When I was in Tallinn this past weekend, the music of one group kept coming to mind. It wasn’t any of the hundreds of choirs that made up the singing organism of the Laulupidu, where balloons drifted by bearing the soulful words: Hingame üheskoos! — “Let’s all breathe in concert.” It wasn’t the sweet rock’n’roll of Rein Rannap, one of my favorite Estonian songsmiths whose works were on display at the festival, sung by rows and rows of ecstatic teenagers. It was Led Zeppelin.
Why not? They were the teachers of Norse Mythology 101 to junior high school students everywhere. And there was something deeply northern and slightly mythic about the whole event. The hordes of the blonde and blue-eyed. The noise as the crowd egged on the giant flames of the Laulupidu torch. The cool and soothing winds of the north coast, putting thousands of austere blue, black, and white flags to move. And then, the opening of the mouths, the flow of sound, the breathing in concert. I am not of this land, I sensed, but I understand what these people are saying.
One recurring thought I have when in the company of Estonians is that they are still pagans. They have modern technology and speak the language of liberalism, but when you are out in the countryside with them, seated next to a bonfire, it’s not hard to imagine how their insurgent armies slayed Cistercian monks during the St. George’s Uprising of 1343. Such thoughts resurface, even as I watch floats pass by bearing the young choir singers of Saaremaa — they whose forefathers renounced Christianity in 1261 and slayed all Germans on the island.
Pop music and pop history aside, Laulipidu is an exercise in identity building. Our friends and acquaintances may make up one voice in one local singing group, but at Laulupidu, all of the chains of singers are connected. The people breathe as one. They have been doing this since 1869. Young people take the bus from, say, Sillamäe to Tallinn as local singers. They leave the Laulupidu as one of the Estonian masses.
The folk costumes that people wear at the Laulipidu though are exemplary of Estonia’s ardent individualism. Sometimes it seems every local parish has its own folk costume. The men of Mulgimaa — a band of south Estonia stretching through Pärnu, Viljandi, and Valga counties — wear the Mulgi kuub, a long, black robe symbolic of affluence and ambition. The ladies of Setomaa — a border region in Võru and Põlva counties, wear on their chests kilos of silver jewelry. Once upon a time, it served as their doury. Now it is purely for fun.
For our family, choosing rahvariided — national clothes — is a conundrum. Epp is from Mulgimaa, but her mother’s family is from the West Coast and her father’s family from near Rakvere. As mentioned previously, we have now shacked up with the Setos, but Epp’s mother used to wear a folk costume from Muhu island, “because its the most stylish,” she explained. I told her that if I have got to dress up, then I am going with the Mulgi kuub. No emasculating knickers for this writer. And the president wears one too. “Folk costumes don’t have anything to do with where you are from,” a friend told me during the rongkäik. “You wear what you like best.”
You may think that Laulupidu is an event that can only be experienced at Lauluväljak. This is not true. In some ways, the TV coverage is better. At home or in a cafe, you can get a much clearer picture of what is going on. The crowds are invigorating, but Laulupidu can really break you as you contort your body to best use your minuscule amount of personal space. I got a taste for what the event was like for the armchair singers in the cafe at the Tallinn bus station. The waiting passengers sat mesmerized by ERR’s coverage. Most sang along as the festival rolled on past the festival’s scheduled set list.