Echoes of 'Singing Revolution' ward off Baltic recession blues

7th July 2009, Comments 0 comments

Estonia's mammoth choir performances acted as the cradles of resistance when the country was under Soviet occupation, spawning what became known as the "Singing Revolution."

Tallinn -- A "Singing Revolution" brought Estonia blood-free independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 -- and this weekend tens of thousands joined mammoth choirs to banish recession blues.

Some 37,000 singers, musicians and dancers in colourful national costume joined a six-hour-long parade in Tallinn.

Meanwhile, more than 42,000 performers descended on Vilnius, the capital of neighbouring Lithuania, for similar scenes tied into its year as a 2009 European capital of culture.

The unparalleled scale of each of these open-air festivals of traditional song also provided a dramatic shot in the arm for local economies predicted to shrink by 15 and 18.2 percent in 2009 respectively -- among the world's worst forecasts.

"We booked our trip already in February, because we wanted to see that giant song festival at least once in our lifetime," German Eleonore Kauls, 75 and living in Brussels, told AFP in Tallinn.

"The magnitude of the choir -- 22,000 -- is unbelievable and it was really impressive to hear Saturday night how well that giant choir was singing," husband Friedhelm, 85, said.

"We were very touched to learn that Estonians used songs instead of arms to express their resistance to Soviet authorities during the Singing Revolution 1988-1991," Eleonore added.

Estonia's festivals acted as the cradles of resistance under nearly 50 years of Soviet occupation, spawning what became known as the "Singing Revolution," a string of mass demonstrations that began in 1987 against the Soviet occupation and united 300,000 protesters in song.

For more than four years, the Singing Revolution drew together Estonians in spontaneous acts of musical defiance before Communist forces threw in the towel in the face of an independence movement which finally delivered in August 1991.

This weekend's festival also drew hundreds of Estonian choirs from across the globe including New York, California and Baltimore in the US, Australia and maritime neighbours Sweden. Tallinn's biggest hotels were fully booked.

Held regularly since 1869 and nowadays every five years, Tallinn's "To Breathe as One" July 2-5 festival assembled a live audience of some 200,000 while the vast majority of Estonia's 1.3 citizens watched the weekend musical parade followed by a four-hour-long concert live on TV.

"My husband lost his job in January, but we're still attending the festival because it gives so much joy and helps us forget our troubles," local Anniki, 34, said in an indication of its uplifting capabilities.

"The Estonian song festival tradition is something very unique in the world, something that makes us Estonians feel a proud and great nation through our cultural heritage despite having a tiny population," Estonian conductor Paavo Jarvi underlined.

In Lithuania, where independence was achieved from Moscow in 1990, the singing extravaganza also marked the 3.4-million-strong Baltic state's millennium celebrations, give or take a few decades of Russian and Nazi German annexation of its historical territory.

The 18th edition of its festival -- held every four years since 1924 -- runs until Monday.

"It's very special when everyone sings together, it's an unparalleled tradition that simply must be perpetuated," Lithuanian high school student Lauryna told AFP as she practiced to play a Kankles, a traditional Lithuanian plucked string instrument related to the zither.

Baltic European Union and NATO neighbour Latvia, with a population of 2.3 million, also has a venerable song festival tradition dating from 1873. Held every five years, its 24th edition took place last year and drew nearly 40,000 performers.

In 2003, UNESCO recognised the festivals in all three ex-Soviet Baltic states on its intangible world heritage list. The trio each claimed EU membership in 2004.

Anneli Reigas/AFP/Expatica

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