991. By comparison, in 1991 the youth of America were smelling like teen spirit while playing their hot-on-the-market Super Nintendos. And today, the roughly two million people who call Latvia home represent approximately the same population as the city of Chicago.

But through it all, a distinct Baltic music "scene" has emerged, and just 18 years post-independence, Positivus Music Festival , has become a musical and cultural force in the region. Festival Director Ieva Irbina contextualizes, “Latvia is one of the three Baltic countries which regained independence in the 1991. Since then, we have enjoyed a lot of western culture, including music."

Positivus Festival 2014 Martins Barons 2

Photo by: Martins Barons

Growing up in the area, Irbina recalls that access to any sort of outside popular culture was rare until Latvia’s independence. “I do remember that in my childhood there were only very few radio broadcasts with music from the West. That was my first connection with music—I was siting next to my radio set and recording those broadcasts on cassettes. That was around end of 1980s,” she says. “With the freedom, a lot of Western culture influenced us a lot and now we are truly a Western country—with a strong national idea and cultural heritage, with the love to music and festivals, with democratic values and a good taste of life.” 

And Positivus perpetuates those good vibes. Irbina, who spent 15 years in the advertising industry before coming to Positivus, confirms that the ten-year-old, long-weekend event is now the largest music festival in the Baltic States. She also notes that while other fests have popped up around the region, Positivus is the only one lasting three days. The European Festival Awards even recognized Positivus in 2013, 2015 and 2016 as a finalist for the Best Medium-Sized Festival.

Located in Latvia’s Zvejnieku Park along the Gulf of Riga in the coastal town of Salacgrīva, Positvus fest-goers can bask in its chill beach scene. Sprawling fields of greenery lead to embracing forestry and counter the sands of the Gulf’s tranquil coastline (called the Mazjūra in Latvian).

Positivus Festival 2014 Alfreds Ulmanis 6

Photo by: Alfreds Ulmanis

While Positivus’ setting is positively Baltic, its lineup and amenities hold up to other international music festival standards. Previous headliners have included Kraftwerk, Muse, Sigur Rós, St. Vincent, Kasabian, and Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters. This year's headliners include Pixies, Ellie Goulding, alt-J, Rae Sremmurd, Grandmaster Flash, The Lumineers, Kamasi Washington, and more.

“I think we have managed to create very interesting lineups,” says Irbina, now in her sixth year putting these schedules together. “As for headliners, we do work like any other festival—with our bookers who help us to find the best artists for Positivus.”

But Positivus also remains committed to its representation of Baltic music and musicians. The intimate I Love You stage hosts only local Baltic acts, and the Arts and Nature stage — the most ensconced in Latvia’s natural habitat — showcases traditional Baltic music and cultural readings. Additionally, the Palladium stage (Positivus’ largest indoor stage), features performances by both local and foreign acts, as part of a collaboration with Tallinn Music Week, to introduce Estonian bands.

Positivus Festival 2014 Veronic Verlan 4

Photo by: Veronic Verlan

With two main stages and the Electric Room stage dedicated to electronic music, Positivus tends to be a very genre-inclusive festival.

“Generally in Latvia it is more indie music bands,” describes Irbina. “From Latvia we do have several local bands like The Sound Poets, Carnival Youth, and Instrumenti who have been playing in different European festivals and been warmly welcomed by those people.” 

Local Baltic favorites such as Pienvedēja Piedzīvojumi, Latvian hip-hop master Bandmaster, Fakts, and Mesa are just a few of the many regional names currently gaining recognition who are also playing the festival. Latvian label I Love You Records (namesake of the fest's stage) has many Baltic music stars from its label repped at the festival.

But another way for Americans to get a taste of the Baltics during Positivus is, well, to do so literally. The festival has three distinctive, themed food areas across the festival grounds. While the Trailer Park area tries to emulate North American music festival food courts with pizza and burgers, you can still stop by the Love Café for some herbal tea sourced from Latvian forests. The Fresh Garden highlights the freshest produce, raw, and slow-cooked foods in the region. And the Main Food Court offers the largest selection of local and exotic meals. As Latvia is a meat-and-potatoes kind of country, check out Čarlstons smoking their meats on the site.

Positivus Festival 2014 Martins Barons 1

Photo by: Martins Barons

Even though the fest has grown from a couple hundred, mostly local attendees and two stages in 2007 to tens of thousands of people from dozens of countries enjoying music, film, and art in seven different spaces, Positivus’ passion for sharing Baltic culture remains strong.

“Last year we had almost 10,000 people coming from different countries and that gives us confidence that we can be very loved by an international audience...People love the music we bring and live vibe we have,” says Irbina. “We do want to keep that kind of cozy and friendly feeling people are enjoying now.” 

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