Central & Eastern Europe / History / Music / Popular Culture

(Come on Baby) Light my Choir

Traditional choral festivals provided a natural focus for the so-called Singing Revolution, which swept across the Baltic States in 1987-1990. However the role played by rock and roll in this upsurge of popular feeling is often overlooked.

Rock concert at Ogre, Latvia 1986. Still from Juris Podniek’s film Is it Easy to be Young (1987)

While the revolution may have marched off into the collective memory dressed in embroidered blouses and lacy bonnets, it actually arrived on the historical stage wearing tight trousers, black leather jackets and big hair.

It is 28 years since the Estonian artists and activist Heinz Valk first used the phrase ‘Singing Revolution’ to describe the wave of patriotic gatherings then sweeping his country.

It was a description that quickly caught on. And as far as international usage is concerned, it remains the accepted term for the citizen’s revolt that swept through the Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the late Eighties. Leading directly to the break up of the Soviet Union, it was one of the most far-reaching revolutions of the modern epoch, a revolution all the more remarkable for having been almost totally peaceful.

Of all the things that happened during the Singing Revolution, however, the singing is the bit that is least well remembered. Historians of the period – both in the Baltic States and beyond - have largely concentrated on the hard-headed narrative of committees, proclamations and protest meetings. The question of who sung what and when has largely been relegated to the footnotes.

Indeed the musical background to the Singing Revolution is often treated as if it was an extension of the mass folk-choir festivals that had been part of the Baltic tradition since the nineteenth century. While this is partially true, many of the songs that were sung in the summer of 1988 owe much more to the world of rock and pop than to any folk tradition.

While the revolution may well have marched off into the collective memory dressed in embroidered blouses and lacy bonnets, it actually arrived on the historical stage wearing tight trousers, black leather jackets and big hair.

Propeller heads

Occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940 (and reoccupied after a short but violent period of Nazi German rule), the Baltic States were kept on a light leash by a regime keen to suffocate any signs of political, cultural or intellectual independence. It wasn’t until Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of Glasnost took shape in the second half of the 1980s that open criticism of the Soviet system became possible. In August 1987, small demonstrations marking the anniversary of 1939’s Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (the Nazi-Soviet treaty that paved the way for Moscow’s occupation of the Baltic States) took place in Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius. By 1988, criticism of the state was becoming more widespread. Crucial to the growth of anti-Soviet activism were the large open-air music festivals (long a feature of Baltic life and one of the few arenas in which patriotic feeling had been tolerated), which provided the ideal opportunity for people to gather in large numbers.

There was also an undercurrent of a different kind of subversion. In September 1980 an Estonian band called Propeller – art rockers with punkish leanings – were scheduled to give an open-air concert following a friendly football match between teams representing Estonian TV and Radio. The concert was called off at the last minute, the police alleging ‘nationalistic elements’ in the band’s lyrics. The crowd left the stadium in ugly mood before being dispersed with batons. It led to a week of demonstrations and riots, with high school students in Tallinn and Tartu protesting against police brutality but also calling for improved school conditions and – in some cases – waving Estonian flags. Some students were threatened with court proceedings and parents were called in to special disciplinary meetings. Forty Estonian intellectuals wrote an open letter of complaint about the crackdown, arguing that decades of discrimination against Estonian language and culture had created a fractured society. Propeller themselves banned from performing. According to an apocryphal story the group was summoned to the Ministry of Culture to explain themselves. When asked what lay behind the name Propeller, they answered “air”.

Indigenous-language pop music flourished in the Baltic States because it was one of the few areas of life (poetry and folklore were two others) that seemed immune to the programme of Russification favoured by the colonial authorities in Moscow. Which explains why a cancelled concert by art-punks could lead to a week of serious social unrest. The Propeller case was a sign of things to come.

Many Estonian music fans made an annual pilgrimage to the Tartu Pop Music Days, a three-day festival that brought Estonia’s best rock bands to the country’s second city. First held in 1979, the event attracted an increasingly independent-minded following as the years progressed.

