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terry mcdonald

Terry McDonald: The Power of Culture

Terry McDonald is a graduate student studying in Tallinn, Estonia

The building itself embodies Estonian culture and the difficult, but unwavering, journey it has made. One hundred years old, the yellow walls and coffin-shaped bronze rooftops intimidate the carefully manicured hedges. Still, the inside of the Estonian National Opera reverberates with a harmonious buzz that belies its fortress fa├žade.

Unseen sopranos slide lithely up and down dog-pitch scales as we stride the seemingly never-ending white-walled walk to my host's office. Inside, scattered musical scores - replete with pencil scribbling undecipherable to my foreign eyes - are offset by two giant, reverently-rolled Estonian flags in the corner of the room. This is the creative space of Hirvo Surva, chairman of the Association of Estonian Choral Conductors.

The role of choral singing in Estonian identity can't be overstated. Indeed, it was the determining force in the restoration of an independent Estonian nation - in perhaps the most bloodless and beautiful revolution the world has ever known.

"The Singing Revolution", Surva describes, "was the only time in world history that a people took their independence through singing without blood."

This cultural assertion began on May 14, 1988, when performers at the Tartu Music Festival performed five Estonian patriotic songs banned by the Soviet regime.

Such an act was no laughing matter, says Mr. Surva, recalling his grandmother hiding the family Christmas tree, a Charlie Brown model decorated by only two tiny candles, because "if you got caught with such a thing - Siberia," as he makes a slashing motion across his throat.

Throughout that summer, everywhere Estonians - a normally very reserved people - gathered around music, the music quickly turned to the message of independence. The crowd grew in the summer heat, culminating in a Sept. 11 gathering of more than 300,000 for an event called "Song of Estonia." For Estonians it represented more than one quarter of the entire population.

Despite Soviet efforts, the genie could not be put back in the bottle. In November the same year, the legislative body issued the Estonian Sovereignty Declaration. Having formal independence still took time, but the battle was already won. It was fought, not in the streets with AK 47s, but with the power of culture.

Twenty years later, as we sit amidst the overpacked shelves that hold a career's canon, Tallinn is transformed. The burgeoning tourist flock is served in perfect English, and needs only walk 20 feet to go from a restaurant serving a traditional wild boar feast to a dance club hammering Rhianna into the cobblestone streets.

Indeed, in this year when Tallinn has been named Cultural Capital of Europe, and the Jazzkaar festival features local acts alongside guitar wizard Al di Meola and Bobby McFerrin of "Don't Worry, Be Happy" fame, the biggest threat to Estonian culture isn't repression, but as Surva warns, "being diluted like a water colour."

This is a concern, which many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, are familiar. How can a tiny population avoid being steamrolled into conformity? As an answer, Surva cites the example of Eurovision, an annual European song contest somewhere between American Idol and the Olympics. This year's Estonian entry was a dance-pop number about an American address ("Rockefeller Street") sung in English.

It's through such opportunities, says Surva, that cultures are not only preserved, but revitalized.

"Every culture, just like every person, has something special to offer in creating beauty. If we all present this, we end up with a beautiful mosaic, as opposed to a goulash." Happily, he notes a backlash to this trend, as he has observed a renaissance of young Estonian folk bands, not unlike the trend we've observed in Newfoundland over the past few decades.

As we reach the elevators, we discuss the fact that this magnificent building was almost destroyed in a Soviet bombing raid during the Second World War. Persevering, the structure just like the culture it has housed, has been rebuilt. Now, they both face the new challenge of retaining relevance for contemporary audiences. Surva, busy preparing a select boys choir for a part in an upcoming staging of Carmen, is not afraid.

He looks at the Cultural Capital designation as an opportunity not only to showcase Estonian culture for the outside world, but to remind them of its strength and vitality.

"We faced down an army," he said. "With thousands singing. This is the power of culture."

Terry McDonald: St. Patrick's Day Estonian-style


Terry McDonald is a graduate student studying in Tallinn, Estonia

It is a strange marriage of cultures. One tells of a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow while the other warns that just pointing at a rainbow will make your finger fall off. Still, there are those that make this strange, Irish-Estonian mixture work in their personal lives. And what better day for me to observe than St. Patrick's Day?

The day begins with a stroll down an 800-year-old Estonian cobblestone road to the hub of Tallinnian Irish expats (and wannabes), the pub Molly Malone's. I set about building the foundation for the day's culture-crossing by tackling a "full Irish Breakfast" - two sausages, four strips of bacon, two fried eggs, fried tomato, fried potato and toast - all washed down with the finest of Estonian beer, A. Le Coq. My peaceful cultural dabbling is almost ruined by a strikingly unfunny conversation with an alleged stand-up comedian from Montreal who is drunkenly questioning the healthiness of my breakfast choice. I consider countering with something about possibly taking the old drinking adage, "to your health" a bit too literally, but mercifully I am saved when I am beckoned to take the stage.

It is there that perhaps new ground is broken for the already well-travelled Irish cultural diaspora. Dave, Irish as can be, and your pal and gentle author, Terry, break out a 45-minute set of Irish Trad, Irish Rock and even some genuine Newfoundland favourites. Is it a testament to the cultural value of these works - some that have travelled from Ireland with people like my great-grandfathers to points all over the globe - or is just that the Irish write the best party songs in the world? Here, on this day, it doesn't seem to matter.

