By Justin Jalea, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


Jalea_1An important lesson I have learned from my time at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights is that the work of advancing human rights must appeal to every available avenue in seeking justice. In addition to the traditional practices of law and policy, efforts to access the power inherent in cultural practices and traditions must be made in advancing human rights aims. A long history of social action for human rights speaks to this power, as cultural forces such as literature, art and music, have been at the forefront of many of the world’s most pervasive social movements. As an HRSMA student and professional classical musician, I had the opportunity to delve into this robust history and music in preparation for a lecture-concert I recently presented at Fordham University on what has come to be known as the Singing Revolution.

On February 28, my colleague Megan Chartrand and I, along with 14 choral singers, presented the captivating story of Estonia’s struggle for independence from the Soviet Union. In the period between 1988 and 1991, Estonians, in acts of great defiance and solidarity, gathered by the thousands to publicly sing traditional Estonian music, triggering a reawakening of national identity that had long been suppressed. Songs of love and longing for a homeland lost but not forgotten filled public spaces, and became the means by which Estonians launched and sustained a revolution.

Jelea_2The lecture-concert sought to not only retell this story, but attempted to convey the experiences of those who participated in it by performing the music of the revolution. Music, in particular song, is a strong component of Estonian culture. Despite their relatively small population, they have one of the largest national folk song repertoires in the world. Their first National Song Festival – translated as “Laulupidu” – was celebrated in 1869. The enormous success of that first festival spurred the creation of choirs throughout the country and the composition of a legacy of choral music. A national celebration of culture and community, Laulupidu has grown into a veritable phenomenon. 30,000 singers and nearly 300,000 audience members gather every five years in Tallinn to celebrate their cultural heritage. The grandeur of Laulupidu cannot adequately be described in words, but this video clip of Koit (meaning “dawn”) might fair a bit better. Our choir performed this piece, along with others, as a representation of the Laulupidu experience of both celebrating national identity, as well as honouring the memory of past struggles for freedom.

For those who lived through the occupation, not only were their basic rights and freedoms curtailed, but they witnessed their national heritage hijacked to serve the purposes of the occupying regime. Recognizing the power of song and the cultural significance music carried for Estonians, the Soviet Union commandeered Estonia’s national music to serve its own purposes. Lyrics were changed to exalt Leningrad and Moscow instead of Estonia; traditional Estonian folk melodies were set to words that glorified Lenin and Stalin; and any reference to Estonian culture was obliterated from the musical repertoire.

Jelea_3We managed to get a hold of, and perform, some such music from the 1965 Laulupidu – an image of which you can see below. We were told by Estonians who lived through the occupation, and who were in attendance at the lecture-concert, that hearing these propaganda songs, to this day, conjures visceral feelings of suppression and control. The extent to which such music undermined the national identity of Estonians is undeniable; however, powerful though it was, Soviet propaganda music could not compete with the latent cultural strength contained within true Estonian music.

Through research this past December at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., I was able to uncover video footage from a 1998 delegation of Baltic citizens to the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which captured them sharing the story of their struggle for independence. There was little dialogue. The delegates told their story through song. The Estonian delegation in particular had with them the very flag that was made in secret in 1988 in Estonia, and then brought to an independence rally in Red Square in Moscow that same year. The footage shows them flying the flag proudly, while remarking that it was the collective acts of singing that gave them the strength to pursue the rights that had for so long been denied to them. They concluded their presentation by singing Estonia’s unofficial national anthem “Mu Isaama on minu arm” – ‘my Fatherland is my love.’


It was through listening to Estonians convey past hopes for the now realized dream of an independent Estonia that the power of song in the pursuit of rights started to become apparent to me. The solidarity they derived from singing the songs that led to their freedom were obviously still meaningful and seemed to connect them to fellow Estonians, past and present.

As a choir we experienced this same sense of solidarity. Singing songs like “Mu Isaama on minu arm” easily imbued us with a sense of hope for a free Estonia. So too, imagining having to sing a song under duress that extolled Lenin, whose melody once, but no longer, exemplified your country’s values, was emotionally burdensome. Without a doubt, these experiences brought us closer to the Estonian people and made us appreciate their struggles for independence. But most remarkably, singing brought us closer together, not as Estonians – none of us were – or even as musicians or rights activists, but as individuals who increasingly empathized with a people and their plight.

Jelea_6It is here that the force of music in the pursuit of rights can be found. Music’s power lies not in the advancement of arguments that can be assessed analytically. Rather, its power is found in its ability to create visceral aesthetic experiences whose outcomes produce effects such as increased empathy. Moreover, music is known to build collective identity, unify and direct individuals towards a common cause, spark individual and group expression, create community, and ultimately change hearts and minds. These are goals that human rights practitioners are constantly striving towards. Because of this project I am more inclined than ever to believe that special attention ought to be paid to the strength of music and other cultural forms of expression as a resource in the pursuit of rights. I owe this realization to the music of the Singing Revolution and the aesthetic experiences that it produced in me, and my enduring hope is to continue seeking ways to elicit such experiences in others for the purposes of promoting human rights.

Justin Jalea is an M.A. candidate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. His research focuses on the intersection of religion, music, and social movements in the realization of rights.

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