An Englishman in Latvia

On the Suiti

November 22, 2023 Alan Anstead Season 1 Episode 26
On the Suiti
An Englishman in Latvia
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An Englishman in Latvia
On the Suiti
Nov 22, 2023 Season 1 Episode 26
Alan Anstead

The Suiti are a 400-year-old ethnic Latvian group. They are Catholic people in the centre of the Kurzeme region in western Latvia, surrounded by Lutherans.  They preserved their culture over the years by never marrying someone from a different ethnic group or religion. This has resulted in the Suiti developing distinct traditions. The Suiti are creative people with fantastic fabric designs. Their culture has been recognised internationally by UNESCO.
We explore Alsunga and find out more about the Suiti: their traditions, culture, textiles and costumes, and drone singing and bagpipes.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes Transcript

The Suiti are a 400-year-old ethnic Latvian group. They are Catholic people in the centre of the Kurzeme region in western Latvia, surrounded by Lutherans.  They preserved their culture over the years by never marrying someone from a different ethnic group or religion. This has resulted in the Suiti developing distinct traditions. The Suiti are creative people with fantastic fabric designs. Their culture has been recognised internationally by UNESCO.
We explore Alsunga and find out more about the Suiti: their traditions, culture, textiles and costumes, and drone singing and bagpipes.

Thanks for listening!

On the Suiti

The Suiti are a 400-year-old ethnic Latvian group. They are Catholic people in the centre of the Kurzeme region in western Latvia, surrounded by Lutherans. A kind of religious island with the town of Alsunga at its centre. They preserved their culture over the years by never marrying someone from a different ethnic group or religion. This has resulted in the Suiti developing distinct traditions. The Suiti are creative people with fantastic fabric designs. Their culture has been recognised internationally as the Suiti are listed on the UNESCO World List of Intangible Heritage.

Let’s explore Alsunga and find out more about the Suiti: their traditions, culture, textiles and costumes, and drone singing and bagpipes.

A short history of the Suiti

The Suiti are connected to the Alsunga region, the town known initially as Alschwangen. This territory was occupied by the Livonian Order, German crusaders. After paganism, it became Catholic, then Lutheran under the Duke of Courland Gotthard Kettler, and then back to Catholic under Johann Ulrich von Schwerin. He was not liked and was poisoned. The people were known by others in Kurzeme by a derogatory term, Schwerin Suite, which eventually changed into the Suiti. Alschwangen became known as Alšvanga. Then, the region became part of the Russian Empire in 1795. Suiti songs and wedding traditions were exhibited through film and festivals during the first independence. But during and after the Second World War, many Suiti families were deported to Siberia by the Russian occupiers. An ethnographic ensemble known as the Women of Suiti was formed in 1955 and became famous from a film in 1973. They performed in Moscow in 1977. With Latvia regaining independence in 1991, the newspaper Suitu vēstis was first published in 1993, the Suiti ethnic culture centre was established in 2002, and international drone singing festivals (more about drone singing later) were held in 2004, 2007, 2010, 2014 and 2017. The Suiti culture was listed on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Values in 2009, and the Latvian government protects Suiti culture by law.

The Suiti live in and around Alsunga, Jūrkalne and Gudenieki, and today around 2,000 people identify as Suiti. This is much lower than in the early 20th century when there were 10,000 Suiti. Suiti people are often related to each other. It was regarded as a sin to marry someone from a different religion. This has helped to protect their unique identity and culture. The Suiti flag of half red and half white originated from the old Duchy of Courland, with a silver Catholic cross in the middle. 


What to see and do in Alsunga

Park your vehicle in the market car park on the main road running through Alsunga. If you come by bus, the bus stop is there too. Across the road, you will see the white-washed Livonian Order castle. The entrance is through a side gate; turn right in the courtyard and up the steps to the castle entrance. The castle is a Medieval complex built gradually between the 14th and 18th centuries. Rebuilt several times, it still has its original appearance. When we visited, the manager introduced us to the castle, letting us wander around the acoustically excellent round tower, the kitchen and study, and even poke about in the roof eaves. Perfect! The eastern wing of the castle was initially used as a residence for the Livonian Order until 1561 and then used by the von Schwerin dynasty until 1738. It is a fine baroque castle with a well-preserved exterior and an interior that is still in the stages of completing its renovation.

