The Eurovision Song Contest in Estonia brings lighthearted pop to a country more used to regarding music as a secret weapon to protect its national identity. Natalie Wheen explores how folk tunes sustained the people through centuries of occupation

Of course Estonia won last year's Eurovision Song Contest: it was a mere bagatelle for a nation that toppled the Soviet empire with lungfuls of traditional tunes. They were famous days in 1988 – the Singing Revolution – when hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered together to sing their national songs, banned for decades by the Soviets. What else could Russians do in the face of such compelling harmony but turn tail?

Of course Estonia won last year's Eurovision Song Contest: it was a mere bagatelle for a nation that toppled the Soviet empire with lungfuls of traditional tunes. They were famous days in 1988 – the Singing Revolution – when hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered together to sing their national songs, banned for decades by the Soviets. What else could Russians do in the face of such compelling harmony but turn tail?

In one splendid gathering, there were 100,000 on stage and 300,000 in the audience. It was a huge outpouring of national identity and solidarity at a time when the Soviet Union was a force to be reckoned with. All three Baltic States were caught up in it, and in August 1989 they formed a human chain stretching 600 miles from Estonia's capital, Tallinn, to Vilnius in Lithuania, two million people holding hands and calling for secession. The extraordinary events of 1988 came from an explosion of energy that erupted out of the massive song festivals Estonians hold every five years, when – the joke goes – one half of the country goes to sing and the other half goes to listen. And there are a lot of songs, apparently they've gathered more than 130,000. So far.

This has nothing to do with the nostalgia of cutesy heritage. It's a deadly serious affirmation of cultural identity that has been battered and bulldozed and smothered for the 700 years that the Estonian people have had to exist under someone else's authority – Soviets, Germans, Russians, Swedes, Danes...

Walking through the old part of Tallinn, sitting out in one of the many open air bars in Town Hall Square (Raekoja Plats), you could easily be in any medieval German town. It's the same solid architecture. A feel of safe prosperity built these places. The churches are filled with the badges and emblems of the Hanseatic League, which ran the trade routes across the Baltic, taking over the business from the Teutonic Knights who first conquered the region.

They were obviously efficient at their trade – when the Swedes took over, then the Russians, the Germans were left in place to run the shop whoever became the ultimate overlords. Even after half a century of the Soviets, there's not a hint of Russian scruff about the place – only a German tidiness of well-clipped lawns and arranged flower beds. The only affront to this Teutonic sense of order is the outrageously vulgar 19th-century Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral crowning the top of the old town, essential to visit for its superlative bad taste – the insensitivity to its surroundings is breathtaking.

But whether there's anything you could put your finger on as absolutely Estonian is much more difficult to pinpoint. You certainly get it in the eating and drinking (it's essential to try at least one glass of sweet Vana Tallinn liqueur) and certainly in shopping in Tallinn, particularly in the quality of linen – tablecloths, bed linen and shirts. You could be lucky and chance on a craft market which purports to bring a rural perspective to things – felt hats, smocks and the like, to put the town into its context of a countryside which is still significantly unspoilt forests and lakes.

And it's a countryside which is seething with the ancient myths and magic which weave together the Estonian sense of identity. Those thousands and thousands of folk songs are the Estonians' secret weapon that sustained them through centuries of occupation. When they weren't allowed to read and write in their own language, they kept it going by singing in it – songs where each line is chanted and repeated, the time-honoured way of learning by repetition. And so the great epic stories are handed down the generations: singing your identity.

Singing was also a way to forget your troubles: there's an old Estonian proverb, "A song on your lips heals the sadness in your heart". There are songs to remember the great outrages – one laments the young men who were press-ganged into working for the Russian machine (there wasn't much to choose between Peter the Great or Stalin); songs to undermine the oppressor – "Chant to Iron" exposes the dark secrets "we know what you can do". In knowledge there's strength. A great deal of the songs tell of how the powerless can triumph in the end.

It was electrifying stuff for those people who began to agitate for the National Movement in the 1860s to have newspapers in Estonian, books and theatre and concerts, and to re-discover their song heritage (just as the Finns, Estonians' close cousins, were electrified in the same period by re-discovering the epic poems of the Kalevala). That's when the song festivals started – the great joy of those being that only Estonians could understand what was going on.

So the great irony, with hindsight, was the way the Soviets went in for their indulgent sponsorship of folk art, albeit only in the approved "socialist optimistic" style; how could the apparatchiks have known about the strange magic in the music?

Music in Estonia certainly owes a lot to this huge heritage of folk, and there are some great tunes to explore – look for names like Heino Eller and Eduard Tubin; while the composer Arvo Paart clearly taps into the extraordinary power of human voices, resonating into silence.

And then there's the magical sound world of Veljo Tormis, who concentrates on folklore and folk forms and folk histories (much of it recorded by the superb Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and its conductor Tonu Kaljuste), putting a very contemporary edge on the heritage.

Tormis' work has Estonian choirs cleaning up at singing competitions, but it's miles away from the saccharine sounds of the Eurovision Song Contest. What a strange paradox that so many dispiriting tunes will get aired in the place where music is such a positive, essential part of national identity: there really is a great pride in the Singing Revolution – every Estonian knows the country left the Soviet Union while singing, and that its first success in the European context is in singing too. Maybe, just maybe, the effect of being in Estonia will electrify Eurovision too.

Travellers' Guide

Getting there: Estonian Air (020-7333 0196, www.estonian-air.ee) flies daily except Saturday from Gatwick to Tallinn, leaving at 6pm and arriving at 11pm local time for £231 return. SAS (0845 607 2772, www.scandinavian.net) offers connections from Birmingham, Dublin, Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow via Copenhagen or Stockholm. Finnair (0870 241 4411, www.finnair.co.uk) flies from Heathrow or Manchester via Helsinki for around £250. Or, for a leisurely trip, fly to Helsinki and take a two-hour boat from there.

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