Let Freedom Sing: Estonia’s Army of Voices Arrives In Redding

“Land of my Father, land that I love, I can’t abandon her. For her a hundred times, I shall give my life,” begins “Mu Isamaa On Minu Arm,” written by Estonian National Poet Lydia Koidula.

This passionate poem, created during Estonia’s Great Awakening, was first set to music in 1869 and performed that year for Estonia’s first Laulupidu, an annual gathering of 30,000 vocalists on one stage and one of the world’s largest amateur choral festivals.

The song slipped by Laulupidu Soviet censors in 1947, was banned from the festival in the 1950s and sung defiantly in 1969 by 100,000 amateur singers, in competition with 100 soviet band members trying to drown them out.

“Mu Isamaa On Minu Arm” was the song that unified Estonia, a country that lost a quarter of its citizens to deportation or execution by the end of WWII. During Estonia’s occupation, this song became the rallying cry for a non-violent “Singing Revolution” from 1987 to 1991. Hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered publicly to sing forbidden patriotic songs and share protest speeches, risking their lives to proclaim their desire for independence.

Estonia’s “Singing Revolution,” accomplished without the loss of a single life, is documented in a film by James and Maureen Tusty that is screening this weekend in Redding. I spoke to Maureen about her experiences in Estonia, music as a revolutionary force and what it’s like to watch 30,000 people sing at the same time.

How did your career path lead to creating this film?

My husband Jim and I are both filmmakers, and in 1999 we had the opportunity to teach a filmmaking course at the first university to teach film after the departure of the Soviets. As we started to build friendships there, people began to share stories, sitting over dinner, about what happened during these revolution years. We were astounded and moved by what we learned, and the more we researched, the more we were shocked at how dramatic these events were. We committed ourselves to sharing this powerful story outside of Estonia. As we see the current events dramatically unfolding before us in the Middle East, it reaffirms the undeniable human drive for self-determination and that freedom is absolutely core to the human experience.

I’m nervous for you just thinking about the film’s 2006 premiere in Estonia. How was that?

Nervous doesn’t begin to describe it! Although we did not make the film for Estonians (they already know their own history), we knew we had to premiere the film there, both out of respect for those who lived it, and also to validate the story. We spent four years researching and fact checking, and we wanted Estonians to consider this film an accurate reflection of their own story. The film premiered at the Black Nights Film Festival to a sold-out audience. It was very meaningful for us when the audience stood and applauded at the end for a solid 10 minutes. And Estonians are not known for being overly-effusive. Even our Estonian co-producers were amazed! It was quite special.

What’s it like to see Laulupidu live?

When I attended my first song festival years ago I thought, “How good could 30,000 singers all together really sound?” How embarrassed I am now of that thought. The Song Festival is a cultural and musical masterpiece, rehearsed for years by choirs that have been singing their entire lives. The quality of the music, the singing, the power of so many voices beautifully orchestrated is overwhelming. You will never hear anything like it, anywhere else, period.

What is your favorite of the new generation of revolutionary songs?

Too hard to pick just one. I don’t think it’s the music itself (which, given the time period the songs were written, remind me of what I was lamely dancing to in high school). What’s amazing is what these songs are saying. During Soviet times, openly singing about their nation and history instantly touched people to the core, and you can still feel that when you listen to them today.

You say that “Songs can be so much more than entertainment.” Expound on that.

This is the ultimate example of music and song having a profound impact on history and a nation’s ultimate survival. Although singing is not the only important factor that caused Estonians to regain their independence in the early ’90s, its profound role was critical and multifaceted.

Estonia’s song tradition helped people to preserve their language and their culture throughout the occupation as the Soviets tried to deny any Estonian identity and assimilate the nation. When the “singing revolution” began in the late 1980s and wave after wave of people came out to gather at these first protests, you can imagine the extreme emotions, anger and fear these people must have felt. Most of these people had parents or grandparents killed or imprisoned in Siberia, a lifetime of oppression, and now after 50 years finally released that anger and frustration.

KGB and Soviet police were present at all of these events, just waiting for an excuse to crack down. The Estonian people knew they had to keep these protests non-violent, simply for their survival. Their culture of singing played a critical role in helping them to maintain their non-violent approach, as well as keep their culture alive.

Experience James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty’s “The Singing Revolution,” the story of how the Estonian people peacefully regained their freedom, this Saturday in Redding. The screening includes guest speaker Shane Kikut, whose father Aksi lived in Estonian refugee camps for 9 years until they were able to emigrate to the U.S. in 1950. He will share stories about his father and aunt and their experiences.

What: A screening of “Singing Revolution,” a benefit for People of Progress & Genocide No More – Save Darfur.

When: Saturday (March 19),  7 p.m.

Where: First United Methodist Church, 1825 East Street, Redding

Cost: $5 students, $7.50 general, $20 family. Tickets available at Graphic Emporium – 1525 Pine Street, Redding, or at People of Progress – 1242 Center Street, Redding.

For more information about the screening, contact: Marv Steinberg at 229-3661 or Melinda Brown at 243-3811. Click HERE to learn more about the Singing Revolution, and the film.

Note from Maureen Tusty: Films like this are often not rated in the U.S., but in Canada this film received a rating of PG for mild violence. She has received emails from people who have brought their 10-, 11- & 12-year-old children to see the film. While each child is different, Tusty advises against taking a child under age 9 or 10.

Adam Mankoski enjoys experiencing and writing about the people, places and things that embody the free spirit of the State of Jefferson. He and his partner own HawkMan Studios and are the creators of Redding’s 2nd Saturday ArtHop. Email your NorthState weekend events to adamm.anewscafe@gmail.com.

This portrait of Adam Mankoski was created by Shasta High School students Chance Norman and Kenzi Bell.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of anewscafe.com.

Adam Mankoski

is a recent North State transplant who feels completely at home here. He enjoys experiencing and writing about the people, places and things that embody the free spirit of the State of Jefferson. He and his partner are the owners of HawkMan Studios and the creators of Redding’s 2nd Saturday Art Hop.

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