I wanted to know more about the Suiti and their traditions. As the Alsunga District Museum was closed, the castle manager collected the key and walked with us to the museum. There is a shortcut through house yards. At the museum, she explained the textiles and costumes on display and the traditional Suiti kitchen and living rooms that had been reconstructed. A very kind gesture by the manager. Alsunga District Museum is about a five-minute walk from the castle. Ten minutes if you don’t take the shortcut! 

Next, walk to the Roman Catholic Church of St Michael. This white-washed church was built in 1625. For centuries, this was the main religious centre for the devoutly Catholic Suiti. The graves of the Schwerin dynasty are alongside the church.

You may be hungry by now, so head to Spēlmaņu krogs for some delicious food. But don’t forget my tips on eating there, coming up in a few minutes!

Before leaving Alsunga, visit the craft shops for some original souvenirs.

The Suiti language

The Suiti language is a dialect of Latvian that is in decline. It is based on the now-lost Courlandian and nearly-lost Livonian languages and includes words from Polish and German. There are few written records of the language, although there are 52,813 recorded folksongs. Very few people speak the Suiti language today, and most of them are elderly. Nowadays, you can hear individual Suiti words inserted into conversations in Latvian. However, the language is kept alive by Suiti folklore ensembles who sing songs in the Suiti dialect.

Drone music

Suiti women sing drone music with drawn-out vowels. This is one of the oldest traditional vocal and instrumental music types. It is found in the Balkans, Carpathians, Georgia, Iberian peninsular and Kurzeme, Latvia. This pre-Christian singing style was traditionally used at celebrations, like weddings. There are several variations of drone singing, but usually, a soloist sings a sentence, and then the other singers repeat it as a drone song. Texts can be improvised based on the situation and context. Drone songs can be heard at the Alsunga Museum at events when Suiti folklore ensembles participate.

Suiti ensembles may also use bagpipes (I haven’t heard their use in the Baltics except by the excellent Estonian band Trad Attack), the kokle (a Latvian plucked string instrument) and animal horns.

Drone music has become popular in the UK, America and elsewhere as a modern interpretation of ancient drone music. It is regarded as a minimalist music genre that emphasises the use of sustained sounds. It is popular with people who meditate or practice mindfulness. The Perfect Circuit, a synthesiser store, described drone music as, “In the expansive landscape of musical expression, drone-based music stands out as a unique realm that captures the imagination and shifts the perception of time and space unlike anything else. More than merely a genre, it exists as a sonic universe deeply rooted in ancient traditions, while continually evolving alongside modern technology.

Easily recognisable by its sustained, hypnotic, and ephemeral nature, drone music transcends mere aesthetics; it often resonates with philosophical and esoteric systems of knowledge, serving distinct functions across various cultures. Its origins reach back centuries, crossing global boundaries—from the gentle strumming of the tanpura in Indian classical music to the airy drones of Scottish bagpipe tradition. On the other end of the spectrum, drone music has become increasingly entwined with electronic music culture, massively spanning 20th-century avant-garde and experimental movements, popular music, and of course countless soundtracks for science-fiction.” Wow!

Back to Latvia. To promote the tradition of drone singing in Latvia, The Ethnic Cultural Centre Suiti has organised an international festival every three years since 2004. The last one was in 2017 because of the Covid pandemic. The organisers hope to gain the International Council of Organisations of Folklore Festivals and Folk Arts in partnership with UNESCO status to increase prestige and popularity. Until now, only the Song and Dance Festival has this status in Latvia.

Suiti textiles and costumes

Suiti folk costumes differ significantly from other regions, with colourful skirts, collars, shawls and belts. These have often been handed down through generations. An original form of sustainability. Some elements of the folk costume have remained unchanged for centuries. The costume-making skill has been revived at a creative workshop called Austuve, with younger people learning the traditions from their elders. The Suiti Culture Centre also encourages the tradition of sewing folk costumes. My wife’s Latvian national dress is a Suiti design.

The designs of the women’s shoulder shawls really attracted me. These villaines greatly vary from white shawls with a colourful decorative border, to brightly coloured checked designs in bright yellow, red, green, blue and orange. That may sound like an extensive mixture of colours, but it works well. Suiti shawls were often held together by large brooches decorated with red glass jewels. These were often handed down through generations.

