July 6, 2009 / 1:52 PM / 10 years ago

Crisis can't dampen Estonia's traditional song fest

TALLINN (Reuters Life!) - The tiny Baltic state of Estonia might be in the grip of its worst post-Soviet recession, but the crisis did not prevent over 188,000 people from enjoying a song festival that only comes around once every five years.

Like the other Baltic states, song and dance festivals are a key part of Estonia’s heritage, particularly as the countries have been ruled by foreign powers for most of their history.

Though worries about rising unemployment were on people’s minds, the festival was well attended.

“I will be going as it is an important part of being Estonian and I want to show it to my daughter. I would like her to see it is part of our tradition and Estonian culture,” said Imbi Hepner, an advertising account manager before the concert.

However, she added: “I will still be thinking about my job. It will not be a celebration to forget my worries.”

Thousands of singers, musicians and dancers performed during the three days of the festival, which ended on Sunday.

These are impressive numbers in a country with a population of just 1.3 million and at a time when the economy is expected to slide by 15 percent this year and unemployment is growing.

The festival was born in the 1800s as an expression of national awakening when the country was part of Tsarist Russia.

In the Soviet era, the song and dance festival became a rallying point for passive resistance to rule from Moscow.

This included a signature song “Mu isamaa, mu arm,” “My Fatherland, My Love,” which was sung with passion by both the full choir and the audience, even though displaying the blue, black and white colors of the Estonian flag could earn the wearer a prison sentence in those days.

The lead up to the overthrow of Soviet rule in 1991 was nicknamed the “Singing Revolution” for the role of song as a sign of nationalism and desire for independence.

In the festival choirs and dance groups from even the smallest villages competed for the right to perform.

“We, from Tori’s mixed dance group, are all very proud to be here,” said Viive Pukka, a veterinary surgeon from the tiny district of Kaisma in central Estonia.

She saw at least one good thing from the crisis.

“There were more dancers this time as many men used to work in Finland and they have been laid off in Finland and now are back,” Pukka said.

The song festival ended with more than 100,000 people singing together.

Editing by Patrick Lannin and Paul Casciato

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