PAPER TRAILS: ESTONIA’S SONG & DANCE FESTIVAL
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.