No Land is Alone

A university scientist who was subsequently to serve as Estonian ambassador to Latvia and Sweden, Toomas Tiivel was a student rock DJ (he was probably the only person in Estonia to own a vinyl copy of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid) and a Tartu Pop Music Days regular. “Tartu was simply the kind of place where that kind of festival could be held” Tiivel says. “It was smaller than Tallinn, and it was a university town. The groups who performed at Tartu were usually a bit intellectual, and also a little bit political. The security forces were of course present. The organizers just ignored them. It was understood that there was a game going on, and the organizers wanted to push the boundaries of what was allowed.”

One frequent Tartu performer was Alo Mattiisen (1961-1996), a classically trained musician who had taken over the leadership of progressive rock band In Spe following the departure of Erkki Sven Tüür – Tüür is now a highly regarded composer of contemporary classical music. Mattiisen took the group in an avant-jazz-rock direction: pieces like 1985’s Typewriter Concerto in D1 Allegro Vivace betrayed few signs that he would be penning patriotic pop anthems two years later.

Alo Mattiisen

The social circle in which both Mattiisen and Tiivel moved during the Eighties involved an unorthodox mix of bohemian artists and serious anti-Soviet activists - one of their best mutual friends was future prime minister Mart Laar. “I think I first met Mattiisen in the Kuku club” Tiivel remembers, “the legendary café in the basement of the Artists’ House, where intellectuals, writers, musicians and actors hung out. Of course there were KGB people too, most of whom were known to the rest of us.” In Tiivel’s opinion, it was this milieu that transformed Mattiisen from prog-rock musician to socially-engaged songsmith.

Plans to build new phosphorite mines in northeastern Estonia was one of the issues that drew anti-establishment figures together in 1987. Mattiisen asked poet and school-friend Jüri Leesment to write some lyrics for an environmental protest song. Leesment came up with something much more poetic; a roll call of Estonia’s regions, their beauty described in almost mystical terms. Mattiisen and Leesment’s Ei ole üksi üksi maa (No Land is Alone), was first aired at the Tartu Pop Music Days in May 1987. The overwhelming public response to the song encouraged Mattiisen and Leesment to write some more. The resulting Five Patriotic Songs were performed in Tartu the following year.

The Tartu Pop Music Days of May 1988 took place in a much more highly charged atmosphere than before. During a meeting in front of Tartu town hall on May 1 Jüri Leesment somehow found himself on stage and blurted out a call for outright Estonian independence. Mattiisen was horrified, fearing that their songs would now be dropped from the festival programme. He was wrong, and within days everyone in Estonia knew the tunes.

Nowadays Mattiisen’s compositions sound calculating and over-worked, rather like charity records or Eurovision Song Contest entries. However it would be a mistake to underestimate the feelings they generated at the time. Mattiisen’s aim was to formulate one-nation power ballads that would induce complete strangers to join hands and sing along. And in this he succeeded.

Krista Mits, a translator from English to Estonian and also course director of Tallinn University’s creative writing summer schools, went to the Tartu Music Days in 1988, motivated by a desire to see headlining rock band Ultima Thule. It soon became clear that there was more going on in Tartu than music. “I was sitting near the front and looked back to see Estonian flags borne by Tartu students. It provoked a sudden sense of elation, freedom, a removal of the feeling of dread.”

The Estonian colours of blue, black and white were once again in evidence during the Tallinn Old Town Days in June 1988, when many of the songs played at Tartu were reprised. Running parallel to the Old Town Days was the so-called Night Song Festival, a semi-organized, semi-spontaneous affair that involved crowds of people heading off to the Song Grounds (the open-air auditorium built to accommodate the national song festival) to carry on singing after the Old-Town programme had ended.

It was the night singing in Tallinn that inspired Valk to coin his immortal phrase, in an article written (such are the ironies of history) for a cultural weekly entitled Sirp ja Vasar or Hammer and Sickle. The periodical still thrives, albeit under the abbreviated title of Sickle. According to Toomas Tiivel, “Valk had a talent for coming out with phrases that nobody ever forgot. Others in the independence movement were responsible for ideology, but Valk was the man who had the voice.”

