Dario MARTINELLI | The Singing Revolution, One of the (Unfortunately) Best-Kept Secrets of Lithuania

‘Singing Revolution’ is a conventional name for a series of events (often, but not only, related to music) occurring between 1987 and 1991, during (and most of all as a support of) the independence movements in the Soviet Republics of the Baltic area: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The term was coined by the Estonian activist and artist Heinz Valk, who employed this expression for the first time while commenting on the spontaneous mass singing of Estonian traditional songs during the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds, an event that took place in 1988. By extension, this expression is sometimes used to identify the whole independence movement of the Baltic States: however, in this article it shall be used in its most immediate connection with music. That is not only due to the obvious association we get when thinking about a ‘singing’ revolution: the fact is, music became during those years the most prominent expressive vehicle for conveying independentist and nationalist messages, in at least three ways: 1) specific new music was written with a distinctively (or metaphorically) political significance; 2) traditional national music was sung and performed for the sole fact of being ‘national’ (as opposed to ‘Soviet,’ or ‘Russian’), regardless of its contents; 3) forbidden music, no matter what, was sung and performed as an intrinsic act of insubordination (e.g., rock genres, so despised by Soviet authorities).

Although – and the name itself suggests it – the Singing Revolution was mostly a phenomenon occurring within folk and popular music, it would be a mistake to underrate the role played by art music and composers, who in fact may have anticipated the phenomenon (at least in spirit), or simply joined it on a few occasions. One may think at least of Bronius Kutavičius’ work with the poet Sigitas Geda (in particular: the operas Kaulo senis ant geležinio kalno (Old Man Bones on the Iron Mountain, 1976) and Strazdas – žalias paukštis (Thrush, the Green Bird, 1980)) and the cycle of four oratorios (Panteistinė oratorija (Pantheistic Oratorio, 1970), Paskutinės pagonių apeigos (Last Pagan Rites, 1978), Iš jotvingių akmens (From the Yotvingian Stone, 1983) – all  three employing national folk poetry – and Pasaulio medis (The Tree of the World, 1986)); Algirdas Martinaitis’ works Cantus ad futurum (1982), Gyvojo vandens klavyras (Clavier of the Life-Giving Water, 1983) and Sakmė apie šūdvabalį (The Tale about the Dung-Beetle, 1990); and Feliksas Bajoras’ works, in particular the opera Dievo avinėlis (Lamb of God, 1982), and the oratorio Varpo kėlimas (The Bell Raising, 1986). But, really, the list is quite long.

In art music, too, it is reasonable to suggest that genres themselves were used as a metaphor of protest. It should not be surprising, indeed, that so many oratorios (that is, works with religious contents) were appearing in the composers’ output. To be religious, as we know, was in itself a condition not appreciated by the Soviet authorities.

Back to the Singing Revolution in the strict sense, it must be emphasized that the phenomenon did not take a coherent shape across the three Baltic states, and that possibly adds to the charm of it: there was no specific agreement among the three countries, but rather times were mature for a phenomenon like this to emerge spontaneously in more than one place with a similar cultural background and political condition. Nevertheless, a few events (directly or indirectly related with the Singing Revolution) were organized as a common action. Certainly, the so-called Baltic Way, or Baltic Chain (another event that would deserve a clipart, to my mind), occupies a special position, here: a chain of about two million people holding hands for 675.5 km uninterruptedly from Vilnius to Tallinn, during August 23, 1989, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

The Lithuanian part of the Singing Revolution revolved around the so-called Sąjūdis (‘movement’), a group of 35 intellectuals and artists established in 1988 to support the perestroika and glasnost processes. Conceived as a way to modernize the USSR and soften its policies, perestroika had for many Soviet countries the effect of re-awakening the national consciousness, and became an (if not the) actual catalyst for the various independence movements throughout the Union. Indeed, after the initial support of perestroika and glasnost, Sąjūdis soon replaced its action with specific claims on national independence (restoring the centrality of the Lithuanian language, conducting campaigns of environmental protection, revealing facts and documents about Stalinism, disclosing the secret protocols of the Nazi-Soviet pact, etc.). In the turning of a few months, Sąjūdis had become the locomotive of the independence movement in Lithuania.

