Musical chimney sweep Vilnis Daņiļevičs / Article
For many people, chimney sweeps are relics only found in the novels of Charles Dickens. But the profession is alive and well in Latvia, and its practitioners keep modern homes safe while nurturing ancient traditions.
Nowadays, few young people choose a career that involves climbing rooftops and picking up soot from bricks. But despite other options, that’s exactly what Vilnis Daņiļevičs does with pleasure from Monday to Friday.
As a young man, Vilnis followed his heart and studied to become a music teacher. Indeed, for 20 years, he has been playing the organ every Sunday at the Lutheran church Turaida. But then, he became an apprentice with his father’s chimney sweep and does not regret having followed in his father’s footsteps.
“You can travel, meet people and see something new, rather than sitting in an office shuffling paper,” he says. “It’s interesting and creative work.
In previous centuries, fires posed a terrible danger in densely populated cities. Thus, the men who had the power to prevent them were held in high esteem.
In 1738, the Brotherhood of Chimney Sweepers was founded in Riga, as part of the corporate system which has organized economic life since medieval times. The work continued under all subsequent regimes and, surprisingly, much has not changed for three centuries.
After Latvia regained its independence in 1991, the brotherhood was re-established. Today, he again runs a traditional apprenticeship system where young people learn the trade from experienced teachers rather than in a classroom.
At the end of the Soviet period, Vilnis’ father was a chimney sweep attached to the fire brigade of Sigulda. He sometimes asked his son for help and gradually taught him the ropes. As age caught up with Daņiļevičš senior, Vilnis gradually took over the work on the roof and eventually inherited the company.
Along the way, he also acquired masonry training from an old Latvian potter, who taught him how to build tiled fireplaces and stoves from scratch, even collecting the right clay to make bricks.
Vilnis says he’s not afraid of heights, but there have been some risky situations. Once, a client had just installed a new ladder to access the fireplace in his house. Assured by the owner that all was well, Vilnis began to climb, when the hooks at the top of the ladder suddenly came loose, sending him sliding down the tiles. Fortunately, it was only a one-story building and landing on a car interrupted the fall halfway, but it taught the lesson to never take anything for granted.
Being thorough also saves the lives of others. If soot and other debris causes a fire inside a chimney, the draft can raise the temperature to 900 degrees Celsius, destroying the house within minutes. Thus, people realize that it is cheaper to bring in the chimney sweep regularly.
These days you won’t see a lot of smoke in large cities, as most buildings now use other forms of heating. But Latvian chimney sweeps keep pace with technology, inspecting and maintaining gas and wood pellet boilers and ventilation systems.
The community spirit of the Brotherhood is charming and timeless. Its approximately 80 members (including a woman, who also learned the trade from her father), enjoy rafting trips on the Gauja River with their families and other encounters every year.
“They are really like brothers,” says Skaidrīte, Vilnis’ wife. “They make sure that their friends don’t drink too much, that they are good fathers, and that they have other interests in life than making money.”
Word of mouth is the best form of publicity, and many of Vilnis’ rhythm focuses, centered around his hometown of Cēsis and Sigulda, have remained with the Daņiļevičs clan from generation to generation. If they’re not at home, people just leave the door open and the money on the table,
“They know me, and I know them, and I always do my best, so there are no problems,” he says.
Vilnis doesn’t hide the fact that it’s a dirty job. If the outside temperature is +30, it can reach 40-50 degrees in an attic. To cool off, one summer evening, he went for a swim in a lake and, after undressing, his blackened face and hands led a nearby fisherman to ask him if he had been in an accident.
Perhaps to compensate, chimney sweeps pay great attention to their appearance after working hours. They have a uniform with traditional tools, a top hat and shiny brass buttons, which foreigners in Latvia love to touch.
“The buttons symbolize luck,” explains Vilnis. “If you make a wish, then it’s a good idea to tie it to someone who works at dangerous heights but always arrives safe and sound!”
It’s not just work and not play either. Each September Vilnis and Skaidrīte go to the World Chimney Sweepers Congress in Italy, meeting colleagues from all over the world. And the Brotherhood’s end-of-year balls in the Little Guild of Old Riga are quite a spectacle. Vilnis usually sings to entertain revelers, while other chimney sweeps play the clarinet, saxophone, and trombone.
There has been talk of forming a chimney sweep or choir, but getting all over the country for rehearsals is a problem. Yet, according to Vilnis, there’s nothing stopping them from making music just for fun.
“You know what we are Latvians – if someone starts singing, then everyone joins in!” he’s laughing. “Especially if you’ve had a drink or two!”
In Riga’s historic working-class district, Grīziņkalns, a monument called “The Chimney Sweeper and the Mason” celebrates the men who have kept the city warm over the generations. It may have been created with Vilnis in mind.
This feature was originally posted on the Latvian Institute website and is reproduced here with permission.