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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."
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