Music and song play a great part in life in Scotland. We have a long and rich tradition of songs that reflect all aspects of life in this country. We grow up hearing the profound message in Robert Burns’ A Man’s a Man for A’ That, sung so movingly by Sheena Wellington at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. Or For Auld Lang Syne, arguably the most-played and best-known song in the world. We have songs that talk of the common humanity we all share, despite the fact that it’s still very much an ill-divided world.
There are also songs of anger and frustration that the greed and corruption of the few can make life a misery for so many. Songs that are full of history and the tragedy that is man’s inhumanity to man. But again there are songs like Dougie MacLean’s heartfelt Caledonia, that celebrate the beauty of our landscape and our love for our country. Songs full of longing for justice and equality, for love, for basic human kindness. Songs that reflect the past and future hopes our nation. Songs that add to what it means to be Scottish.
I was both intrigued and delighted when I discovered that music and song play a huge part in the life of the Baltic nation of Estonia, especially the song festivals that kept their culture and identity alive during centuries of foreign occupation. A few years ago a friend gave me a copy of a documentary called The Singing Revolution, made by a Canadian/Estonian couple, James and Maureen Tusty. It’s perhaps one of the most moving films I have ever seen and tells of the brave and peaceful struggle by the people of Estonia to be free of the Soviet Union. And, amazingly, how that long-standing tradition of music and song helped make the revolution possible.
This national Song Festival – Laulupidu – takes place once every five years, so when we returned to Estonia in 2014 we made sure we had tickets – and it’s an event I’ll never forget. Seeing people of all ages, from all over Estonia and beyond, descend on Tallinn in a breathtaking array of costumes was unforgettable. Then there was the patience of more than 25,000 singers as they waited in the blistering July heat to take their places in the opening procession from the heart of Tallinn to the song festival grounds. Throughout the whole weekend the atmosphere was one of celebration, thankfulness, fun and friendship: hundreds of thousands of people and barely a policeman or security guard in sight – nor any mess either!
The singing was a mix of old and new songs – songs from the early days of the song festivals as well as by musicians and composers who had lived through the Singing Revolution themselves. It’s almost impossible to decide on a favourite song, but two that I particularly enjoyed were Rein Rannap’s Ilus Maa (Beautiful Land) and René Eespere’s Ärkamise Aeg (Time of Awakening): both with a hymn-like quality and performed with real conviction and sincerity by almost 30,000 singers on the stage – feelings echoed by 80,000 more in the audience.
The pride in country and history that the people of Estonia wear so naturally is something we can all learn from: a nation that has no desire to force others to be like them, but instead celebrates the joy of finally being able to be themselves. Something that is so important to all people.
History never stands still. Empires come and go. We bring up our children to become free and independent people, not eternally dependent on us. Over and over again history shows us that peoples and nations – on every continent in the world – reach a point when it’s time for them to be free to make their own decisions about how their country is governed and how it treats its citizens.
For me, what Estonia achieved – and how it achieved it – is something to be remembered and cherished: and is an example to us all as to how, no matter how long it may take, lasting change can be made.
Links: The Singing Revolution
The Singing Revolution: trailer