100 years of Estonian song and dance was showcased in Leicester.

The fifth European Estonian Song and Dance festival took place in Leicester over the weekend of 7th – 9th September as part of Estonia’s centenary celebrations and brought together Estonian choirs, singers and dancers from 14 European countries.

The main objectives of the event were to introduce Estonian music and dance to a wider audience in the UK and to celebrate Estonia’s centenary year together with Estonians who live abroad.

Reet Järvik, one of the main organisers of the event, commented that she was deeply moved by the number of people, from near and far, who came to participate or to watch the events. The audience included people from Australia, USA and Canada. She also stressed how awesome it was to be able to showcase Estonian culture to people who had previously had not been aware of the Estonian song and dance tradition.

The theme of the concert was 100 years of Estonian song and dance in Estonia and abroad. The programme took the audience on a journey through time from shortly before Estonia first gained independence 100 years ago to the present day. The songs and dances represented the years from first independence in 1918 to annexation by the Soviet Union in 1944 to the regaining of nationhood in 1991 and, further still, into the new millennium.

As it was not possible for refugee Estonians to return to their homeland after the Second World War, it was imperative to keep alive their song and dance tradition and they organised events in their respective countries – in Europe predominantly in Sweden, Germany and Great Britain. The first joint festivals were held in 1974 and 1978 in Münster, Germany, before coming to De Montfort Hall in Leicester in 1982. The next festival took place in Heidelberg in 1986 after which Estonia regained its independence when returning to Estonia for national and local festivals was made possible for all. Thus the joint European festival floundered.

The Association of Estonians in Great Britain decided that, as part of the Estonia’s centenary celebrations they would revive this festival and invite Estonians from across Europe to take part. This would be the Association’s centenary gift from Estonians in Great Britain to Estonia

The festival began on Friday 7th September in Leicester City Centre’s Jubilee Square where Estonian dance groups and singers could be seen and heard by passers-by. Events continued in the evening at the ‘Y Theatre’ with Estonia’s top band, Curly Strings, and the London based Estonian band ‘ÖÖ’. On Saturday afternoon, the main song and dance festival concert took place at the TheVenue@DMU (De Montfort University) with 150 participating singers and 100 dancers.

As is the custom, the event began with the song ‘Koit’ (Dawn) by Mihkel Lüdig. This was followed by several well- known songs and dances such as “Tuljak” (Wedding Song), “Imeline Laas” (The Wondrous Meadow), “Ärkamise aeg” (The Age of Awakening), “Kaerajaan” (John Barleycorn), “Oige ja Vasemba” (Right and Left) and “Laulge poisid, laulge peiud” (Boys, Girls, Men, Women, Let’s Sing), which made the audience sing along and tap their feet.

The repertoire included a beautiful melody set to the words of Kersti Merilaas’ ‘Rukkilill’ (The Cornflower) by Peter Sheldon, an Estonian who was born and raised in Leicester.

This was followed by 8 year old Greta Gnannt from France singing a song composed by herself ‘Armas Eestimaa’  (Dear Estonia) in which she describes all the things she loves about Estonia including Estonia’s national emblems the cornflower and the swallow. Greta’s performance was very well received by the audience.

The grande finale was the rousing “Leelo” (Song) by Aapo Ilves, but, as always, the choirs, dancers and audience could not leave without singing ‘Ta lendab mesipuu poole’ (Flying homewards) by Juhan Liiv and Peep Sarapik.

The participating choirs were the European Estonians Choir (which has members from 14 European nations), the London Estonian Ladies Chamber Choir, The REE Choir (International Estonian Experimental Choir), The Gothenburg Estonians Mixed Choir, the Siller Choir from Finland and Haaslava Male Voice Choir from Estonia. Folk dance groups included the London National Dancers (Estonian Folks) and IES Tulevik dancers (UK), Laiali Folk Dancers from Luxembourg, The Daughters of the Wind from Holland, the Trondheim Trolls from Norway, the Irises from Ireland, Virvel folk dancers from Stockholm, Turba Tantsupisik and Lepalind dancers from Estonian. Curly Strings also performed two songs and there were a number of talented conductors and musicians from the UK and mainland Europe.

A photo display in the foyer gave an overview of Estonian events which have taken place in England since 1947 when many refugee Estonians arrived. They included photos not only of the generation who originally set up organisations, but also of the next generations born in the UK as well as more recent arrivals from Estonia who have come to study, work and to live in the UK.

Between events, there were many opportunities to visit the Leicester Estonian House which was the main information point for the festival and a place to go for food and drink and to meet up with other festival goers and performers.

The Leicester Estonian House opened its doors in 1960 and is the only Estonian centre of its kind in the Midlands (of England). It is a meeting place for Estonians and their friends and a venue for events including Independence Day, Midsummer’s day, Christmas and other Estonian celebrations.

After some traditional Estonian food and liquid refreshment at the Estonian House, the festival ended with an after-party at the nearby Ukrainian Club with much singing, dancing and socialising until the early hours.

The festival was organised by the IEÜ – Association of Estonians in Great Britain (AEGB)  which was established in 1947. The Associations’ main aim has always been to preserve and promote Estonian culture and the Estonian language outside of Estonia. The AEGB is an umbrella organisation for Estonian organisations in the UK. Its members include the London Estonian Society, The Leicester Estonian House, Eesti Kodu Club Bradford, Nottingham Estonians and IES Tulevik. The Association also maintains strong links with other Estonian organisations throughout the UK such as Estonian schools and the Estonian Lutheran Church.

Katrin Puutsa (Nottingham Estonians), Reet Järvik (Secretary AEGB), Toomas Ojasoo (Chairman AEGB)