"It's so lonely 'round the fields of Athenry"

Our encore over, we go head to the bar and grab a round on the house from Patrick Doherty, the Dublin-born patron of our home away from home. Patrick came to Tallinn for a visit - seven years ago next month. Now, he's playing Sam Malone to our group of vagabonds and barflies. I, for one, aspire to the role of Frasier Crane, and fear being cast as Cliff Clavin instead. Regardless, pints drained, we're off to the Embassy.
Granted, the words "off to the Embassy" don't normally factor into a description of my previous St. Patrick's Days (Daze?). Still, there are benefits to being a tagalong on a holiday, so along I tag. We arrive, passing a former Estonian Prime Minister and the current Minister of Communications in the driveway. Then, we enter the world of the least politicized political event in which one ever had a bacon-wrapped scallop.

Right away, we're escorted to an introduction with the Ambassador, a seasoned Irish diplomat with a coy charm and a polished handshake/conversation. From there, we're sent to the downstairs bar. In Canadian political circles, the choice of wine is agonized over as to ensure a proper representation of Canadian interests, both domestic and international. Here, we have two French wines (as chosen by the caterer) and cans of Guinness on ice, or warm, as you prefer. It's not everyday that you get poured a pint by a man in a bowtie, but such is Irish diplomacy, it appears.

From there, we hobnob with everyone, from the Ambassador and his charming wife and CEOs of Irish/Estonian businesses, to the dregs and drifters - like Dave and me. All is in good fun and in a spirit of true community.

Still, we can't stay sensible for too long on Paddy's Day, so our troupe makes its escape back to Molly's. There's an Estonian band playing "Star of the County Down," the place is jammed and the Guinness and A. Le Coq are both flowing. The night goes on, snowflake becomes blizzard, and I, of course, end up sprawled out on those ancient cobblestones - the victim (again) of ice and the spirit of St. Patrick's Day. Still, what else are we to do? As it is so succinctly by our new friend the Ambassador, "Well, there's not enough of us for a parade, so we might as well have a party."

newpaddysday.jpgTerry McDonald with Irish Ambassador Peter McIvor and his wife and the senior Mr. Doherty, founder of Molly Malone's.

Terry McDonald is a graduate student studying in Tallinn, Estonia

Terry McDonald: Newfoundlander in a strange land

Terry McDonald

Terry McDonald is a graduate student studying in Tallinn, Estonia

How happy are you, on a scale of one to ten? Right then, as his behemothic Hall-of-Fame hand cocoons my eager outstretch, I was a 10. He, who would just the next day be named the Greatest Player of All Time by the NFL, and I, a dented brain on creaking sticks from the true dead end of a dead end road in a fishless Avalon fishing village, were meeting - in England. Terry McDonald was shaking hands with Jerry Rice outside Wembley Stadium. The world is a strange and beautiful place.

Logically, this should never have happened. Had I followed any sort of reasonable, rational, or even Darwin-affirming self-preserving path in life's wilderness, I would be nowhere near this moment. Futures, Mortgages, Pension+ RRSP with an RESP started and another on the way - is this not the path of the righteous modern man? Perhaps it is; there is little doubt this little lamb has gone astray.

It was in my third year of a drifting university existence, a time when all doctrine was not so much rejected as flayed, that this small-town Siddhartha stumbled upon his mantra. Adbusters magazine, the catechism of capitalist-critique, was a monthly indulgence, and it was in those low-gloss pages that I found the idea stream I was to ride.

Like all truly great ideas, it comes not so much as a discovery as it does a revelation: "How happy are you right now, on a scale of one to 10?" Boom - the Happiness Quotient -and I was off to the races.

I changed my major from business to political science /religious studies. I didn't use my degree for work, I played guitar. I didn't marry a nice girl and buy a house, I kept on running - all driven by the quest for a ten. Naturally, like so many jazz-navigators before, I was bound for quite a ride.

I'd never really travelled, and a damoclean student loan was about to come due - decidedly unhappy news. So, in need of a new plan, I was off: grad school in Estonia. The Happiness Quotient is a petulant pilot; buy the ticket, take the ride.

Coming from Colliers, a town of 700, Jerry Rice was an unlikely choice for a boyhood hero. Still, a hero he was, and I was his devotee. A crimson number 80 jersey on my back, a life-size (or so I thought) poster on my wall, and a controller in my hand, all I wanted to be in life was Jerry Rice. He had it all: the skill, the poise, the drive, and the humility - he was the man we all should be. It was strange because there was no football in Newfoundland.

I had never seen a live game, I had never even seen a field. Moreover, I didn't even know anyone who knew the rules, but I didn't care. With John Madden's 16-bit voice and graphics as my guide, and Jerry as my idol, I was going to learn the greatest game on earth. Like any enraptured fool, I dove in headlong. No stat was too trivial, no game too small. Any game Danny saw fit to show on Cable Atlantic's basic package, I was going to watch. Pro or college, it didn't matter; I was the only kid in my Grade 8 class in a University of Michigan football jacket.

Still, Jerry's team, the San Francisco 49ers, literally could not have been any further away from me. I spent years just imagining going to a game, I taught the neighbourhood how to play, just so I could pretend to be him, but it was still just a pipe dream. We all must grow up, and forget our childish dreams, right?

Wrong. Along comes the Happiness Quotient, and I'm in Europe. Then, BAM: another miracle, the NFL is coming back to London. Then, double-BAM: the 49ers are one of the two teams coming. Then, infini-BAM: as the designated 'home' team for the game, they are bringing along some franchise legends for the game, including my man Mr. Rice.

I floated along the ancient English ground, and barely touched it. I slept alongside the sacred Thames, and barely heard it. Jerry was there, and so was I, and four-and-a-half lies later, I met him. How happy are you, on a scale of one to 10? Sometimes it pays to ask.

Terry McDonald is a graduate student studying in Tallinn, Estonia