According to the Collins Dictionary, a ‘pilgrimage’ is a ‘journey to a shrine or other sacred place. It fits well then to say that a few months ago I made another pilgrimage to Eesti.
What I hadn’t realised was that my time there coincided with the 20th anniversary of Estonia’s most recent independence. My goodness, has it already been 20 years? It must be time for a celebration. And celebrate they did – in grand style.
I was fortunate to receive an invitation to attend President Ilves’ rose garden reception. This celebration was attended by the country’s finest in the many arts, alongside the republic’s senior officials and dignitaries. As I walked through the gates chatting to media magnate Raul Rebane and Estonia-Australia Society representative Imre Sooäärega, I already felt humbled to be attending this significant event. I could only equate our entrance into the rose garden with what it must feel like to ‘walk a red carpet’ somewhere, where one is handed a glass of chilled wine from a silver tray and the paparazzi click away fervently.
The rose garden itself was breathtakingly beautiful. Steps from the stone terrace led to a far-reaching garden with a long rectangular pond as its centre-piece. The water feature was surrounded by blossoming roses in hues of reds and pinks. Numerous marquees had been strategically placed on the surrounding lawns, alongside tall round tables draped in white. Impeccably mannered waiters glided through the gathering, topping up glasses here and there. The guests seemed to move in slow circles around the water, progressing from one group to the next, clinking glasses joyfully with ‘Head aastapäeva!’
The circles of movement drew still when President Ilves made his way to the stage. His speech did not focus on the past atrocities but rather, the acknowledgement of the present and the hope of the future. He spoke of Estonia’s attributes and positives, to nodding heads everywhere. ‘Siin maal ei ole midagi viriseda!’ (There is nothing to whinge about here), he robustly stated and ended by raising his glass to crowd, ‘Elagu Eesti!’ (Long live Estonia) The crowd responded in jubilation.
We then ventured into the huge marquees and filled our plates with the finest of foods. The selection was too abundant to mention. International pop star, ‘Kerli’ took to the stage and fountains rose up from the pool. The circles surrounding it began to move once again. President Ilves was mesmerized by Kerli’s performance of her song dedicated to her parents, ‘Sa kuldseks jää’. An undeniably moving composition which she performed with great emotion. Through my progression in the circles, I was lucky to meet the President himself for a small exchange and later his lovely wife, Evelin. I think I met most of Estonia’s ministers which was enough to make me dizzy with dignitaries. I particularly enjoyed speaking with the Prime Minister Andrus Ansip who was extremely delightful, the Minister for Defence Mart Laar and the Foreign Minister Urmas Paet.
Prominent members of Estonia’s arts worlds were also present. This really was the ‘who’s who’ of Estonian culture. I relished the opportunity of speaking with Kerli after her performance. She couldn’t have been a more sincere individual.
One interaction that was an incredible honour was speaking with the Arvo Pärt. I was in total awe. To add to my delight, he was the most warm-hearted man.
This was one of those evenings where one could relate to the Eliza’s character in ‘My Fair Lady’ when she sang, ‘I could have danced all night’. However there was more to come.
The following evening, a concert had been organised in Tallinn’s famous ‘Laulu Väljak’ for the 20 year celebrations, aptly named ‘Song of Freedom’. Jaanus Rohumaa, programme manager with the Tallinn 2011 foundation and the man behind ‘Song of Freedom’ stated, ’20 years ago our parents and our grandparents stood up and said – Now we take the reins again, because that’s the way it should be. And there were countries back then who were unafraid to support us and unafraid to recognise the restoration of our independence. We know what freedom is now, so we’re saying thank you for that – a generation that’s grown up in a free country’.
Chief organiser of the concert, Helen Sildna, explained further on the content of the show, ‘This year we asked foreign artists to join us in marking this special day, all of them like-minded in their own way. Estonia has long had a place in their hearts and minds, and freedom is something they all hold in very high regard’.
Both Jaanus and Helen agreed that the headline act at ‘Song of Freedom’ was the Estonian people in the audience, representing the most important aspect of the event simply by attending. Artists who shared their stories, songs, thoughts and wishes included Justament, Riho Sibul, Mari Kalkun, Dagö, Vaiko Eplik, Jaak Johanson, Malcolm Lincoln, Iiris, Chalice and Ewert & the Two Dragons. To my surprise and delight, even Sinead O’Connor honoured us with a performance.
Sami revolutionary Mari Boine came to entertain from Norway and much-loved Finnish artist Kimmo Pohjonen, who brought greetings from Tallinn’s sister Capital of Culture, Turku. Kimmo took to the stage not only with his trademark accordion but also with Finnish pro wrestlers and an orchestra. One of the most successful pop/rock bands in Latvia, ‘Brainstorm’ performed and of course Estonia’s favourite daughter and international singing sensation, Kerli.
I have been to numerous concerts in Australia but never have I experienced anything like this. The elation and energy of the audience was something only to be experienced to be believed. A sea of blue, black and white waved through the mass and cheers escalated when President Ilves and Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar gave their addresses. One could feel without doubt the optimism and gratitude of freedom
‘I don’t doubt that all of the musicians taking part in ‘Song of Freedom’ are at their freest when they’re expressing and performing their thoughts and feelings in song,’ said Chalice, a.k.a. Jarek Kasar. ‘Freedom is having the opportunity to do that; true freedom is being able to enjoy it.’
Whilst walking through the crowd, bites of friendly conversations lit up everywhere. You knew that you shared the soul of the people and understood what was occurring.