Pushing Away

Throughout the summer of 1988, Tallinn just kept on singing. Krista Mits remembers attending sessions at the Old Town Music House (a cultural centre with a strong commitment to folk traditions), where people would play music through the night. “People of all ages were there, there was always this kind of very special feeling.” One of the principal luminaries of the Music House scene was Jaak Johanson, whose song Pushing Away (in which Estonia becomes and island, drifts off through the Baltic and into the open seas) was another of those songs that everyone in Estonia seemed to suddenly know by heart. Johanson is still based at the Old Town Music House, where he is leader of the folklore programme. “We never actually recorded Pushing Away at the time, but it somehow became very popular very quickly. A lot of people think it’s a traditional song but it’s not, which of course makes me very proud!”

Although Johanson grew up listening to the imported Led Zeppelin albums obtained by an older cousin, it was the subsequent discovery of Estonian folk that provided him with the rebel thrill he was looking for. “I realized that this old Estonian music had the same kind of energy and authenticity that the Rolling Stones found when they reached back to the Blues.”

Starting in 1987, Johanson spent the Singing-Revolution years as a leading member of the Pirgu theatre group, who carried out what he calls “emotional research”, collecting stories and experiences from rural communities. “We travelled around the whole of Estonia collecting songbooks, diaries, letters, memories, and we created performances out of them – which in turn encouraged people to tell us more.”

Johanson’s work during the Pirgu period uncovered songs that had been a popular part of the rural repertoire in the Twenties and Thirties, but which had disappeared during the Soviet occupation. “The main Singing Revolution for me was in these evenings, when these old villagers would come together with their grandchildren. We would sing a song thinking ‘this is only a song’, and then pick up its emotional content from the reaction of the audience, which would come back at us like a wave. Many people just listened and cried, the songs brought their lives back.”

To My People

Although the Singing Revolution proceeded almost in sync throughout the Baltic States, there wasn’t initially any degree of coordination between activists in all three countries – more a general feeling that things were moving in the same direction. In Latvia, local-language popular music had long served as a form of symbolic resistance to Soviet power, and it is no surprise that its role became even more important during the late Eighties.

Of all the songs that defined the Singing Revolution in Latvia, few had the galvanizing impact of Manai Tautai (To My People), a Baez-like piece of acoustic-folk activism performed by singer Ieva Akurātere. The song’s main refrain - God Help the Latvian People, To Lay Dow Our Roots in the Earth of a Free Latvia – would have earned its singer a prison sentence in the pre-Glasnost Soviet Union. People who heard these words in the summer of 1988 were stunned, moved to tears, or simply stood up and joined the revolution.

The Singing Revolution was not just something that started suddenly in 1988 – for most Baltic musicians it had been a state of mind for years.

Akurātere remains an elegant, active, and widely admired figure on the Latvian cultural scene, as well as serving as a right-of-centre deputy on Rīga City Council. “I learned this underground song at a hippy wedding”, she now recalls. “At the reception, people played records they had received from friends in Los Angeles. One of them was an album by the Latvian-American Ritmanis Family, and it included To My People.”

Akurātere was no stranger to the political power of pop music, and her biography is well worth recounting: not least because it reveals how the Singing Revolution was not just something that happened suddenly in 1988 – for most Baltic musicians it had been a state of mind for years.

Latvian group Pērkons playing at Ogre, 1986

“My mother was a drama specialist in the Academy of Arts and Sciences, and people at the Academy had much broader access to western music than ordinary people. As teenagers we sat at home listening to Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath and King Crimson at full volume. I was just a sponge sucking up all this rock music. And it seemed to carry humane ideas within it, however aggressive the music might have sounded at first”.

Akurātere went on to study drama and music in the coastal city of Liepāja, a place that was famous for its non-conformist atmosphere. Significantly it was the home base of composer Imants Kalniņš, a master of the well-crafted pop song who bestowed Latvian popular music with hitherto unknown breadth. Kalniņš frequently set his music to words by contemporary poets, and it’s thanks to him that the metaphorical, subtly anti-Soviet nature of Latvian poetry became an integral part of the Latvian pop world too.

Four White Shirts

Kalniņš wrote the music for namesake Rolands Kalniņš’s 1967 film Četri Balti Krekli (“Four White Shirts”), in which a local Latvian beat group face problems from the government censor – who fears that their (harmless-sounding) songs are examples of western decadence. The real-life censors in Moscow felt that they were being ridiculed by the film, which was shelved for twenty years as a result. Despite the ban, the film’s songs were adopted immediately by the Latvian public, with the “white shirts” of the title track perceived to be a metaphor for Latvian cultural purity.

