Estonians Sing to Lift Spirits Amid Slump

More than 20,000 choir singers gathered
Sunday to fill the air with positive vibes as Estonians took their
minds off a crippling recession in a mass celebration of folk
songs.

The power of music has lifted the Baltic country's spirits
before. During five decades of Soviet occupation, Estonians found a
rare outlet for celebrating their national heritage by gathering by
the thousands to sing patriotic songs.

The independence movement of the late 1980s was even dubbed the
Singing Revolution.

Now, Estonia again is hoping its Song and Dance Celebration - a
four-day event held every five years - will unite the nation of 1.3
million people, which has been severely battered by the economic
downturn.

Estonia's economy is expected to shrink by about 15 percent this
year - neighboring Latvia is the only European Union country with a
worse outlook.

"When you sing, you forget your everyday problems," said
21-year-old Saale Kreen, one of the choir singers who performed at
the festival's first choir concert Saturday.

The high point will be on the festival's final day Sunday, when
a chorus of 24,000 voices will sing in unison at an outdoor stage
in the capital, Tallinn.

"The emotion, the feeling when over 20,000 people start to
sing, is just awesome," said Kreen, a member of the girls choir of
Estonia's national broadcaster, ETV.

Saturday's repertoire consisted of mostly contemporary Estonian
folk songs but included also opera tunes from Verdi and Wagner.
Traditional Estonian folk songs from 19th and 2Oth century will
dominate Sunday's performances.

In earlier years more modern pop tunes also have taken stage.
Organizers are not ruling out an impromptu tribute to Michael
Jackson, who performed at the stage in 1997 to 60,000 fans.

"Choirs are often quite spontaneous, so you never know, it's
quite possible," Festival Director Aet Maatee said.

Some 100,000 spectators are expected to attend the choir
performances.

Meanwhile, some 7,500 folk dancers in traditional Estonian
costumes were spinning at a nearby stadium, for the dancing part of
the festival earlier Sunday.

At the very first song festival, only male choirs were allowed
to take part, but today singing is done by a variety of male,
female, mixed and children's choirs.

The festival traces back to 1869 to the southern town of Tartu,
which boasts one of Europe's oldest universities. Over time, the
event took on tremendous meaning as it was transformed into a
symbol of Estonia's fight for independence - against czarist Russia
in the 19th century and the Soviet Union, which occupied the Baltic
region during World War II.

"We have turned ourselves into a nation through singing. We
have freed ourselves through singing," said Estonian President
Toomas Hendrik Ilves during his festival speech Saturday, donning a
traditional folk costume of his native Estonian region.

In the late 1980s, hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered
at the song festival stage to protest Soviet rule by singing
patriotic songs. The movement was led by the late Lennart Meri, a
charismatic writer and filmmaker who was elected president in 1992,
a year after Estonia regained independence.

"Soviet authorities were smart enough to realize that it made
no sense to ban it," said Edgar Marten, 89, who moved to Canada in
1943, but kept close ties to his native land. Marten shepherds the
Toronto Estonian School Choir, which will perform at the festival.

A recent survey showed that choir singing is the most popular
cultural activity among Estonians, with 41,000 practicing it
regularly in 1,400 choirs nationwide. Most of them will take part
in the performances in Tallinn.

"This event has always brought us together in the toughest of
times," Maatee said.


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