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Tradition and modernity clash beautifully at Tallinn Music Week

13 April 2024, 11:45

John Bell heads to Estonia and finds a crossroads of perspectives and musical experimentation at this year's Tallinn Music Week.

The identity, tradition and cultural narrative of Estonia is one unshakably rooted in nature.

Sometimes referred to as a forest nation, a population of just 1.3 million – most of whom live in its capital, Tallinn – leaves 50 percent of the country to a variety of woodland. It has some of the world’s cleanest air, calling its people to hike, ice skate, canoe, kicksled, wild swim, forage for mushrooms and cloudberries and whatever else. This time of year in the ancient bogs and mires, ghostly greys of thick ice thaw to reveal the olive greens and rust reds of metre-upon-metre of peat in gin clear waters. Check the history books and you’ll find it was this people’s steadfast respect for the environment that catalysed their break from Soviet rule.

But this is also the country known as e-Estonia. Since its independence in 1991 it has not just played catch up with the digitisation of the Western world, but surpassed it. Its so-called X-Road infrastructure efficiently connects individuals to the state and private businesses, making all administrative duties, from voting to buying a parking ticket, a swift online action; other, famously paperwork-heavy countries such as Germany are said to be considering adopting this model. It was the first place to issue the popular digital nomad visas, and is also one of the quickest and easiest places to start a business – enticing entrepreneurs from all over the world with e-residency status, such as the California-based Starship Technologies, whose delivery robots or “cyber couriers” can be found delivering food and parcels on the streets of Tallinn.

Except for its Linnahall, a monolithic 4000-capacity arena still awaiting its fate, many of Tallinn’s desolate and dilapidated old spaces are becoming cultural hubs – venues, studios, breweries and clubs – such as Kopli and Telliskivi Cultural City. Last week these areas were home to the 16th edition of Tallinn Music Week (TMW), which through its musical programme and conference topics, explored this meeting point and balance between nature and tradition, care and conservation with technology, the future and progression. “Culture does not develop and flourish in isolation,” as Estonia’s President Alar Karis puts it at the welcome reception.

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Photo by Anna Markova

Aside from hosting 175 artists from 35 countries, the festival welcomed a whopping 1300 delegates and 168 conference speakers, who discussed topics from the future of grassroots venues to cultural mobility in the age of climate change and Burning Man’s journey from desert to city. Under the banner Rewind and Fast-Forward, gender campaign group Keychange looked back at their progress over the past five years by presenting their Impact Evaluation Report, while looking forwards with their Manifesto 2.0. What is most impressive about this side of TMW is the gamut of the European music industry in attendance, putting collaborative hubs such as Keychange, Liveurope and Music Tech Europe within walking distance of each other and giving, in continental diplomacy terms, the NATO conference also being held in the hotel a run for its money.

Musically, one simple way to look at this crossroads of perspectives is the prominence of artists embellishing traditional melodies and instrumentation with elements of electronica. Folktronica is a Friday night showcase curated by the local and omnipresent act OOPUS. The four-piece’s mantra is folk on acid, which is exactly what their night feels like. Polish-Ukraine duo DAGADANA wear floral crowns as they smile and harmonise as their rhythm section warbles and stutters like a jazz record melting as it spins. OOPUS’ own set – arpeggiated synths and nosebleed beats inspired by old runic songs – is one of the weekend’s trippiest moments for those finding fun in fractals. “The music we make is a gateway for ravers to the traditional music world,” says vocalist, bagpiper and mouth harpist Mari Meentalo, “dancing to lyrics about how the world was created for instance, but also when we perform at folk festivals there are so many young people dancing to our tunes that we meet at rave parties. Those two worlds are seemingly so different, but actually they’re intertwined.”

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OOPUS by Saara Mildeberg

Folktronica is not a new phenomenon, but a significant presence shows it’s still important to many here. Folk music specifically is synonymous with Estonian culture: the country has the biggest library of recorded folk songs in the world. Since the late 19th century, Estonians have gathered for Laulupidu, one of the world’s biggest choral events held every five years in which around 30,000 singers perform songs that reflect and remind the country of its own identity and independence in the face of historic occupations. It was here that sparked the Singing Revolution in the late 80s, in which songs such as “Ei ole üksi ükski maa” (No Land Is Alone) were passed down the Baltic Way in one of the longest human chains in history, linking Estonians with their neighbours Latvia and Lithuania. It might be easy to over-egg the knock-on effect of this time some 30 years later, but I’m assured that its influence remains strong. “I’m a baby boomer child of the Singing Revolution,” says Meentalo. “I’m really proud of the fact that we in a way sang ourselves free, and that there was no drop of blood. This is something most Estonians cherish and preach.”