“Whatever Kalniņš did, people assumed it had a higher meaning that the censor couldn’t fathom” says Ilze Knoka, former director of the Latvian Literature and Music Museum. Kalniņš’s 1970 pop composition Dūdieviņš (“Ringed Plover”) was written to a poem by Vizma Belševica (1931-2005), a notoriously anti-establishment poet who was considered persona non grata by the Soviet authorities. “In a culture in which people were accustomed to reading between the lines, people were convinced that Dūdieviņš contained a political message. Even though it really might have just been a beautiful poem about a bird”

Kalniņš played godfather to a generation of subversive musicians including Pērkons (“Thunder”), a massively popular rock band formed in 1981 that featured Ieva Akurātere on vocals. Driving spirit behind Pērkons was keyboard player Juris Kulakovs, another classically-trained musician who grew his hair long and spent all his parents’ money on amplifiers.

Ride a White Swan

Kulakovs collaborated with poet Māris Melgalvs to produce songs like Balāde par gulbi (The Ballad of the Swan), a morbid tale of dying birds that was widely interpreted as a reference to the near-death status of the Soviet leadership.

“What’s special about Pērkons is the fact that they showed deep respect for Latvian folklore and at the same time no respect” explains Ilze Knoka. “They were a rock and roll band in extravagant costumes, screaming their songs rather than singing them properly, they were very over the top by Latvian standards. Their songs didn’t have to carry a political message, they were simply not considered to be normal”.

Now an elder statesman of Latvian pop as well as a respected orchestral composer, Juris Kulakovs still likes to play the bohemian. He talks to me in a flat so crammed with musical instruments, unwashed cups and scribbled scores that it’s impossible to find any furniture. While he’s happy to fill me in about the group’s past, he’s equally eager to tell me about the kilt he decided to wear at the previous evening’s Latvian Music Awards. A ceremony he didn’t get home from until breakfast time. “I offered to show people what was underneath it but nobody took me up on it”.

Pērkons were first banned in 1983, after a series of concerts at the Railway Workers’ House of Culture. “We were supposed to be playing six concerts over three days” Kulakovs remembers. “All were sold out, but the last two were cancelled due to rowdy audience behavior. At the last shows there were members of the militia in every row. The House’s director, a Russian communist woman, had called the transport police to help her keep order and they told her that concert security was not their responsibility. She then called the city militia and was told the same thing. Finally she called the communist party – and all the militias came at once. Every punk, everyone who looked suspicious, was taken away.”

Undeterred, Pērkons recorded two albums in Ieva Akurātere’s mother’s flat. “Nowadays it’s the normal thing to set up a home studio” says Akurātere. “Back then it was unimaginable. One of the rooms was a guitar studio, another the drum studio, another was reserved for the mixing desk, and one room was left for my mum”. Distributed unofficially by tape, the albums spread like wildfire. “In other circumstances we would have been millionaires”, laments Kulakovs.

Returning to live performance (not under their own name but as the official group of the ‘Soviet Latvia’ collective farm), Pērkons played a huge outdoor concert at Ogre in summer 1985. Scenes of the concert form the opening sequences of Juris Podnieks celebrated 1986 documentary film Is it Easy to be Young? Podniek’s camera doesn’t focus on the band, but on the wild, uninhibited dancing of the teenage audience. After the concert, over-excited fans smashed up a train on the way back to Rīga. Pērkons were banned again, and stiff sentences were handed out to the perpetrators.

Latvian Popular Front demonstration in Riga’s song festival grounds, October 1988 © Gunars Janaitis

Akurātere continued to perform as a solo singer. It was her first husband, the dissident activist Sergejs Akuraters, who prompted the first ever public airing of To My People. It took place in 1986 at the Bildes (“Pictures”) festival in Rīga’s Anglican Church – which at that time served as a student cultural centre. “The concert took place quite soon after the Chernobyl disaster and there was a rumour that dissidents would be sent there to clean up. Sergejs was sitting in the front row, ashen-faced, and he asked me to sing something against the system. It wasn’t until I reached the second verse of To My People that I realized it was the most anti-establishment song I could have possibly chosen.“

The most famous performance of To My People came in August 1988 at Liepāja Amber, a pop-rock festival founded in 1964. Akurātere was not on the official programme, but some film-crew friends had arranged for her to deliver a short address, knowing full well that she would probably end up singing a song. “The main idea was that the microphones would be turned on, the cameras would be rolling, and it would be impossible to shut me up” she says.

