Laulupidu: Estonian Song Festival

Laulupidu is an event which takes place every five years in the Estonian capital Tallinn. There’s an overview of the history of the event here, and it’s deeply rooted in Estonian culture and their sense of national identity. It’s part of a weekend-long festival which incorporates dancing and choirs both adult and junior. We were there to watch our daughter, whose school choir had been accepted as participants.

The day started at 09:30 as all the choirs gathered in Freedom Square in the city centre. The bears arrived early.


It was a grey day so many people came wearing transparent plastic ponchos, but the rain held off.


The parade made its way through the centre of the city and down a wide road towards the festival grounds, about 5 kilometres away.


Apart from the impromptu singing from some groups (other saved themselves for the actual concert) the main attraction for me were the traditional costumes.


I wasn’t the only one taking photos.




I’m not really sure what the large yellow ball signifies, but many people at the head of their group had them. There were choirs from all across Estonia present, plus some from Canada and the US.




Several people had these large circular metallic brooches.

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That’s the Estonian flag. The colours represent sky, earth and snow.


At the grounds themselves the crowds gathered. We had seats quite close to the front. Those on the slope in the background were standing or sitting on blankets.


And there are the singers. Thousands of them.


There was a brief ceremony at the start with an Olympic-style torch.



And then the singing started. For the first few songs everyone sang together, which made quite an impression.




Then some left the stage and a certain number of children’s choirs (including my daughter) sang five or six songs, all in Estonian. here are extracts from my favourite two.




Although this kind of event can never have the same significance or emotional charge for someone not raised in that culture, it’s still powerful and moving to see and hear that many people singing in harmony. If that whet your appetite, you can see full coverage of the parade and the concert on the website of the national TV broadcaster.


Original sound track

The other day during a long drive my kids were sat in the back watching the 1980 movie version of Flash Gordon on DVD. As I was sat in front I couldn’t see any of it but I could hear it. This was not at all a strange experience for me because I’m much more used to listening to that particular film that seeing it (in fact I don’t think I’ve actually seen it for decades).

I remember back in the days before home video (yes, I’m that old) that once you’d seen a film at the cinema you wouldn’t get a chance to see it again until it turned up on TV some time later. And then if you missed it, you missed it, as there was no way to record and preserve it. So what was a young movie fan to do when he wanted to re-live (repeatedly, obsessively) the experience of his favourite big screen science fiction epic in the comfort of his own home?

There were a couple of options. One was the soundtrack album. In the case of movies like Star Wars which have very memorable, expressive and almost continuous music (only 20 minutes of the film’s 125 running time don’t have musical accompaniment) this was a decent alternative. It had the advantage of omitting any creaky dialogue and letting you fill in the images with your memory or imagination. Or you could flick through a visual aid like the comic book adaptation or souvenir magazine while listening.

Later there was a brief popularity for soundtrack albums which incorporated dialogue and sound effects, and Queen’s Flash Gordon album was one of these. In fact it was Queen themselves who proposed this approach, apparently, and for me it made it a much more enjoyable experience to hear “pew! pew!” sounds and immortal dialogue like “Gordon’s alive?” and “I’m flying blind on a rocketcycle!” interspersed with guitar solos.

I also had an album called The Story of Tron, which even added voiceover narration telling the story. This was less successful, as you can hear here:

Which is why I also later bought the music-only soundtrack so as to be able to hear Wendy Carlos’ electronic tonalities unsullied.

And as I mentioned before, there were visual aids available too. I went through a phase of reading novelisations, but usually only for films I was too young to see at the cinema (Robocop, Predator, Aliens). I had a couple of “photo-novels” (paperbacks formatted like comics but using still frames from the movie) of Battlestar Galactica and The Black Hole. And, of course, sticker albums: Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Return of the Jedi, Gremlins and more (there’s a good set of photos here). I was always anxious about not being able to collect all the stickers, bought in packs of five or six, and having a complete set. God knows how much money I spent buying packets looking for those last few stickers, and throwing away the free, sickly sweet pink chewing gum that came with them.

In the case of Flash Gordon the stickers came free with packets of Weetabix, and one day in the supermarket I persuaded my mother to buy an extra large packet as it would contain a larger quantity of free stickers. I promised her I’d eat all those Weetabix, even thought it wasn’t my favourite cereal. Imagine my disappointment when we got home and tore the packet open to discover…no stickers whatsoever inside. My mother, who was not the complaining type, felt moved to write them a letter. In response they mailed me a complete set.

New music

I used to find new music the way most people did: the radio. I was never a big radio listener but I heard enough at various times throughout the day, at home, at work or in shops to pick up on what was going on. TV supplemented this diet, from the heyday of Top Of The Pops to MTV (TOTP no longer exists, and MTV no longer plays music).

When I moved away from the UK my radio and TV consumption dropped dramatically, and this was also around the time that the way people bought (or didn’t…) music changed dramatically thanks to the internet. Nowadays I feel I’m between two generations: I use the internet to research new music, but I still buy a hard copy on CD.


Often I’ll find something after a friend shares it on facebook, twitter or a blog. Like this one, dropped in the middle of a friend’s recent blogpost just because she was listening to it at the time of events she was describing.



One of the easiest ways to decide on a purchase is “Did I like their last album?”, and on that basis I just bought the new Florence + the Machine CD. But I don’t do it “blind”. I’ll still read some reviews just in case, and for that reason I avoided the last Björk.



Once in a while I’ll pick up a copy of Songlines which, in addition to all the articles and reviews also gives you one or sometimes two free cds featuring the best of that month’s releases. A few from the last issue I liked:

Anoushka Shankar. Flamenco sitar. I bought the album at the weekend.


The Bombay Royale. Australian Bollywood Surf Guitar. Sadly they don’t seem to have released a full album yet.


Ali Khattab. North African flamenco. Album is proving hard to track down in CD format.


Old stuff still sounds new

Whenever I go back to the UK I’ll pop into HMV and scan the discounted section. These days it takes up most of the shop, as so few of us actually buy shiny discs any more, meaning that almost half their stock is available for five quid or less. Usually in these situations I’ll pick up a compliation or greatest hits package. On this trip I got Missy Elliott and Roxy Music.


How do you find new music?

Musical Alphabet: Z

So, we’ve reached the end. I’m a little ashamed to admit that I had to cheat for Z. Zakir Hussain should technically go under ‘H’, but I couldn’t find anything else suitable on YouTube from the one or two other Z-artists I liked.

We were lucky enough to see Zakir and his “Masters of Percussion” live in concert in Dublin in 2000. He’s considered to be one of the best (and fastest) tabla players in the world.

And if you like tabla, Talvin Singh’s pretty good too:

Musical Journey: Y

I first heard this during an episode of Six Feet Under, when Nate goes to visit an old girlfriend, and this song plays as he walks up to her house. It struck me immediately, and so I went to the HBO website and found the music listing for that episode. I’d never heard anything by Yo La Tengo before, but I soon got my hands on a copy of the relevant album, “And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out”; a woozy, hazy dream of an album.