PA­PER TRAILS: ES­TO­NIA’S SONG & DANCE FES­TI­VAL

Hayo - - Memories - WORDS AND ART BY JESSIE MCNEIL

IN THE SUM­MER OF 2014 , I spent sev­eral months liv­ing in the tiny but cul­tur­ally rich coun­try of Es­to­nia, ex­plor­ing my cul­tural and artis­tic roots. Sur­rounded by the Baltic Sea, a 30-minute ferry ride away from Helsinki, north of Latvia and backed up against its epi­cally large neigh­bor Rus­sia, Es­to­nia is seeped in an in­spir­ing yet tragic his­tory that still lingers in the eyes of many of those that lived through it. Once oc­cu­pied by Ger­mans, Swedes, Rus­sians and—most re­cently, and ar­guably most bru­tally—Soviet Rus­sians, the now in­de­pen­dent Es­to­ni­ans (since 1991) are proud to show­case their cul­tures and tra­di­tions at any op­por­tu­nity they get.

This trip— or, pil­grim­age —was planned to end with a week in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal, Tallinn, for the Laulupidu (the Es­to­nian Song Fes­ti­val), a choral celebration that dates all the way back to 1869, nearly half a cen­tury be­fore Es­to­nia’s first in­de­pen­dence. My Es­to­nian Folk Choir in Van­cou­ver rep­re­sented Bri­tish Columbia’s Es­to­nian com­mu­nity at the fes­ti­val, along­side a record-break­ing 1,046 choirs made up of 33,025 singers.

The com­bined emo­tional weight and lay­ers of his­tor­i­cal bag­gage we brought with us to Tallinn par­al­leled our lug­gage full of gifts and folk cos­tumes: ki­los of wo­ven wool, an­cient linen, leather and sil­ver that we would wear through­out the week­end. We sung for over 100,000 spec­ta­tors in Tallinn’s open-air Song Fes­ti­val grounds that week­end, nav­i­gat­ing the porta-pot­ties dressed in our fam­ily heir­looms and passing off quickly eaten black cur­rant pop­si­cles as din­ner in be­tween con­cert sets.The mas­sive event was claus­tro­pho­bia-in­duc­ing and overly pa­tri­otic to some, spir­i­tu­ally and emo­tion­ally over­whelm­ing for oth­ers, like me.

From lis­ten­ing to the fes­ti­val record­ings back home in my Van­cou­ver -based stu­dio to sim­ply smelling dill in my neigh­bor­hood mar­ket, I can eas­ily bring my mind back to that week­end: gen­er­a­tions of fam­i­lies freely wav­ing their lit­tle Es­to­nian flags and en­joy­ing grilled sal­mon un­der the mid­night sun, while beloved folk songs re­sounded all around them.

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