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Folk culture

The field of folk culture involves creative hobby activities that are based on folk traditions; heritage culture; intangible cultural heritage; study, preservation and recording of national and local cultural traditions; public culture events; activities of societies; courses and supplemental training. 

The task of the state is to ensure that our intangible cultural heritage is valued, preserved and developed, and to maintain the long tradition of song and dance festivals.
There are a lot of people in our society, who are actively involved in folk culture, and their number is growing despite the fact that the population is in decline. Popularity of folk culture guarantees the survival of ancient customs also in modern times. Thanks to those people who take care of our heritage, the traditions of playing the zither, singing in a choir and wearing folk costumes is still going strong. These abovementioned activities are, however, only a small part of our rich folk culture. 
Experts on folk culture are schooled at Tallinn University, the University of Tartu, Viljandi Culture Academy of the University of Tartu, and the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre. A professional qualification system has been established in several sub-areas. 

Kihnu nukud (Foto: Eino Pedanik)




  • According to the database of the Folk Culture Centre, the total number of amateurs participating in permanent groups was 87,476 at the end of 2013.
  • These amateurs are members of 2,772 institutions and organisations and they have 4,763 teachers.
  • In 2013 there were 453 community centres in Estonia.

Song and dance festival tradition


The first Estonian national song festival took place in 1869 in Tartu. The participants at that first festival included 46 male choirs and 5 brass bands with a total of 878 singers and musicians. The history of general dance festivals goes back to 1934, when the dance and gymnastics festival of the First Estonian Games with 1,500 folk dancers took place. 
The tradition of song and dance festivalsis a constantly evolving but essential part of Estonian folk culture. The tradition of Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian song and dance festivals has been entered into the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Song and dance festivals are organised by the foundation Eesti Laulu- ja Tantsupeo SA, which was founded by the Ministry of Culture. 
Before each festival, the number of aspiring participants reaches new records. Applications come from all over the world. Together with foreign groups, nearly 61,000 participants have been registered for the festival in 2014. The general song and dance festival and the youth song and dance festival take place in turns, both once in every five years.  
Song festivals have been held for decades on Tallinn Song Festival Grounds, an area established specifically for this purpose. Dance festivals have not had a fixed location so far. Mostly they have been held on Kalev Stadium. Hopefully, by the time we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first song festival in 2019, the dancers will have their own dance ground to enjoy.
In 2013 a study was conducted on song and dance festivals and it turned out that 49 per cent of the Estonian population has performed at either of the festivals at least once in their life. 91 per cent have been indirectly linked to the festivals – either as spectators or as part of the TV audience. Song and dance festivals are one of the most important manifestations of the Estonian identity. The study indicated the importance of Estonian choir singing and folk dance traditions for our national value orientation and preservation of our identity. At the same time, the results show that we might be in danger of considering the continuation of this tradition as self-evident.

Meeste tantsupidu Rakveres 2010 (Foto: Eino Pedanik)


Intangible cultural heritage


Rahvariided ja -jalanõud (Foto: Eino Pedanik)
Intangible cultural heritage is the living heritage of our forebears, which is kept alive by communities and individuals through their skills, traditions, customs and habits, and which is passed on to succeeding generations. The term of intangible cultural heritage (vaimne kultuuripärand) is rather new in the Estonian language, it was coined in 2003 in relation to the adoption of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003.
Estonia joined the UNESCO convention in 2006. Pursuant to the convention, each state has to create a list of intangible cultural heritage and adopt respective acts in order to protect that heritage if necessary. The registry of Estonian intangible cultural heritage is maintained by the Folk Culture Centre. 
Since 2003 the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage includes the culture of Kihnu Island and the tradition of Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian song and dance festivals. In 2009, the special singsong leelo of the Setu ethnic group was added to the list. In 2013 we submitted an application to include the smoke sauna tradition of old Võru County. The decision ought to be made by the end of 2014.