My favourite UK clothes designer is Paul Smith. I have several pieces of clothing from this designer - too many, according to my wife. He has a signature stripe of a similar mix of colours that often appears either within a piece of clothing or throughout it. Although there is no link between the Suiti and Paul Smith, the use of colour and design is similar. Oh, heaven!

Suiti food and other traditions

Suiti food is similar to Latvian food, with some alterations. The Suiti like soup, but not served with bread. They like carrot pies that are typical Livonian cuisine. Driving into Alsunga, many tables were outside homes selling homemade carrot pies. Porridge, blood sausage, dumplings with meat, grey peas with bacon, herring and lots of milk-based soups. Not eaten together or in one sitting, of course!

The place to eat in Alsunga is Spēlmaņu krogs, close to St Michael’s Roman Catholic Church. The food is delicious and reasonably priced. Just be aware, it has a small kitchen and an hour or more wait is typical at weekends. 

Oh, and the Suiti were known for fighting (during the Schwerin dynasty, they were legally allowed to beat up Lutherans), for being very conservative (they still dislike Lutherans), and for having sharp tongues. Don’t complain!

Ruch and Norie

The documentary ‘Ruch and Norie’ is a human interest story about two contrasting people striking up a surprising spiritual relationship. A Japanese student, Norie Tsuruta, travels to Latvia to study the Suiti community, where she meets one of the oldest Suiti women, nicknamed Ruch. That changes her life forever, and their close bond doesn't break even after returning to Japan. Norie wishes she had two bodies to be in both places simultaneously. She thinks she has found her deceased grandma in Ruch while Ruch worries about Norie being "far out there" and trembles when hearing of every earthquake in Japan. Ruch and Norie prove to us all that there are no borders to a genuine human relationship filled with laughter, caring and love. The film was released in 2015 and won four awards, including best documentary, in the Lielas Kristaps Awards - the highest award in Latvian cinema, given out at the Latvian National Film Festival. In 2016, Ruch, real name Marija Steimane, was given the highest Latvian honour - the Order of the Three Stars, for her lifetime contribution to preserving and enriching the Suiti cultural heritage. Unfortunately, Ruch passed away in 2023. I think she was 91 years old.

I spoke to Dace Martinova, Chairwoman of the Board of the Ethnic Cultural Centre Suiti.

Me: What makes the Suiti people different to other Latvians?

Dace: The Suiti are the same as the Latvians. But the Suiti have been shaped historically in various interesting ways. First of all, where the Suiti are located is the cultural and historical region of the Suiti. It is located in Latvia, by the Baltic Sea, in Kurzeme. You could say that the Suiti are in the middle of Kurzeme. Historically, this area has been influenced by Curonian and Liv cultures. You can see it very much in the Suiti people, their traditions and language. Thanks to various historical events, mostly connected with the introduction of Catholicism in the region, this isolation within Lutheran Kurzeme, a small island is the Suiti region, has led to the preservation of these unique traditions, which we now call Suiti traditions. We are very proud of the fact that the Suiti efforts to highlight and preserve these traditions culminated in 2009 when Suiti culture was included on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent rescue.

Me: How important is the Catholic church to Suiti people, both in the past and the present? 

Dace: Some 400 years ago, this area was undergoing change; until then, this area had been Lutheran. The Duke of Courland, the Schwerin family, ruled this territory, and Schwerin's son had his eye on a Polish aristocrat, Barbara, and was going to marry her, but the rule was that Schwerin's son Ulrik must convert to Catholicism. Of course, he wants to marry Barbara and also convert to Catholicism, but his father and family who live here in Alsunga are not very happy about that. But his father dies, and Ulrik returns to Alsunga to live with his Barbara. They are Catholic, and they gradually converted the local people to Catholicism. So, this small area in the middle of Kurzeme becomes a Catholic island, and that separates this area from the rest of Kurzeme. A religious distinction that does not exist elsewhere in Kurzeme, and this unique Suiti tradition has survived to the present day. Today, these Catholic traditions are very important for the Suiti. They are respected. They are cherished. The Suiti also go to church in folk costumes at festivals. The Suiti sing folk songs in church, which are allowed to be sung in the church. We are a place where folk and Christian traditions mix very well and complement each other. I believe that the Suiti people benefit greatly from this because there is no strict separation between folk and Catholic traditions. We are very rich because we have combined these two, I would even say, very compatible traditions, and they can live side by side on an equal footing. 

