Merlene Davis: Documentary shows that music can lead a revolution

Herald-Leader columnistMarch 12, 2014 

  • IF YOU GO

    What: The documentary The Singing Revolution, to benefit the Lafayette High School Choir equipment fund.

    When: 7 p.m., March 15.

    Where: Lexington Christian Academy, 450 W. Reynolds Rd.

    Tickets: $10 online at Lafayettechoir.org/sr.html, or by phone at 859-687-6100.

In the summer of 1988, the Soviet Union canceled a scheduled rock concert in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.

The small country in the Baltic region of Northern Europe was first occupied by the Soviet Union in 1939, then by the Nazis and again by the Soviet Union. It had been under outside control for more than half a century. It had no army and no weapons with which to fight the oppression.

By the end of World War II, more than 25 percent of the Estonian population had been deported to Siberia, executed or had fled the country.

Having a concert canceled seemed minor compared to what the Estonians had been through.

But something was changing. Beginning in 1987, the small country had been testing Soviet resolve by singing rock songs that called for independence. So when the concert in Tallinn was stopped in 1988, the crowd walked three miles to a familiar field where festivals were held and began to sing.

For six nights they sang Estonian patriotic songs and waved Estonian flags that had been stored away.

Thus began a peaceful rebellion that would lead to the Republic of Estonia's independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. The rebellion was known as the Singing Revolution.

"It is a really fascinating story," said Ryan Marsh, director of the Lafayette High School Choir. "They have a 150-year-old tradition of gathering every five years on the song festival grounds. The stage is built to accommodate 30,000 singers, and there are another 200,000 people in the audience. It gave them the solidarity to push forward."

That series of protests and the change it brought nonviolently is retold in a 2006 award-winning documentary film called The Singing Revolution.

Filmmakers James and Maureen Castle Tusty, who learned of the revolution while teaching at Estonia University in 1999, began interviewing Estonia leaders and residents in 2001. After four years of filming and editing, they created the documentary. They have made it available to Lafayette as a fundraiser for the choral program, Marsh said. The choral program will get 75 percent of the proceeds from ticket sales.

"We are raising money for the equipment fund," Marsh said. "Our boosters provide a lot, but we don't have enough funding to support the program, so we are building a fund."

One item on his list of needs is a piano, he said. Other items are acoustical shells, or panels that reflect sound toward the audience, and risers and platforms for performances.

The Lafayette choral program has 200 members in its 75th season, Marsh said.

With the Russian occupation of Crimea, an autonomous pro-Russian republic within Ukraine, students can get a better historical perspective on those current events by viewing the film. Russia is again thrusting its might on smaller nearby countries that were once part of the Soviet Union.

To see that threat unfolding now and to realize a small country pushed back through music, is a lesson everyone can appreciate.

Marsh became more familiar with Estonia's story while working on a world music project at the University of Kentucky. His desire to know more led him to get in touch with the Tustys, who offered the partnership to the choral program.

The Singing Revolution will be shown at 7 p.m. March 15 at the Lexington Christian Academy, 450 Reynolds Road. Tickets are $10 and are available online or by phone.

The film allows us to honor another country's courage and resolve against oppressive power, he said. "They literally changed the world."

To reinforce that history, the choir will sing two patriotic Estonian songs as the credits roll.

"Part of what we are called to do as educators is help students understand the connection between music and culture," Marsh said.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: Merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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