There’s a hint of what is to come at breakfast in the hotel dining room. An older woman is greeted by her companions singing for her. We presume it’s her birthday. What makes the event so electrifying for us is that the Estonians sing beautifully; lilting, accurate three part harmony, conducted by one of the birthday girl’s party, with the whole room joining in. Choral singing is Estonia’s favourite pastime, and it played an important part in their drive for independence.
Just out of Tallinn’s city centre, facing a grassy slope, stands a performance shell which can accommodate 30,000 singers on the podium, according to our guide Rita. Michael Jackson once performed here, and more recently Madonna set the place rocking. But I wish I’d been here for the Estonian Folk Song Festival in 1988 when, with cracks starting to appear in the Soviet Union, a choir sang Mu isamaa on minu arm, a poem by Lydia Kodula set to music by festival conductor Gustav Ernesaks.
Singing this unofficial Estonian national anthem had meant a one way ticket to Siberia since it was banned by the Soviet authorities. However, when an audience of over 100,000 rose to its feet and joined the choir, KGB agents looked on helplessly, and the independence movement became unstoppable. Ernesaks’ statue now sits above the park, his chin in his hand. When the sculptor was asked why his subject was watching thoughtfully, rather than conducting, the answer was, ‘His work is done. Now he’s on holidays.’
For more on the singing revolution, including film footage see:www.thesingingrevolution.com
The writer was a guest of Odyssey Travel.
Extract from first publication by Sun-Herald, Sydney