What is very interesting is that, in all this process, music was an exceptionally central force. Like the other Baltic states, Lithuania had manifestations of spontaneous singing of old national songs, and composing new (even more pinpointed) ones. In addition to that, specific events, such as the so-called Rock March, were organized. Organized three years in a row, from 1987 to 1989 (and then in the mid 1990s, after the independence), the Rock March was a travelling show around the main cities of Lithuania, with different pop bands performing. As mentioned above, one main point was not just the performance of ‘protest’ or ‘national’ songs (or anyway songs whose themes may have been unwelcome by Soviet authorities): it was the idea itself of performing ‘forbidden (that is, typically western) genres’ to be used as a vehicle of protest. On the stages of the Rock March, Lithuanian audiences could be exposed to heavy metal (through the band Katedra), punk (through the band Bix), straight rock (through the band Foje, which included the raising star and by now ‘spiritual leader’ of modern Lithuanian rock, Andrius Mamontovas), not to mention the very peculiar case of Antis (on which I shall return in few lines). Bands from Latvia and Estonia would also appear, and that – too – was a sign: the three Baltic states were ‘together’ in this enterprise.

The uniqueness of music, within the Lithuanian Sąjūdis, becomes even more evident when we consider that its acknowledged leader, and first president of the independent Lithuania, was Prof. Vytautas Landsbergis, a pianist and musicologist, and member of that other well-kept Lithuanian secret, the artistic movement Fluxus (born in America, and usually known because of Yoko Ono’s and John Lennon’s involvement, but as a matter of fact founded and animated by Lithuanian artists such as Jurgis ‘George’ Mačiūnas and Jonas Mekas). Landsbergis in those days was undoubtedly the most active and representative figure of the independence movement. One should not underrate his strong interest (in both performance and musicological research) for Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, himself a symbol of Lithuanian patriotism.

The list of Sąjūdis members involved in music does not end with Landsbergis: there were the composer Julius Juzeliūnas, the opera singer Vaclovas Daunoras, and most of all Algirdas Kaušpėdas, an architect who became a singer, author and leader of the very influential band Antis. A true opinion leader, Kaušpėdas was behind four important stages of the Singing Revolution:

1) He was a co-founder of Sąjūdis, and one of its most proactive members;
2) He was instrumental in helping the resurrection of pre-Soviet Lithuanian tunes (including the national anthem, which is the one currently used), by touring Lithuania and literally asking local inhabitants (particularly elderly people) to sing them (there is a very nice sequence from Giedrė Žickytė’s documentary How We Played Revolution, which portrays him in this particular activity);
3) He co-organized and headlined the Rock March event (1987–1989); and finally
4) He was the leader of this particular band, Antis.

Born almost as a joke, during a Christmas party, Antis became an underground (and, later, not-so-underground) musical phenomenon that provided the independence movement with several of the most effective original compositions. An embodiment of post-modernism in music, Antis managed to build a powerful anti-Soviet farce through songs abounding in metaphors, allusions, double senses, parody and satire, all packaged in a very theatrical outfit, dominated by masks and costumes (themselves a metaphor of the Soviet people, forced to ‘appear’ socially in a certain way, and having totally different needs and aspirations privately). The name itself, Antis, is a double-entendre. The word, in Lithuanian, means both ‘duck’ and ‘media scandal.’ So, officially the band was called ‘Duck,’ but everybody knew that the real name referred to freedom of speech, censorship and media manipulation. Also, when directly addressed on the contents of their music (for instance, by the hosts of some Soviet musical programme), the band would wear their ‘mask’ and deliver answers such as that they were perfectly fine as every Soviet person should be. Once again: people would get the joke, and enjoy that sarcastic frontal attack to the authorities, gaining increasing confidence that independence was not anymore a utopia.  

During the years of the Singing Revolution, Antis produced four albums, and nearly every song in them referred to some aspect of Soviet oppression and ‘life.’ When independence finally occurred, Antis felt they had accomplished their mission, and amicably disbanded. Except that the demand for their music was so high (coupled with a desire, from many people’s side, to keep the memory of those feelings and values alive), that the band first reunited shortly on two isolated occasions (in 1996 and 2003), and finally, in 2007, became a fully-operative band again, still remaining active as these lines are written (in fact, a new album was recently released).