“When I sang it for the first time the public was basically in shock. Then in the VIP section an older lady in a bright red dress stood up and looked towards the stage with eyes full of hope and courage, and that was the moment I started crying. After she stood up, it was like a dam breaking, everybody started applauding. I ended up singing the song three times; by the third time fathers were standing up with children on their shoulders.”

The barricades

”It was a sea of people, and you felt as if you were just a drop in the sea. This was the point at which we suddenly felt as if we were in the middle of a revolution.”

Back in Tallinn, it was at the Song of Estonia festival, organized by the Popular Front in September 1988, that the marriage of music and politics was fully consummated. It was here that the traditional Baltic folk festival – complete with its choirs, costumes and community singing – became a mass pro-independence rally. Trivimi Velliste, chairman of the Estonian Heritage Society, used the occasion to make the first public call for Estonian independence. And the former lead singer of Ultima Thule Tõnis Mägi premiered his song Kõit (The Dawn), a swelling patriotic marching tune that was equal to anything that Mattiisen had written in terms of emotional impact. Even today, Kõit, is the song that most frequently tops the best-Estonian-song-of-all-time polls.

According to Krista Mits, “the September gathering was a very deep moment. People went to the Song Grounds, not just from Tallinn but from all over the country, people say there were as many as 300,000 there. It was a sea of people, and you felt as if you were just a drop in the sea. This was the point at which we suddenly felt as if we were in the middle of a revolution.”

In October it was Rīga’s turn, with a 100,000-strong rally in support of the newly-formed Popular Front filling the Latvian National Song Grounds. Akurātere was on hand to perform To My People. “We still hadn’t got round to recording the song” she recalls, “but somehow everybody knew it by heart already. It was overwhelming to hear the massed choirs behind me singing along to a song that had not actually been released”.

Barricades, Rīga, January 1991 © Gunars Janaitis

These patriotic pop-rock anthems arguably became less important to the Singing Revolution after the autumn of 1988, and the practical politics of rallies and resolutions took over. However it’s hard to imagine many of the mass events that followed without the emotional unity that the music provided. Most significant of these was the so-called Baltic Way of August 1989,when several hundred thousand people formed a human chain stretching from Tallinn to Vilnius to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Similar levels of mass participation were seen in January 1991, when people in both Vilnius and Riga manned barricades to defend central institutions from Soviet tanks.

Pērkons’s presence at the Rīga barricades is something of which Juris Kulakovs remains table-thumpingly proud: “We are the most decorated Latvian band! All of us have medals for being veterans of the barricades, and two of us hold the Order of Three Stars, the highest honour that a citizen can receive!”

Estonia’s Alo Mattiisen became very famous as a result of his role in the Singing Revolution, but was dead by the age of 35. “Very often he was drunk, he lived a very intensive life, he just burned out” his friend Toomas Tiivel explains. “In the beginning, I remember him as tall and good looking, but he became heavier and heavier as time went on. To be honest he had a bohemian lifestyle before I met him, it probably had something to do with coming from a provincial town to the world of the Tallinn conservatoire, and becoming the centre of attention as a talented person”.

The Baltic Way, August 1989 © Uldis Briedis

At the end of my Tallinn conversation with Toomas Tiivel he adds as an afterthought (and my recorder is switched off by this time so I hope I am paraphrasing him correctly) that the people who are in the thick of revolutions don’t always profit from its aftermath. It may be the artists and poets who enjoy the anarchy of changing times, but it’s the career-minded and the organizationally competent who build the society that follows.

And, one might add, end up writing the history. Which is why it will always be the ministerial candidates, rather than the minstrels, who make the biggest impression on the historical record.

© Jonathan Bousfield

An earlier version of this article appeared in New Eastern Europe.