Me: Tell me about some interesting traditions still practised by the Suiti people.

Dace: The Suiti are very rich in various traditions - crafts, folklore traditions and the rites of celebration. One in particular that I am perhaps even afraid to single out, but which I would mention as very precious, is the Suiti wedding tradition. The Suiti wedding tradition encompasses, I would go so far as to say, the whole range of traditions that are possible in this region, in terms of dress, singing, music, dancing and cooking. We are the inheritors of these traditions, and we honour them from time to time. Whether it is a performance or a wedding, some of these traditions are still being practised today and are therefore not forgotten. We also talk about this a lot. Folklore groups also try to perform and show about it as much as possible. Of course, in a natural environment, it is not like an artificial theatre, integrated into the local cultural environment. 

Me: The design of Suiti costumes often uses a bright, eclectic mix of colours that reminds me of my favourite British designer, Paul Smith. Especially the patterns used in woven shawls and knitted mittens and socks. How did these designs originate, and how is this artisan craft supported nowadays?

Dace: Now I want to be very boastful and say that I already think that the Suiti costume is the most magnificent in Latvia. And I also want to say that it is very popular among different groups, whether choristers, dancers, or folklorists, because who does not like bright colours? It is the Suiti costume that is very colourful. I would also like to say classic, because, in both men and women, these long skirts or jackets are very classic in the cut. People like to have their bodies highlighted. These colours came in the second half of the 18th century. During the time of Duke Jakob, when trade with other parts of the world was flourishing, colours and dyes were brought in that many people had access to, and gradually, the blue and the blue brown that was worn in the previous period or the brown shades start to become much more vivid. But I would also like to say that there is a constant evolution of costume culture not only here but all over Latvia and Europe. Fashions change, colour trends change, and there are plaid fabrics, solid-coloured fabrics, beaded costumes, belts, and headdresses. But in any case, here this tradition is coming in, and it is lasting. For the Suiti women, these brightly coloured shawls are one of the Suiti trademarks and the same with the bright socks and gloves. I would like to say that socks and gloves are definitely the most glamorous in Latvia because there is no other sock like the one worn by the Suiti women. Regarding knitting and choice of patterns, the socks of the Suiti women are the richest and most complex. I think there are various historical myths, about why there are such bright colours in different garments - as I said before, this is a Catholic island, a large community, and Lutheran Kurzeme surrounds it. There is a myth that to distinguish these people, the Suiti have bright colours in their clothes, and the Lutheran people have more modest colours. This can still be seen today when studying the details of the Suiti costume. Exactly, the vildrānas, villaines, ruņči, socks, gloves, everything is very colourful, red is used a lot, yellow, green. The combination of these colours creates that interesting brightness, that Suiti brightness, and the Suiti style that we know now. If she comes with her bright dress, it really seems that you have to make way for her because she is so bright and so grand and stately.

Me: You have a lovely website at with information in English and Latvian and beautiful pictures. How else can people - tourists - get to know about the Suiti people?

Dace: I have to say that the Ethnic Culture Centre does not really deal with tourists. We work on preserving cultural heritage, with all kinds of activities, whether camps, cultural events, concerts, or exhibitions. We are happy to host groups of tourists, but we would call them more cultural tourists, who come to us with a particular interest in one of the Suiti traditions. Of course, we also try to provide information for tourists. We have been partners in several projects over the years, the aim of which has been to work more and develop cultural tourism and use traditional culture in various ways. So we have a number of tourism materials created, itineraries created, different descriptions, and booklets. We have been working on making this material available in an interactive format. The association has also participated in creating exhibitions with its own collection, which it has built up over the years. So we are trying to work more on cultural tourism.

Me: Thank you, Dace.

Dace: Thanks.

In conclusion, the Suiti have a rich cultural tradition. The woven and knitted designs of clothing are amazing. The drone singing is mesmerising. Alsunga and the Suiti culture are less explored by visitors to Latvia - maybe not even by many Latvians - because Alsunga is in a more remote part of the country. However, it is well worth the trip, and I’m sure you will receive the same hospitality as we did.

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