For One Tallinn Expat, Performing at Song Festival Builds on Unfulfilled Childhood Dream

7/3/2014 10:20 AM
Category: Culture

This afternoon, the Song Festival performers will meet outside the Lauluväljak (Song Festival Grounds) for the dress rehearsal. For some, it's the first opportunity to sing under the big arch. Among them is a tenor, Abdelrahman Bayrekdar, a financial management professional in Tallinn. Ronny, as he is known to friends, spoke with Kristopher Rikken of ERR News about singing in a choir, something that he longed to do when growing up in Alexandria, Egypt.

Have you sung under the Song Festival arch itself or just in Salme Cultural Center [where the choirs have rehearsed up to now]? How will the whole process take place?

Just in Salme, so it will be the first time. Sometimes the acoustics can be tricky and the group of people you are singing with is even trickier. Singing in a choir, you are used to a certain alignment, you know who is to the left and the right of you. Your ears are sort of tuned to those around you. I remember the first grand rehearsal at Salme I was sitting next to completely new people from other choirs. The timbre and volume were completely distracting. It was good, but I wasn't used to it. So I'm really interested in seeing how it will be standing under the song festival arch.

So the whole process is new to me. I just received the e-mails yesterday on the logistics of what time and where. Of course they are too detailed and in Estonian (laughs) so I leave them to my wife.

Tell us about your choir, it's a city choir? Was there any doubt your choir would get through the auditions?

It's called the Vanalinna segakoor (Old Town Mixed Choir), it's been around for about 30 years, a bit more. At all of our rehearsals we scored quite high. At one of our first tests, after the grand rehearsal, we had to perform a song that has to be performed by all the choirs and then they grade you. I remember during this first test, my knees were knocking because I didn't know how good we would sound. After we were done, the principals shouted 'wow' and started to clap. At that point I knew we did really well. And there are no favors done, favors are quite rare in Estonia.

So is people shouting 'wow.' When did the whole process begin for you?

I think I was the last one who joined the choir, in about February 2013, just short of a year and a half, and all the guys there, and the last person who joined before me was a couple years before me. I think I am the newest member.

What happened is that I was doing dinner with some friends I had met and they mentioned they were singing in a choir, and I said yeah, OK, I was looking for any ways to improve my Estonian. When I moved to Estonia, I wasted to dive into Estonian society and integrate. I did not want to be in the expat bubble. I've lived abroad before and lived in the expat bubble and it makes things easier but in the long term it makes things much worse. The best thing to do is blend. So I said yes to everything that was offered to me. I played strange sports. Participated in strange teams, I did weird stuff.

What would that be, wife-carrying?

Not yet, but maybe I'll try that! (laughs) But it happened that after the dinner, we had a few beers and we were singing "Do You Hear the People Sing," from Les Mis, and one of the conductors said we have a choir, why don't you join us? And that's how it started.

A revolutionary song for a singing revolution nation…

Exactly. But at that point I didn't know anything about the Song Festival, I just wanted to be with more Estonians, speak more, learn more Estonian.

Any other expats in your choir?

No.

And you had previous choral experience besides, you know, singing to Les Mis…?

Yes, very briefly. Prior to moving to Estonia, I lived in Cairo, and I had a relative who runs a choir and they sing musicals - "Les Miserables," again, "The Sound of Music" and then for one short season I was singing for five months or something. But then we left the country.

When we met last winter, you said there was something from your childhood also that makes this really a dream fulfilled.

Oh yes. You know, it's complex from the Estonian point of view because I think religion is quite marginal in everyday life. But I was in a Catholic school, the oldest school in Alexandria, and we have one of the most beautiful churches in the whole of Egypt. I was allowed to attend Mass as a non-Christian. It was quite an open society. And we had a small mosque, too, like a praying room, but the church is literally one of the most beautiful churches I have seen. We were allowed to participate in all events, but not in the school choir. I always admired the music in Mass, especially "The Messiah." I went to the director who was a priest, and said dear brother, I would really like to participate but he said I'm sorry but you are not a Christian. I was a kid of around 12 or 13 years. I always wanted to join a choir.

No attempt to convert you?

No no. At my school it was a completely open culture, a Lasallian school. Our Christian colleagues would come to the prayer room when we had prayer time. Nobody was pushed to do anything. Only that we had to study religion as part of the curriculum. That was the time when we would separate. We could stay in class or go to the our praying room. We were always given the choice of where we could go.

My family believed that a Catholic upbringing was best. Some things about the school were odd if you look at it as an outsider, but now, later in life I appreciate everything I learned and I am very attached to it. The discipline instilled there was important.

How much of the current music that you perform is sacral or secular, or mostly folk/traditional?

Mostly traditional. But our choir also performs much around Christmastime. Last year in Kohila and another town. For the Laulupidu it's mostly folk. But some compositions are quite new. The main composition for this Laulupidu specifically, it's called "Muusika," and the composer [Pärt Uusberg] was born in the 1980s. He's a brilliant musician.

"Taandujad," the controversial song [music by Erki-Sven Tüür and lyrics by Peep Ilmet], is it also in the program?

Yes. It's in the program. I remember the first time we started to rehearse the song, it did not make any sense to me musically, it has so many variations and modulates quite a lot. It was strange. And the text is also a little bit, let's say counterproductive. 'We are retreating, we are small' - but maybe this is the time for Estonia to say otherwise, that we are big, strong, going ahead, not retreating. But the song itself has something that grows on you. After a while it makes sense, after a while it sounds nice. Definitely much nicer than when we started rehearsing.

Do you have a favorite?

I have a few. I like "Noored Sepad" {by Veljo Tormis]. A sepp is a smith or someone who is a master of a certain profession [in this context.] It means the young people who work with their hands, and I think this song represents Estonia, because Estonians are a hard-working society. Let's hammer steel and swords and defend ourselves, it gives the essence of what Estonians really are.
Another one is "Pulmalised" [the Pulmaliste saabumine cycle, also by Tormis], like an invitation to a wedding. It's in dialect, and I was very glad I wasn't the only one who didn't understand the text.
I had a last favorite, which, again, was "Muusika." Short and soothing - I like it musically. The other songs have an 'arrgh' [grunts] quality to them, but this one is completely different, Some songs are also not as interesting, but they are just in the program and we have to perform them.
So how long will you be under the arch, total running time?

It will be until midnight. And both days [Saturday and Sunday] are long. One is 20-24 and the other is 12-20 or thereabouts.

We were always told at school not to lock your knees during long standing performances, that you could faint. Is that true or an old wives' tale?

I don't know but I will have my own challenges. It's Ramadan and I have to align my eating schedule.

Indeed. What do you do at the Nordic latitudes in summer, with sundown being when it is?

Normally there are a few options. The first option is to follow Egypt time, second is to follow Saudi time or not to observe at all. But you know, but I take it more as a detox month. I'm following Egypt time. For me it means I can eat any time after seven.

Sunday may be 27 degrees...

Temperature is not an issue. Normally in Egypt in the summertime it's 30 plus. So the heat is something I can definitely deal with!


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