Image credit: CC BY-ND 2.0  (Estonian Foreign Ministry, 2009)

Winding cobbled streets, cosy cafés, quaint medieval buildings and an Old Town lined with craftsmen’s workshops and viewing platforms where you can see over the red tilted roofs to the Baltic Sea — these are just some characteristics of Estonia’s beautiful capital, Tallinn. During winter, owing to its Gothic conical snowy roofs and vintage-looking locales teeming with locals and tourists, who altogether duck into coffee-shops and beer halls for a cup of mulled wine, the city becomes more fairy-tale than ever. In the summer, the city gets more crowded and just about everyone mills around parks and squares to bask in sunshine; lush green envelopes the city and the whole city smells and feels like an Alpine valley.

Tallinn, capital of Estonia. Image credit: CC BY-ND 2.0 (TausP, 2012)

Having this image in mind, it would be difficult to associate this Baltic gem with a bleak past of Communist dictatorship, repression and struggle. Many may be indignant to learn that the oppressive Soviets almost tried to erase the identity of this small country, if the whole nation itself hadn’t reacted. But Tallinn did more than speak. Tallinn sang. It sung until a crowd’s chant became anthem; it sung until a revolution was created; it sung until sovereignty was restored.

Subversive songbirds
It all began in 1960, when a new tradition started at the closing of the Song Festival — the mass choir crooned Lydia Koidula’s poem Mu isamaa on minu arm (“Land of my Fathers, Land that I Love”) and the masses joined in. Five years later, the same thing happened. At the subsequent edition, festival directors ordered the mass choir to stand down and the orchestra to play and drown out the ‘anthem’. No one in the mass choir moved, and with the rain falling and the orchestra booming, the entire stadium sang in one voice. So powerful was the synergy that they sang the song three times over, each time louder and more convincing. The Soviet authorities, at a loss of what to do, ordered the conductor back on stage to conduct the song.

A milestone was reached in 1988, three years after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and new rhetoric revolving around “perestroika” (economic restructuring) and “glasnost” (openness) emerged. That year, the overwhelming choir of 30,000 led a congregation of close to 300,000 to belt out Mu isamaa on minu arm, which by now was recognised as the unofficial anthem of Estonia. Given the intense desire of the people for change, the power of singing stirred a sense of hope, ignited a renewed passion for the homeland and brought a new form of unity. Through song, Estonians paved their way towards independence, which came to fruition in 1989.

“Thanks to the Soviet Union, each song festival turned into a mass demonstration. It turned out that we prepared five years for this festival, the main purpose of which really was to come together as a nation, and sing this one forbidden song. Each person could go to work the next day knowing that the Estonian spirit survives” – Heinz Valk, Estonian Nationalist, accredited for coining the term “Singing Revolution”

Ever since, the capital bonds and sings every five years at the Song and Dance Festival, also known as Laulupidu. Some 100,000 Estonians and over 18,000 choral members from all around the country typically gather at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds, situated east of the city centre.

Passionate showmanship

Estonians perform at the Song and Dance Festival in 2009. Image credit: CC BY 2.0 (Steve Jurvetson, 2009)

The Song Festival is today recognised as a cultural and musical masterpiece — choirs that have been singing their entire lives rehearse for years and only the best of the best can perform at this prestigious event. The quality of the music, the singing, the power of so many voices beautifully orchestrated continue to be overwhelming even to this day, long after Estonia achieved independence. In November 2003, UNESCO declared Estonia’s Song and Dance Festival tradition a masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

More than two decades after the revolution, the citizens of one of the smallest countries in Europe are considered the continent’s most cheerful people, and a sense of optimism can be genuinely felt in the air. The 2014 edition of the festival, to be held from 4th to 6th July at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds and Kalev Central Stadium just outside central Tallinn will once again perpetuate the proud Estonian tradition of singing and mark another memorable occasion of music and dance.

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