Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Singing Revolution

And so Estonia. A remarkable small country of just over one million people, only 800,000 (about the population of San Francisco) of whom are native speakers of the Estonian language. A beautiful language, related to Finnish, but apparently with only three words in common. In my brief fascinating lunchtime conversation, I was told of a contest in which several countries submitted a short phrase to be considered as the most melodic musical language and Estonian placed second behind Italy. The sentence (minus the marks over the letters) was “Soida tasa ule silla”—ask your local Estonian to say it out loud—which means “riding silently over the bridge.” (I’d love to know what the Italian and other entries were. Especially the American. “Yo, dude, awesome!”?)

At lunch, I also sat with the first Estonian I met back in a 1998 workshop in England, who shared a tongue-twister about a white ghost—“Kummíkus, kummítus, kummítas, kummutis.” It was a surprise to meet her so many years later and I told her I had often thought about that phrase. It inspired me to begin a collection of international tongue-twisters, a project I’m always starting, but never following through on. I keep missing the step of actually learning to say them and use them in my music class! They’re scattered throughout my little Memo notebooks I carry and someday I hope to bring them out from the closet. It’s a fun way to get right to the music of a language and skip the grammar and meaning.

My short lunchtime conversation was filled with other gems. My translator was telling me about the choir competitions and festivals that took place all over Estonia that have the energy of World Cup soccer games. As she put it so eloquently, “We are too small to be famous for wars, bombs or sports, so we choose to be famous for culture.” You can imagine my reply. “Would that countries of all sizes make that choice!”

In my only other visit to Estonia back in 2001, I happened to arrive on one of their Independence Days, August 20th. Estonia first gained independence from neighboring big guy Russia in 1918 on February 24th (another independence day) and had a fertile period of a mere 20 years to reclaim their national identity before Russia came in yet again, the two evil bullies Hitler and Stalin playing dice with the fate of whole countries. By the end of 1945, Estonia was once again swallowed up by Russia until their second independence in 1991. So 11 years back, I arrived on the 10th Anniversary of their freedom and witnessed some fifteen choirs in the Town Square singing their hard-earned patriotism with pride and exquisite beauty.

Indeed, Estonia Independence has been named “The Singing Revolution,” also the title of a movie about it that I keep trying to see. In 1989, a chain of two million people spreading down to neighboring Latvia and Lithuania was formed of people singing their hopes for freedom. When the Russian tanks departed without a shot being fired in 1991, Estonia achieved mythological fame as the place that used the power of song to harness their spirit and send the big bully away. South Africa shares a similar mythology of the power of song (see the movie Amandla) at a similar period of time (1994). And so the tradition of choral singing, unusual because not connected directly to the church, but begun in the establishment of singing festivals back in 1869, lives on. The Song Festival continues, attracting over 100,000 people of all ages, one of the largest in the world.

As you can imagine, it was a great pleasure to lead a workshop with some 55 music teachers and feel their effortlessly expressive voices in each activity. Culture and freedom to play seems to be the norm in schools and so the ideas I shared were readily familiar to the teachers. My own complaint, which I shared with the group: “Where are all the men?” Not a single one in the workshop, similar to the Finnish course (one man out of seventy participants). Of course, typical that men don’t tend to work with the young kids, but not necessarily true everywhere. Our last year’s Level II in our San Francisco Course had 18 women and 17 men. Astounding!

Tallin is a lovely small city, with its charming Old Town and bustling new sections. Most impressive are the restaurants. Every meal I’ve had is like San Francisco’s most hip and artistic noveau cuisine, everything served on fancy white plates and bowls in irregular shapes with those little touches of sprigs and sauces and dots of this or that and everything delicious! At 1/3 of the SF price! I had a dessert yesterday with something called Sea Buckthorn that was like a green loofah! One unusual twist I’ve never seen before. The people in outdoor seating are often wrapped in blankets provided by the restaurant. And here close to the first day of summer, there is a San Francisco chill in the air that makes that necessary. In fact, I should recommend it to the SF Chamber of Commerce. We are always trying to create the illusion of the European café and sit outdoors while freezing in the fog. Blankets would help!

The tourist shops are filled with beautiful woodwork—spoons, bowls and such—hand-bound books, tin and silver cast utensils, wool and linen cloths, dolls, hand-knit socks (I got a pair for Zadie!), pottery, the assortment of hand-work skillfully and aesthetically done. Apparently, the shops are filled to the brim when the cruise ships unload and the tourists swarm the square.

And so my little peek into Estonia. Today my last full day of this marvelous few weeks of travel and teaching. No more courses, a morning of sight-seeing before returning to Helsinki and setting off way too early in the morning tomorrow for my trip back home.
Hooray for good food, good people and the power of song!

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