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Tallinn...tradition sings for the future here

Tallinn from above the rooftops... photos Karen Percy.

 Negotiating the cobble-stones and winding lanes of Estonia's world-heritage capital, Tallinn, is to trip through history.

The medieval Toompea Castle looms on the hillside, dominating the upper town. In the lower town there is the buzzing square - the Raekoja Plats - where one can still imagine the traders of centuries-past selling their wares here. These days, coffee-drinking, souvenir-hunting tourists dominate.

For all its old-world charm, this is a country that also produced Skype, and boasts one of the most advanced E-economies in the world. Despite that, Estonia was one of the EU countries hit hardest by the financial crisis; the unemployment rate hit 19%, as the public and private sectors shed jobs in one of the most severe austerity programs in the region.

Over the past hundred years, Estonians have shown themselves to be resilient and resourceful - during the presence of the Nazis, and the Soviet occupation. They have a lot of history to see them through tough times. And they have song... (more pictures and music)

one of many old towers here.

One of my assignments here is a piece the choir culture in Estonia, which boasts hundreds of choirs and a choir-tradition that goes back to 1869. My interviewee and sometime-guide was Tomi Rahula, from the award-winning Tallinn Boys Choir.

During an hour-long drive to join the choir in the town of Parnu - where the boys were performing a concert that evening - it came out that Tomi was not only a choirboy-cum-composer-cum-choirmaster, he was also a keyboardist in the most successful rock band in Estonia, The Sun.

 The simpler, Soviet times

And - like so many in this part of the world - he talked fondly of the Soviet times, because in his view it was a much simpler time. It was also when everyone wanted to join a choir.

This love of song is most evident in the Song Festival, an event held every 5 years which attracts 10,000 singers and 80,000 spectators.

Tomi and the Talllin Boys Choir.

"I think this singing tradition held us together in Soviet times," he says."This was like our freedom time and this three or four hours when we had this concert - okay there was songs that we should sing about Lenin and Stalin they did those things - but .. when that singing ended people didn't go away. They started to sing songs that they shouldn't sing."

Next year, Estonia will host the song festival to trump all song festivals, as part of celebrations of 20 years of independence. I'm planning to be there.

Karen's recording of the Tallinn Boys Choir singing Panis Angelicus


Karen Percy is a freelance reporter based in Moscow. She has spent most of her career with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, including 3 years as the ABC's South East Asia Correspondent based in Bangkok, until 2009.

She spent seven years with the CBC in Toronto and is married to a Toronto-born journalist. Travel is a part of her profession, and also a passion.

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