There is a flipside to the coin, however. There is a high chance that these lines will be read by a foreign visitor, willing to learn more about Lithuania and Lithuanian music. My ideal question to this reader is: Did you know about the Singing Revolution? Did you know about all this?

If, as I humbly predict, the majority of the readers are reading about (and possibly are fascinated by) these events for the first time – unless, of course, they are from any of the Baltic states – then my next guess is that neither the Lithuanian authorities and scholars have devoted anything more than a minor effort to promote the Singing Revolution outside Lithuania, nor has the international audience been too eager to pay attention to it. The whole phenomenon, as such, is very seldom mentioned in books and essays dealing with ‘protest songs’ or generally with the relation between the arts and politics. No Lithuanian singer or songwriter ever appears as the ‘Lithuanian Pete Seeger’ or the ‘Woody Guthrie of the Baltics.’ No edition of the Rock March is ever presented to the international readership as a ‘Lithuanian Woodstock.’

Certainly, it is not irrelevant that the entire movement (Antis, first and foremost) was animated by a rightist-conservative intelligentsia. Studies on protest songs (and, to say it all, the whole area of popular music studies) is literally dominated by leftist scholarship, most members of which are still having one or two issues in admitting that the Soviet Union was also a dictatorship, and that – therefore – a democratic protest can also originate from the right side of the political spectrum; let alone music per se, where the notion of ‘protest’ seems to be possible only if a songwriter plays a guitar with the inscription “This machine kills fascists.”

The second problem is that popular music studies are no less alien to ethnic and cultural biases than traditional musicology. If studies on classical music are infamously Euro-, male-opus- and many other things-centric, popular music studies are glamorously Western- and particularly Anglo-American-centric. To make a specific example related to protest songs, in a 2008 book called Story Behind the Protest Song, Hardeep Phull analyzes 52 supposedly historically-crucial protest songs, with the suspicious result that only two of them are not from either the UK or the USA: The Wailers’ Get Up, Stand Up (Jamaica, still an English-speaking country) and Nena’s 99 Luftballoons (Germany). Let alone the Baltic States, but the fact that songs like Senzeni Na? (a sheer anti-apartheid anthem in South Africa) or Inti Illimani’s El Pueblo Unido have to be ignored to give room to Michael and Janet Jackson’s Scream or Pulp’s Common People (no disrespect meant: I am only pointing out the historical relevance of these songs within any movement of political protest) is only another confirmation that before criticizing the (many) biases of traditional musicology, popular music studies should take a serious look at their own.

Having said that, the rest of the responsibilities, I am afraid, have something to do with Lithuanian cultural policies and their operators. At a national level, there are some (not even many) studies written in Lithuanian: then, as we move into the field of international exposure of such an important phenomenon, emptiness dominates. No Lithuanian scholar has ever bothered to write a history (or an analysis) of the Singing Revolution in English. Other cultural objects, too, are generally missing from the picture. Two Lithuanian movies (the mentioned documentary How We Played the Revolution and a fiction film called The Children from the Hotel America) address the topic of the Singing Revolution, and they were also presented in film festivals abroad (therefore, English subtitles do exist!): but when the DVDs were released, only Žickytė’s documentary featured English subtitles, preventing the other movie from having any impact whatsoever on the international market (in other words: taking for granted that it will not).

Moreover, the attempts to academically promote the Singing Revolution at an international level were very timid, resulting in international ignorance and misunderstandings. The Singing Revolution: A Political Journey through the Baltic States, a 1992 book by Clare Thomson (not exactly a Lithuanian surname, as one may notice) remains the most evident international exposure of the phenomenon, otherwise the only Baltic country that really took proper care of this enormous cultural heritage was Estonia (in particular through such studies as Singing Revolution: How Culture Saved a Nation by Priit Vesilind, 2008). In Estonian cultural policies and scholarship, the Singing Revolution is seen as a major event, one that not only contributed to the country’s independence, but which in fact typifies it. Special care is taken with research and promotion of the phenomenon to make it internationally visible, with publications and documentaries in English, plus – what is more significant – the inclusion of the Singing Revolution as a founding historical event in nearly any general treatise on Estonian history and/or culture. There is a far cry between two similarly-titled and similarly-intended books such as Leonidas Donskis’ Identity and Freedom: Mapping Nationalism and Social Criticism in Twentieth-Century Lithuania and Jean-Jacques Subrenat’s Estonia: Identity and Independence. Lithuanian “identity,” for Donskis, results in one single mention of the Singing Revolution (albeit a very celebrative one, as I shall quote later); Estonian “identity,” for Subrenat, is an entire chapter called “The ‘Singing Revolution’ and Independence Regained.”

