Finding the True Power of Music at the Site of the Most Important Concert Ever

The Podcasting Store
3 min readMar 30


by Drew Holmes

I was in Tallinn, capitol city of Estonia, and had happened upon something in my Lonely Planet Guide that demanded further exploration. The walk was about 5 kilometers, but I knew it would be worth the effort. Leaving the apartment on Pikk, just across the street from St. Olav’s Church, I wended my way through the maze of medieval cobblestone streets toward the gate.

This part of the city was ancient, dating well before the 1300’s when St. Olav’s was the tallest building in the world. Having spent the past week exploring this part of town I was headed for something from the 20th century — a monument to the true power of music.

I exited Old Town Tallinn onto Narva and was instantly transported 700 years into the future. Cars filled the street and fast-food restaurants were plentiful. The juxtaposition of crumbling Soviet concrete structures built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the sturdy stone edifices that had stood for centuries was a fitting metaphor for where I was going — The Tallinn Song Festival Grounds.

Approaching my destination, I saw what appeared to be an enormous park, well maintained with large paths separating the lawn into orderly rectangles. On the northwest end of the lawn stood what I had come to see — The Tallinn Song Bowl. An immense curved structure, this outdoor concert venue is famed for featuring Elton John, Depeche Mode, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Despite having no globally famous headliners, in September of 1988 it hosted arguably the most important concert ever.

In May 1940, the Baltic Countries (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) were occupied by Stalinist Soviets and formally annexed shortly thereafter. Later occupied by Nazi Germany during World War II, they were “liberated” back into Soviet control following the conflict.

The next 50 years saw authoritarian rule from Moscow. Flying the blue, black, and white Estonia flag was illegal and the spire of St. Olav’s was used as a KGB radio tower and surveillance point. Concerns over the influx of ethnic Russian immigrants abounded and native Estonians were fearful of losing their national identity.

In the 1980’s, the war in Afghanistan, nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, and plans for large scale phosphate mining in Estonia created a political powder keg that was ready to explode. The opening for action came with Mikhail Gorbechev’s policy of Glastnost, which rescinded limitations on political freedoms within the USSR.

Estonia has a deep-rooted love of singing. Featuring choirs numbering 15,000 members, the All-Estonian Song Festival has been held at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds since 1928. During the Soviet era, pro-Estonian songs were banned, but in 1947 composer Gustav Ernesaks somehow slipped his setting of the poem “Mu Isamaa On Minu Arm” (My Country Is My Love) past the censors. This song was featured in future programs and became an unofficial national anthem and protest song for Estonians.

All of this came to a head in September of 1988, when 300,000 people packed the Song Festival Grounds to sing previously outlawed patriotic songs and demand independence from Soviet rule. This was part of what is now known as The Singing Revolution, a series of events over four years which culminated in the Baltic states asserting their independence from the USSR. In 1991 this bloodless revolution formally freed Estonia from the Soviet Union and the blue, black, and white freely flew over Tallinn once again.

With no one else in sight, I approached the massive, curved structure and climbed the risers to the very top. I imagined being there that day in September with overflowing emotions as 300,000 people (nearly a quarter of all Estonians) crowded grounds designed to accommodate half that number and with one voice declared they were free. I marveled at the bravery in standing up to a totalitarian regime and was in awe at their choice of weapon — music.

Music has powers beyond description. It can bind us together in ways nothing else can and it can unite a nation in asserting its independence from oppression. Music allowed Estonia to nonviolently gain their freedom and reclaim not only their ancient traditions but also their modern cultural identity. Standing at the top of the Tallinn Song Bowl I understood the true power of music to change the world.



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