Valuable peculiarities of cultural spaces

For nearly 15 years the Ministry of Culture has tried to appraise the heritage of different cultural spaces, i.e. cultural heritage areas. A cultural space is a live community with a common identity, whose activities could be classified as intangible cultural heritage. To this effect, cultural space programmes have been a priority for the Ministry of Culture in recent years. 
Through culture programmes the state helps with the preservation and continuation of cultural heritage and with community efforts in the field. Cultural space programmes are regionally significant as they generally support communities on the periphery, where the heritage culture has been preserved better.

Cultural space programmes 

  • Setomaa culture programme 
  • Kihnu Island cultural space programme
  • Cultural heritage environment programme of the islands
  • Mulgimaa culture programme
  • Old Võru County culture programme
  • Shore of Lake Peipus culture programme 
  • Viru County heritage culture programme 

Setu sõlg (Foto: Eino Pedanik)


Main partners


Folk Culture Centre 
The Folk Culture Centre is a state competence centre that gathers specialised information, organises training courses, and supports and advises people and organisations that deal with national culture.  
Each county has a folk culture specialist who works for the Folk Culture Centre and handles the field of folk culture, for example curates national folk culture events (e.g., song and dance festivals, folklore festivals). 
Main tasks of the Folk Culture Centre:
  • to maintain the specialised database of folk culture;
  • to maintain the list of Estonian intangible cultural heritage on the basis of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which Estonia joined in 2006;
  • to organise application processes of folk culture grant programmes, which are financed by the Ministry of Culture;
  • to organise trainings and courses on folk culture.
Eesti Laulu- ja Tantsupeo Sihtasutus
A state foundation, which is tasked with the organisation of both the general and youth song and dance festivals. The foundation handles the distribution of grants from the Ministry of Culture to groups participating in the preparations for the song and dance festivals.  
Estonian Regional Culture Policy Council (ERKPN)
ERKPN is an advisory authority established under the Ministry of Culture in 1997. The council consists of culture officials from all the county governments plus representatives from the Folk Culture Centre, the Ministry of the Interior, and the Ministry of Culture.
The work of ERKPN is coordinated by the Cultural Heritage Department of the Ministry of Culture. Members of the Council work together with the ministry advisers on matters concerning county affairs.
Council of Intangible Cultural Heritage (VKPN)
VKPN is a council of experts established under the Ministry of Culture in 2009. The main tasks of the council are to work out policy papers and protection measures for cultural heritage, to make respective propositions to the Ministry of Culture, and to approve the list of Estonian intangible cultural heritage together with the listed cultural goods.

Central associations of folk culture 

Central folk culture associations mainly develop creative hobby activities in the area. Associations operate as non-profit making umbrella organisations. They often commission new projects, organise national and international events for different age groups, hold courses and issue professional certificates. 
The Ministry of Culture allocates activity support for central associations each year so that they can carry out their action plans based on their development plans.
Central associations of folk culture:
  • Estonian Choral Association
  • Estonian Folk Dance and Folk Music Association 
  • Estonian National Folklore Council 
  • Estonian Folk Art and Craft Union 
  • Estonian Amateur Theatre Association 
  • Estonian Association of Cultural Societies

Regional and professional organisations

Important organisations from the viewpoint of cultural spaces – foundation SA Kihnu Kultuuriruum (culture space of Kihnu Island), non-profit MTÜ Mulgi Kultuuri Instituut (Institute of Mulgimaa Culture), and state institution Võru Institute. 
  • Võru Institute 
    A research and development institution founded in 1995 under the Ministry of Culture (state institution). The work of the institute concerns the historic Võru County and helps preserve the language and culture of the Võro people.  
  • SA Kihnu Kultuuriruum ja Mulgi Culture Institute
    Umbrella organisations, which coordinate joint community activities in the field of heritage culture.
  • MTÜ Eesti Pärimusmuusika Keskus (Folk Music Centre)
    Folk Music Centre is a national non-profit association, which distributes live folk music and supports hobby activities. It serves as an information centre and cooperation partner for Estonian music schools, civic societies, folk music groups, folklore groups, musicians and folk music amateurs. The centre manages an informal education school, the August Pulst Study Centre, and folk music database. The Ministry of Culture allocates activity support for the Folk Music Centre.   

Eino Pedanik
Adviser (Folk Culture)

Phone +372 628 2227


Last updated: 26 May 2016