Mojo - The Music Magazine


A Kick In The Baltics: Estonia Exports Rock, Of Sorts

2:58 PM GMT 02/05/2013

Estonia's capital Tallinn is strategically located. On the south of the Gulf of Finland, the Baltic Sea's eastern arm, it's a two-hour ferry trip from Helsinki. East of the two capitals, where the gulf terminates, is St Petersburg, Russia's former imperial capital. Stockholm is due west. Tallinn has been a trading centre since the beginning of the second millennium. Now, in the early third, Estonia is trying a new type of export: music.

In its fifth year, over three days, Tallinn Music Week (TMW) showcases the country's music. Loads of Finns are buzzing around, as are Russians and folks in from neighbouring Baltic states Latvia and Lithuania. So is Sire Records' Seymour Stein. Latvia's stadium-fillers, the Travis-like melodic rockers and former Eurovision entrants Prāta Vētra (Brainstorm) are here, playing a small bar to show themselves off the visitors.

But this is about Estonia and its music, a point driven home by TMW's keynote speech by President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. His seemingly off-the-cuff address roams through advice to carry sunglasses at all times (as the sun might come out) and the importance of not forgetting the the arrest and imprisonment of Russia's Pussy Riot. His support for them pissed of Estonia's Lutheran church. He reminds the audience that music is not all about big hair.

That the President introduces TMW stresses the importance of music here. The two most prominent manifestations, though, are at opposite poles. Estonia's composer of sacred music Arvo Pärt is internationally known, lauded, a best seller and influential - Spritualized have drawn from him. Somewhat dissimilar, Tanel Padar & Dave Benton bagged the Eurovision Song Contest for Estonia in 2001. No one has drawn from them.

More fundamentally, Estonia's peaceful move to independence from the USSR in 1991 came after "The Singing Revolution" where crowds made waves in song. Although Estonia has less than a 10th of London's population and is home to a thriving digital economy (which birthed Skype), it's swimming in music.

It also has hints of its Soviet-governed past. Opposite the modern hotel where the President was speaking is the Hotel Viru, Tallinn's first skyscraper. Anyone staying was subject to intense in-house monitoring by the KGB. Tours of the hotel's KGB museum are bookable. More agreeable is a stroll through Tallinn's beautiful, perfectly preserved medieval old town.

All these sides of Estonia bubble up at TMW. A band like Elephants From Neptune, with their well-oiled, panache-filled take on Kings of Leon and Led Zeppelin (with a smidge of Oasis) have their eyes on what might be globally appealing, but much of what's heard at TMW is unquestionably locally flavoured. Often, quite thrillingly so.

Easily the most bizarre manifestation of this is Pastacas, a painter/musician who could pass for Hawkwind's Dave Brock. Although in the folk bag and employing acoustic instruments, his music transcends categorisation. Setting up loop after loop via a monumental array of pedals, he builds fidgety slabs of repetition which coalesce as high-speed, agitated cousins of Philip Glass. Then he begins chanting. And playing two recorders at once.

More traditional takes on folk are as memorable. Mari Kalkun and her band Ronoron employ the brushed drums and stand-up bass of jazz and marry it to traditional Estonian melodies. Her kannel (an Estonian zither) is strummed, but open strings bed her lilting vocals with a drone. No Estonian is necessary to be affected. The effect is akin to Nico or Bridget St John hooking up with a very exotic Pentangle. Equally striking is Maarja Nuut (pronounced Mar-ria Noot), a solo violinist rooted in local folk but taking it close to the psychedelic. Again, a drone is present and, like Pastacas, she uses looping. If a touchstone were needed, Nuut's transfixing performance marks her as the Baltic Juana Molina.

The exoticism - the melodic lilt and a rhythmic meter fitting the sinuous rising-falling cadence of the Estonian language - is also heard in more indie-centric bands. Jagaspace could be a spacier Broadcast, but they fashion an entrancingly alien music. Using a harmonium (more drone) helps. Tartu Popi Ja Roki Instituut, from Estonia's second city Tartu, bring vibes, brass and a choppy rhythm guitar onto stage for a winning conglomeration nodding towards Belle & Sebastian and latter-day Stereolab, but once more has the increasingly recognisable local lilt. Almost Japanese-sounding, it's tremendously pretty.

Bands which take the familiar as their jumping off point might achieve escape velocity, and it's no doubt TMW can help them on the way. But music wearing its Estonian identity has most impact. In time, with TMW as a leg-up, there's no reason Estonia can't carve a musical niche as distinctive as that of Iceland's. The best of what's on offer is as striking as what's come from there. It's simply a matter of shouting loud enough. With Tallinn Music Week as its megaphone, Estonia has a better chance of being heard.

Kieron Tyler

Jagascape (above) photographed by Lina Vonsavi
Pastacas (home page) photographed by Oskari Värä

Posted by Ross_Bennett at 2:58 PM GMT 02/05/2013

end of body content back to top

end of footer back to top

Back to top