Bird droppings from Estonia: Ilmapuu lävel was a joy (6)
Archived Articles 27 Jul 2007 Hilary BirdEWR
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Whilst I was in Tallinn I was able to catch the 10th Youth Song and Dance Festival Ilmapuu lävel, starring 26,000 young singers and 8,000 dancers and a few more thousand helpers. Not to mention the audience - total participation was estimated at nearly 100,000. And it was a joy.

I saw the last half of the dance festival (at a sports stadium) that opened the fest on TV. The final big ensemble was charming. I was wondering what the teenagers lined up in rows and flapping sheets about were doing when out socked the nippers dressed in blue plastic rain capes - a sort of unofficial component of Estonian national dress - and ran underneath the undulating bed linen. When the little ones emerged into the centre of the field they took off their rain capes and revealed yellow cat suits as they formed up into a great big round sun with beams and a chirpy smile. The sun after the rain. Lovely.

The Bird Tours party went to watch the procession walk to the singing grounds next morning. It took the dancers, singers and bands three hours to pass. The song and dance festivals clearly remain as potent a symbol of identity as ever. Crisp national costumes, a row of Sponge Bob Square Pants balloons sporting ethnic caps, silly animal outfits, endless good humour, marching bands, yells of encouragement as the locals pass by (I shouted for both Rakvere and Tartu) and dancing in the streets. Really, there's nothing like a good singsong and knees up on a bright sunny day. There was nothing arch, precocious or sentimental about this gathering - just sheer enjoyment.

The main streets of the capital were closed to traffic as the procession wended its noisy way out of the centre, along the shores of the Baltic Sea to end up at the singing grounds where a roaring crowd greeted the arrival of the gathering of the tribes. Then, a massed choir of 26,000 young singers watched by an audience of 100,000 sang their socks off as the saucer that holds the festival fire at the top of the tall free-standing tower was torched and the flames rose to the sun.

As Bird Tours made its progress north and south through Eesti we saw the Estonia-wide festival totems - three wooden poles tied into a triangle streaming with ribbons and emblematic of the tree of life, or world tree - at Tartu, Jõgeva, Päide, Võru, Rakvere and, of course, in Tallinn. The ilmapuu or arbor mundi, the world tree, in North European (including Slavic) culture, is an oak tree that stands at the centre of the universe; on the top sits an eagle, the bird of paradise, and in its roots lies the demon snake. Two springs flow from the tree - the waters of life and death. Water imparts wisdom and prophesy and near the springs sit three women, the fortune-tellers. One knows the past, the other the future, and the third, the present. They are the Northern version of the Fates. The arbor mundi is seen as a mediator between the world of the living and the dead and the eternal fight between the eagle and the snake represents the cycle of life and death and the turning of the seasons. Death is seen as a temporary state, a sleep, but the defeat of the snake by the eagle-sun in spring releases the water of life and the earth awakens.

The programme quotes a rhyme by Ellen Niit, freely translated by 'Droppings'

One again, I'm the child who heard the thrush,

And heard no other sounds,

My palm grasps the air, my eager eyes flush,

And how my heart pounds, how it pounds!

The sense of solidarity palpable at the song festival was a panacea to the nation after the Metal Man riots of April and the troubled weeks of May.

100% solid gold joy. Elagu Eesti! Long live Estonia!
(For video and sound of the festival go to

For photos go to )
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