For someone who spends a lot of time in Estonia writing about Estonians, you may find it hard to believe that until last night I had never attended a song festival. For many outside Estonia, and within it as well, it is these mass singing events that define the country's nationalism.
Last evening's öölaulupidu -- night song festival -- served various functions. Ostensibly, it was a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the major events of the Singing Revolution. But it was also a celebration of independence on the eve of the 17th anniversary of the restoration of independence, as well as a show of solidarity in light of the ongoing conflict between Russia and Georgia.
Let's face it, for the past few weeks the news has been pretty bad. Yet things suddenly looked up yesterday when Gerd Kanter won the gold medal in discus. You see, as an American, I sort of take it for granted that we will produce swimmers who win eight gold medals. We're 300 million people of endless ethnic origins -- we're bound to produce some magnificent athletes. But for a country of 1.3 million to produce an Olympic gold medalist is a feat of which to be immensely proud.
And so, as we headed to hail a cab, passing people of all different backgrounds holding Estonian flags, the sour mood in the air dissipated, and a positive one took hold. We shared a cab with an Estonian family who was also on the way to the lauluväljak -- the song festival grounds. Along the way, parades of people marched towards the grounds, as cars stuck in traffic blared Estonian pop music.
For the first time in a really long time, I felt the culture shock of being submerged in Estonianness, where everyone around me spoke that one language, dressed in a different way than I did, shared a common national discourse. It felt as if I was in the capital city of a foreign country. I wanted to bring nearly everyone I knew and show them what I was seeing with my own eyes. If they were only here at this one moment, sitting next to those guys blasting some Jaagup Kreem song, they could easily figure out what this whole "Estonia" thing is all about.
Inside the grounds, the feeling of being engulfed by Estonians was realized. From one side of the song festival grounds to the other were thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of people, most of them waving blue, black, and white flags. We bought a larger one too, for 90 Estonian kroons (about $9 US).
Being surrounded by festive Estonians was a bit of a shocker too. You see, I have been cautioned in this country that strangers don't start conversations; relatives don't usually hug; money is deposited in the plastic dish at the store, not exchanged hand to hand. And so, to have some random stranger forcibly grab my hand and lift it up to the sky to coincide with the lyric of a song that refers to the moon, was a bit disarming.
The woman next to me was quite literally going nuts. I wondered if she had consumed some kind of chemical prior to the event, but her eyes were lucid. During some of the "harder" songs -- which were softened up by a cheerful glockenspiel -- I saw blond, orderly Estonian teenage girls twisting their bodies into strange, impossible positions, overcome by the music they know so well.
The songs are mostly good. Konstantin Päts spoke of Estonia as being a "peasant democracy." And there is something quite accessible about a song festival. The grandeur and pomposity of a national event is not there. People sing songs from films. And they know all the words. I was one of the few losers who had to consult his Märkamisaeg song book for the lyrics to "Põgene, vaba laps!" But as little as I understood, I found it easy to sing along, and everyone was singing.
Somewhere along the line, Ilves showed up. He was taken to the hospital in morning, so people applauded his arrival. I think they really like their president. A lot of American political rallies are staged, so it takes guts to go out in front of hundreds of thousands of people who just might hate your guts and give a speech.
I was also afraid that politics would sidetrack the event. People came to sing, not to be lectured. But he managed to get in a few words about defending ones freedom and appreciate it, and got in some choice references to Prague in 1968 and Georgia today. And his message was positive, which reinforced the feeling of the event. Trust me, the people were quite aware of the luxury of freedom last night!
The peak of the festival was undoubtedly Tõnis Mägi singing "Koit."He sang it once, and then was called out by the audience to sing it again. Each time Mägi sang, there was so much emotion in his face, that I was afraid his chest might explode if he reached too far for an elusive note.
There were other good songs as well. Villu Tamme, who bears such an uncanny resemblance to media mogul Hans Hansapoeg Luik that they may indeed be the same person, sang "Tere Perestroika." Tõnu Trubtesky sang "Insener Garini hüperboloid."
My favorite of the bunch is "Ei ole üksi, ükski maa." This is an Alo Mattiisen song, with a touch of "We are the world" about it. Mattiisen wrote a sizable chunk of the ärkamisaeg song book. I have no idea how he came out with so many good songs, but it reminds me of a story I heard about Peter Frampton, who woke up one morning in the mid-70s, wrote "Show Me the Way," and "Baby, I Love Your Way" on his guitar and went back to sleep.
I imagine that Mattiisen ate some sort of magic verivorst one night and stayed up late sculpting songs like "Ei ole üksi, ukski maa" and "Isamaa ilu hoieldes" which sounds more like it should be the soundtrack to the St. George's Night Uprising, than the Singing Revolution.
At the end, a Georgian male choir came out to close the conference. Again, I was afraid the event would diverge into angry words, but their eastern-inflected performance was peaceful and you couldn't help but feel the anguish they must feel about the future of their country. The ants then marched back out of the festival grounds and into the Kadriorg night. By the time we got home, it was past 3 am.