The power and the passion of folk singing in Estonia

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GENERAL ADMISSION tickets had sold out, but people were still determined to see the show. Some jumped the fences and managed to slip past security; half a million viewers tuned in on television. Such fervour is par for the course at Glastonbury Festival, a major occasion in the live-music calendar. It is more surprising when the event in question is a weekend of choral singing and traditional costumes in Tallinn.

Laulupidu, Estonia’s “Song Celebration”, which takes place every five years, is one of the largest amateur choral events in the world. Choirs from across Estonia and the globe undergo a rigorous audition process, then rehearse for up to two years. At the most recent edition, which took place on July 6th and 7th, an estimated 35,000 singers performed. Around 35,000 tickets were sold for Saturday’s evening concert, a figure that swelled to 62,000 for Sunday’s seven-hour extravaganza. A study conducted in 2013 by Marju Lauristin, a politician and academic, found that 48% of 15- to 90-year-olds in Estonia had participated in the event at one time or another.

Choral singing, and Laulupidu in particular, have played an important role in civic life in Estonia. The first song celebration, held in the university town of Tartu in 1869, coincided with the “Age of Awakening”, a period when Estonians first began to recognise themselves as a nation and demand self-government (first from a ruling German elite and then from Tsarist Russia). After 1940, during the Soviet occupation of the country, festivals were closely monitored: programmes had to be submitted in advance for vetting, songs glorifying Russia were forced onto the repertoire and “Mu isamaa, mu onn ja room” (“My fatherland, my joy and happiness”), the national anthem, was banned.

Later, music provided Estonians with a way to express defiance. In September 1988 250,000 people—a quarter of the Estonian-speaking population at the time—gathered at the festival grounds in Tallinn to call for independence. Thereafter, the movement across the Baltic States was known as the “Singing Revolution”. The restoration of Estonian independence was formally declared in 1991.

Ms Lauristin, who was a prominent figure in that movement, says that the “denial of violence and the celebration of harmony” is at the heart of the song festival. The repertoire remains traditional, but conductors are greeted by the audience like rockstars. Choirs frequently resist organisers’ attempts to corral them, singing numbers they enjoy again and again: as one festival-goer put it: “Laulupidu is the only place where the performers, not the audience, demand the encore.” This, too, has a historical precedent: at Soviet-era festivals, “Mu Isaama on Minu Arm” became a protest anthem of sorts, sung at the end of recitals. The title denotes equal amounts of pride and pain, translating as both “my fatherland is my love” and “my fatherland is my scar”.

This year’s iteration of Laulupidu was not impervious to politics. For instance, EKRE, a right-wing populist party which calls for a more insular Estonia and is currently part of the governing coalition, made its usual complaints about Russian songs on the programme. Last week Uued Uudised, an extreme right-wing media site, falsely claimed that snipers would be protecting the festival against the threat posed by immigrants (of which Estonia has very few). In his closing speech, Tõnis Lukas, the culture minister and a member of the conservative Pro Patria party, spoke passionately about how the festival grounds must be protected and how, if necessary, Estonians would “stop Lasnamäe” once again. Lasnamäe is a predominantly Russian-speaking district in Tallinn, originally built to house Soviet workers, next to the amphitheatre which hosts the festival. During the push for independence, “stop Lasnamäe” was a common rallying cry, a protest against the perceived Russification of the city and, by extension, the country.

Liberals in the crowd bristled at the slogan—a throwback to old anti-Russia sentiment that is unsavoury in a new Estonia, where the Russian-speaking population still struggles to integrate—and what they saw as the perversion of Estonian national pride. “I do see the threat that populist politicians are trying to hijack some of these values, some of these themes, some of these values,” one audience member said. “This needs to be resisted, but I’m pretty optimistic that we will be able to.”