A Very Baltic Weekend at Mėnuo Juodaragis
Labas, everyone! We're heading into the last hours of summer here in Lithuania - or more specifically, today is the last day I expect to see above 70 degrees until April or May. As the climate warms around the world, multiple people around me have stated that Lithuania may become one of the best places to live in the future. But for now, I'll just appreciate these last few hours of summer the best way I know how: iced tea, cool lakes, and a hot summer festival.
See, I just got back from a festival I've waited all year for: Mėnuo Juodaragis. In my first week or two in Vilnius, some of my now closest friends told me about this longstanding festival, already understanding enough about me to realize that I'd love it. Then, I met new close friends one dark October night at Špunka who pretty immediately said the same thing. (I must give off "naturalist" pheromones!)
And it's true: so many of the pathways I've traveled over the past year have led me to this exact festival, this exact moment in my life.
Having tea at the home of the high priestess of Lithuania's Romuva movement, a sweet woman named Inija Trinkūnienė who shared cookies, stories, and her time with me. (She had told me she would be participating in this festival, and had for a long time.) Or, the different cultural festivals I've participated in, like the epic Pavasario lygiadienis (Spring Equinox) deep in the up-lit woods of Kernavė, a town known for its pagan roots and traditions. Or how about Lithuania's Summer Solstice, Rasos (Joninės) which I celebrated with friends around the bonfire, wearing flower wreaths and listening to new sutartinės (poly-rhythmic chanting) in the same area? Or back even further to the Rudens lygiadienis (Autumn Equinox) here in Vilnius honoring old goddess statuettes? That festival is coming back around soon enough. I could go on and on...
One of the best parts for me of Mėnuo Juodaragis was recognizing some of the same people from each of these events, whether they're in Medgrinda or part of the Vilnius Romuva chapter. It's a good feeling to be in my own rhythms surrounded by a larger orbit of intentional people doing their thing with such purpose.
Some photo highlights from MJR
But the interesting thing about Mėnuo Juodaragis is that it encompasses a wider range of music beyond the Folk Stage I often settled into. Even then, some of the harder metal bands had a Baltic leaning to them, chanting their own versions of sutartinės. And my favorite musical group wasn't even from the Baltic, Slavic, or Scandanavian regions: they were a Georgian band called the Bani Hill Band. I'm not sure they were expecting such a wide, warm reception from a bunch of souls in the Baltics, but they were undeniably awesome the whole way through. Incredible musicianship, and a very obvious, inexhaustible joy to be playing for all of us. Another favorite was an Estonian band called Trad.Attack! which I only heard from my tent. Everyone around me was falling asleep, but I was laying in my tent smiling and listening to this band with incredible energy. My body may have needed to rest before the long day ahead of me, but my spirit was definitely over there dancing with the other night owls.
Back at the Folk Stage, I finally got to see people performing with kanklės, the Lithuanian folk string instrument that I was completely mesmerized with while playing around at Kaunas's Lithuanian Folk Music Museum back in January. This was my chance to see actual groups playing the kanklės, and I didn't waste time watching as many as I could.
Speaking of kanklės, one of my favorite spaces was the humongous tree altar which reverberated energy of ritual and sacred grounds - and if it hadn't before, it was clearly cultivated through all of the events passing through it over the long weekend. Some of my favorite performances and rituals took place here, from opening the ceremonial space to learning old Slavic songs to playing the kanklės myself, thanks to instruction from the same artist at the Folk Stage. This space was where I felt most at home.
Also really appreciated at this festival? They had multiple lake beaches to jump into on super hot days, and one day I jumped in at least four different times to cool off. (I'd seen the forecast for the next ten days and knew this was my last chance at 80 degree weather for a while, much less 70, so I had to take advantage of every moment I could!) Two out-of-reach sites at Mėnuo Juodaragis offered fresh spring water, and walking past one of them got you interacting with tree harps installed by Honeypaw, which I was also mesmerized by. Even though 5,000 to 6,000 people attended this event, the altar and this Burtų kiemas (Yard of Spells) quickly became my favorite places for resting and appreciating the nature I'd been surrounded with.
So what do I wish were different? Anything?
Well, I wasn't sure what to expect with Mėnuo Juodaragis, but I can definitively say I was surprised by the bigger stages. Of course, I understand why they needed these larger, more accommodating spaces, but I was hoping for something a bit more hidden and magical. Thankfully, there was one great stage, Eglyno (Fir), which provided exactly the kind of magic I was looking for, leaning back amongst a huge forest grove. This one reminded me a bit more of my springtime Pavasario lygiadienis experience in ambiance, although I guess it makes sense that as the festival has expanded, so too have the stages and different genres. I don't like metal at all, but the people watching was 10 outta 10, y'all.
Overall, I've never experienced anything like this festival - someone who has only attended more, um, crunchy festival spaces. I observed Lithuania's alternative scene shooting out in multiple directions, and just kind of stayed true to my own self the whole way through.
Will I be back next year?
Most likely, but either way, I'm grateful for the time spent with some of my closest friends - the exact two groups of people that had told me about the festival in the first place.
Another circle around the sun we go. Thank you to this summer for lifting my spirits, helping me come up with new iced tea concoctions, and most of all, thank you to Lithuania for your lakes, forests, and sea coast. I hope you can feel my reciprocation of love. Onward into the fall season we go...
Until next time, viso gero! Be kind to each other and yourselves, and I'll see you next week.