Finally, if this (lack of) literature review was an award, the winner in the category “best missed opportunity to talk about the Singing Revolution” would probably be Gražina Miniotaitė’s 2002 Nonviolent Resistance in Lithuania: A Story of Peaceful Liberation. The amazing fact, here, is that this book is programmatically written to talk about the “nonviolent resistance” in Lithuania: so, the book that has the perfect historical and thematic frame to discuss the Lithuanian Singing Revolution, devotes no more than five (!) lines in the whole text (pp. 30 and 31) to any topic related to the Singing Revolution: the organization of the first Rock March. And, to make matters worse, the event is erroneously called “Rock’n’Roll March”: as if Bix and Katedra came to play Tutti Frutti and Blue Suede Shoes instead of punk and metal.

As a result, little by little, the Singing Revolution is turning from a Baltic into an Estonian-only phenomenon, and, needless to say, this is also what the international community, by reflex, perceives (e.g., the Canadian documentary Cultures in Conflict focuses entirely on the Estonian Singing Revolution, with basically no mention of Lithuania or Latvia). Latvia has recently made a significant step, with the publication of the very informative The Power of Song: Nonviolent National Culture in the Baltic Singing Revolution by Guntis Smidchens: by now, thus, Lithuania remains the only country not to have properly presented its contribution to the Singing Revolution to the international community.

It is high time for the international audience to discover what a magnificent display of ‘music power’ Lithuania was able to produce. And it is high time for Lithuania itself to rediscover that, and give it the value it deserves. No one is of course claiming that music, alone, made Lithuania an independent country. There is no doubt, to my mind, that a band like Antis managed to survive without particular problems only because the perestroika process was fully operating. In other times, we would be speaking of Antis as a group of heroic patriots tortured and sent to Siberia for life. Nevertheless, the ability to catch the wave of those significant historical changes is by all means a merit, and the three Baltic States were certainly in the frontline, among all Soviet countries, in these activities.

Also, there is no doubt that it was also (perhaps mostly) thanks to all the pacific and/or artistic initiatives promoted by the three independence movements that the international community became increasingly aware of the national claims of these countries, ultimately acknowledging their right to exist as independent states. Iceland, notoriously, was the first one (on February 11, 1991), then in September, the USA, Hungary, Bulgaria, Italy, Poland, Malta, San Marino, Portugal, Romania, Ukraine, Latvia and Estonia followed in domino effect. On September 17, Lithuania was welcomed as a member of the United Nations along with Estonia and Latvia. This detail should not be considered marginal: history has proven that when a group of people makes its case about freedom and independence with violence, guerrillas or terrorism, the international community is much less eager to acknowledge its claims, no matter how legitimate. I do not say this from any particular political or ideological standpoint, nor in a hippie ‘peace and love’ mood: the point is purely strategic. 

The Singing Revolution was one of the most relevant sources of soft power for Lithuania, promoting the country as such (and not as a Soviet Republic), with all its values, characteristics, customs and choices. Being what it was (that is, a musical phenomenon), it certainly was particularly effective in raising international sympathies. To paraphrase Žickytė’s documentary, the revolution was not made, fought, organized or else. The revolution was ‘played.’ Few other strategies could have been as powerful as this one, once we are comparing a 3-million-people country against a country 260 times bigger and 50 times more populated.

Also, and possibly more than any other action taken during the Sąjūdis, the Singing Revolution was for Lithuanians the strongest reminder of what they used to and wanted to be: an independent country, with those values, that flag, that language, that identity. And those songs, of course. Leonidas Donskis, as we have seen above, may not have elaborated too much on the topic, but he provided a very fitting definition of the Singing Revolution (and Sąjūdis in general) as the ultimate Lithuanian embodiment of the “generous and noble-spirited traditions of the Romantic ethos of liberal nationalism,” up to becoming the actual highlight of recent Lithuanian history.

Indeed, it was.
It is.

HISTORY & CONTEXT | Lithuanian Music Link No. 18