Iiris, an Estonian singer living in London and returning to the festival with her dream-pop band Night Tapes, agrees. “It’s easy to romanticise the choral tradition,” she says, “but I think in our case it really is a basis for our day-to-day life. I’ve felt the most Estonian at the Song Festival with a 100,000 other Estonians looking into the blue sky and seeing the swallows, singing ‘Ta lendab mesipuu poole’. We might romanticise it a little bit ourselves, but it is very ingrained.”

With a half-naked dancer, Estonian bagpipes and a heavy techno pulse throbbing away on stage, OOPUS are mad, unadulterated fun – albeit not for everyone. Those searching for tradition away from the intensity of the Folktronica showcase could find solace in Erinevate Tubade Llubi – Club of Different Rooms – on Saturday night, where award-winning childhood pals Duo Mann & Juula open the evening with a sense of grace through impressive and emotive fiddling. Another Estonian act, Duo Ruut, are the evening’s gem; two other friends looking each other in the eye as they pluck the same traditional kannel and layer dynamic vocal melodies on top of each other, weaved together with an impactful pop sensibility. Their song ‘Tuule sona’ supposedly tracks the directions of the winds, but doesn’t require an understanding of Estonian to leave you breathless.

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Kitty Florentine by Sandra Süsi

Other artists feel distinctly modern and forward-looking. Many of these are found at the Soda Pop showcase at F-Hoone on Saturday night, such as cyber-goth MANNA – ‘The Girl With The White Eyes’ – one of Estonia’s emerging Gen-Z acts tying dark, industrial pop and alternative R&B with an ominous and serrated thread. Maria Kallastu is a similar genre-blending act, though her songwriting favours a lighter, pearlescant finish. But for all the maximalism of hyper-pop, there were moments of avant-garde brilliance to be found in the spaces created by other local artists such as Kitty Florentine and Vera Vice, whose careful use of minimalism at times is dissociative, floating away perhaps from an idea of what it is to be Estonian in favour for finding whichever identity you please.

For Iiris and other artists, TMW can be an opportunity to work out who you are without the pressure of competition. “It’s not Eurovision, you’re there to ask what is the thing you want to present, not what is the format and how can I fit into it.” Having essentially grown up with TMW, Iiris’ show with Night Tapes feels like a homecoming, with the anticipation and performance of a headline show. On stage, her expansive falsetto cuts through the chill-wave grooves of “Forever” and “Selene”, awakening the drifting dreaminess of their recordings with satisfying effect.

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Night Tapes by Elena Mkrtchian

Other showcases signal the strength of TMW’s international relations. Made in Canada open the festival in an eclectic billing ranging from Le Diable a Cinq, seemingly the rockstars of Québécois folk, to one of Music Week Nova Scotia’s standout R&B acts, Nicole Ariana. Walk around Telliskivi and you could stumble across windows into music scenes from the Baltics, Korea and Taiwan as well as neighbouring Finland. The most exciting is perhaps saved until last in a sweaty bar called Kivi Paber Käärid. Curated by Yugofuturism’s Koen ter Heegde, the Vikendica night veers from the Macedonian psych-rock of Lufthansa to Estonia’s own underground hardcore youngsters Kalli Talopoika, via seriously gripping post-punk from Porto’s Sereias and The Netherland’s Tramhaus – the band on everyone’s lips this weekend.

Tallinn Music Week is, after all, a festival, and putting the meeting of cultural perspectives aside, there is a lot of fun to be had. Scottish DJ J-Wax spins wobbly house tracks with a grime edge atop a neon-spiked hedgehog. The amped up polyrhythms of the Africa Now showcase cleanses the palate of bubbly from the opening night welcome drinks, with French-Senegalese artist Poundo firmly at the helm. Over at Uus Laine social club on Saturday, there’s a night of what might be called ironic-groove, as local youngster Karameel’s 80s karaoke-core tees up Finnish band Mr. Dad perfectly. With songs like “The Coke Dealer’s Depressed Again” and “Coco Loco” (one for the summer playlist), it’s a bit unclear where the Helsinki jokesters' irony ends and the earnest bangers begin, but it really doesn’t matter.

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Mr. Dad by Tanel Tero

This Saturday night weirdness only gets weirder as Uus Laine becomes the afterparty, as artists, fans, conference guests and speakers, once nodding acquaintances, unwind and get loose together. The connections here feel especially meaningful for a showcase and conference, and I wonder, be it at the meeting of tradition and modernity or nation and neighbour, what the common ground here is in this intersection that is Tallinn Music Week.

“More and more peeps are coming to see what is truthful to sing in their own world, instead of trying to be something for someone else,” says Iiris. “I think we’re in the process of being more truthful to our actual vibe going on here in Tallinn.”

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