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Photo: estonianworld.com
The Estonian Song Celebration every five years brings together a huge choir of up to 30,000 people for a weekend in July.

How do you get 30,000 people to sing together and hit the same note at the same time? It’s not easy. But if any group of people can do it, it’s the Estonians. They’ve had a lot of practice.

Writes Estonian World, “The Estonian Song Celebration is a unique event, which every five years brings together a huge choir of up to 30,000 people for a weekend in July. Approximately 100,000 spectators enjoy the concerts and sing along to the most popular songs.

“The first Song Celebration was initiated in 1869 by newspaper publisher Johann Voldemar Jannsen and celebrated freedom and the 50th anniversary of the end of Estonian serfdom at the hands of the Russian tsar in 1819. The first singing event was held in Tartu, with 878 male singers and brass musicians. All the songs were in Estonian and Estonians – mostly peasants and farmers at the time – discovered the value of their own language and cultural heritage through singing. …

“After the Second World War, during the Soviet occupation of Estonia, the song celebrations again helped keep the national identity alive. In the summer of 1988, several hundred thousand people gathered at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds and sang for freedom for many days and nights. Dubbed ‘The Singing Revolution,’ it indirectly led to Estonia’s independence once again in 1991.

“The 27th Song Celebration [features] 1,020 choirs, which include over 35,000 singers. The youngest participant is Emma Kannik (5) from Musamari Koorikool (Tallinn) and the oldest is Aino (90) from the New York Estonian Choir.

“The smallest choir of 12 singers is Kauksi Primary School Choir and the largest is the European Estonian Choir, with 123 singers. The latter is not the only expat choir – 25 Estonian choirs from abroad and 17 foreign choirs are performing at the celebration.

“The emotional celebration kicked off with a traditional parade on 6 July, during which the performers walked along a five-kilometre route from the Tallinn city centre to the Song Festival Grounds, where 82,000 people later watched them perform old and new Estonian choral songs and other classical pieces. …

“Tickets sold out on Sunday as 95,000 people came to Tallinn’s Song Festival Grounds for the second day of the 150th anniversary of the Song Celebration, Minu Arm (My Love). … There were more singers, more choirs, more tickets sold, and there had been more dancers than ever before at dance festival earlier in the week. The festival organisers said there were 1,020 choirs, 35,000 singers, and 11,500 dancers. …

“[Song Celebration’s artistic director, Peeter Perens] noted his ideas for the song celebration had been built on the Finno-Ugric culture, which the Estonia language comes from, and the European culture which brought the singing festivals to Estonia more than 150 years ago. The programme was created three years ago and since then more than 300 rehearsals took place. …

“[Marju Lauristin, professor emeritus at the University of Tartu,] discussed her research that shows that 48% of the Estonian population has, at some time in their lives, taken part in the song celebration and is one of the remaining activities that is enjoyed by the whole of society.

“Discussing the history of the song celebration, she said, ‘Through 150 years these people have the same memories, coming together in winter, through snow, in times when there were no cars, no internet, walking 10-15 kilometres to school or place where they would gather and have a singing society, all over the country.’ …

“Lauristin added that the atmosphere of the song celebration had changed over the years from one of bitterness during the Soviet occupation, to one of joy today.

“[Composer Riho Esko Maimets said] that the experience of being at the celebration felt ‘very selfless, [like you are] existing as one little particle in a great mass of your nation.’  More here.

I’m impressed that so many people can sing together. I gave up on our town’s Christmas tree carol singing because the people on one side of the tree were always at a different place in the song than the people on the other side. And that leader was trying to keep together fewer than 100 people, not 30,000!

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Photo: Jose F. Moreno / Inquirer Staff Photographer
In South Philadelphia, young Khmer women are earning to perform traditional Cambodian dance.

When one marginalized community taps into its roots and strengthens its identity, other ethnic groups may benefit, too. Consider this story about young Cambodian women in South Philadelphia and their how traditional dances are often performed for neighboring communities of color.

Bethany Ao reports at the Inquirer, “When Lanica Angpak started the organization Cambodian American Girls Empowering three years ago as a personal project, she visualized it as a safe space where young Cambodian women could talk about ‘taboo’ topics they didn’t feel comfortable discussing with their families.

“But when Angpak broached that idea with the women she was mentoring at the time, the group had an addendum: They wanted Angpak to teach them traditional Cambodian dance.

” ‘I was already teaching some of them,’ said Angpak, who learned how to dance from her mother. ‘But bringing it into this organization allowed us to build bridges through dance.’

“On a recent Sunday, the organization gathered at Bok Bar, a popular rooftop bar in South Philly with gorgeous views of the Philadelphia skyline, for a sunny afternoon workshop performance.

“The women slipped off their shoes and completed stretches that were harder than your average yoga pose. Eventually, they shifted into formation and performed a dance about a Cambodian celebration for young children. The dancers moved slowly, but their movements required just as much precision as ballet. Their mastery of balance was impressive, as was their flexibility. …

“Cambodian dance is a crucial part of storytelling in the country’s culture. It has existed for thousands of years and draws its roots from Indian mythology and religion. Every component of the dancer’s body is engaged during a performance, from their fingertips to their facial expressions. …

“The Philly area has the fourth largest Cambodian population in the United States — about 13,000, according to the most recent census — centered in South Philly. Angpak works closely with the Cambodian Association to help support the community here. Besides the performances, CAGE also holds dance workshops for females as young as 6 and as old as 72.

” ‘On average, we do about 14 performances a year, and we’ve already surpassed that number this year,’ Angpak said. ‘We prioritize public events.’ … The group particularly enjoys performing for organizations representing other communities of color.

“Angpak said dance is an alternative way of sharing between communities, an exchange of culture and art, of sorts. The organization charges on a sliding scale for performances. Workshops, including the one at Bok Bar next month, are free and open to the public.”

More at the Inquirer, here. And click here for my 2017 post about how Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, half-sister of Cambodia’s King, is working to reenergize the Royal Ballet of Cambodia. Perhaps some of these Philadelphia women and girls will get a chance to audition for that.

Photo: Jose F. Moreno / Inquirer Staff Photographer
A mother and daughter learn traditional Cambodian dance at the Bok Bar in South Philadelphia. Cambodian American Girls Empowering (CASE) helps women and girls preserve their heritage through traditional Cambodian dance.

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