Tallinn Music Week: a love letter to Estonia

There’s a sort of fascinating melancholy in travelling East — and everyone knows jet lag always hits harder when you head in that direction too. A constant anxious wreck by default (a trait that doesn’t necessarily combine well with an unexplainable need for constantly being on the move), I experienced this firsthand last month as I was given the opportunity to go to Estonia for Tallinn Music Week — the annual music and culture event that should be mandatory for everyone at least once in their lifetime.

Where do you even begin to write about the beauty that is Estonia? A country whose imagery hasn’t been spoiled by media overexposure and Pop culture saturation. A country mixing the old and the new, inevitably emanating a sort of patchwork quality both in its lifestyle and through the relationship it has with its own identity. A country where over-advertising is noticeably absent, as is agressive stimuli bombarding and visual pollution. A country where it sometimes becomes hard to tell the year you’re living in — maybe even the century.

It is indeed one of life’s greatest privileges to visit a place which you have little to no references of: you are aware it exists and where, know about its Soviet occupation past, but not much info has been provided through media. So it becomes an exciting discovery, your mind a blank canvas waiting to be painted with the real colours — not the ones you have mistakenly absorbed through movies. You force yourself to open your eyes and see, as no previous meta-formed idea has conditioned you to look in any particular way.

Travelling to such a place can be both a soothing and a disturbing factor. But there is no aggression. There is no over-sweetening of the pill either. Everything about Estonia is so brutally honest, which in a world of constant make-believe and increasingly shallow first (and second, and third) impressions can feel like the Holy Grail.

Well tucked between Scandinavia and Russia, Estonia musically drinks from the best of both worlds after emerging from oppression in the early ’90s: from its proximity to Finland and Sweden come the same unexplainably addictive Pop genes that North area seems to have incorporated in their blood; from the East emerges a certain anti-Imperialist pride that endures to this very day, preventing their music from relying too much on Anglo-American standardisation which could ruin its spontaneity and unique character. But what else would you expect from a country whose independence was brought about by a Singing Revolution if not a visceral connection to the overwhelming power that is music?

Tallinn Music Week is one of Europe’s most carefully curated showcase festivals, offering a unique opportunity to catch the acts you’d probably never see otherwise since yes, internet is democratically(-ish) liberating when it comes to music finding, but it also castrates your curiosity by offering you unlimited content you often have no idea how to deal with. So it comes as no surprise that the only “Western” acts I actually got to see were meticulously selected — and also felt immensely out of place.

YASMYN by Patrik Tamm

A late arrival due to Mercury retrograde-ridden flight cancellations dictated YASMYN to be the first act I saw. Not only her stage presence is hypnotising, but the blend of R&B, pop, and hip-hop she incorporates in her music make for an exciting business card in what comes to the future of Estonian contemporary Urban.

A sucker for record sleeve design, I kicked off day two at Malcolm Garrett’s talk with John Rudd during which he discussed his career with an obvious focus on his connections to Duran Duran and Buzzcocks. I also learned he was never impressed with Joy Division; in his opinion, and having seen them since they called themselves Warsaw, it was Martin Hannett who did a spectacular job with Unknown Pleasures — eventually forcing the band to up their game in order to play like the record live. Speaking of records and sleeves: a mandatory stop at the record fair felt like an Iron Curtain-ish cultural melting pot. As I browsed through tons of amazing Melodiya pressings of the likes of the Byrds, Bon Jovi, and ABBA, I also found the first (and only) Russian pressing of a Revolver + Sgt Pepper double LP to feast my eyes upon. I didn’t buy anything though; everybody knows music journalists are poor.

Among the first acts I actually got to see from my preview list were Sybil Vane, who together with Erki Pärnoja, provided yet another proof of the exciting diversity that is Estonian music. Pärnoja creates mystical filmic environments through his music and is currently working on the successor to his 2017 sophomore album Efterglow. I then headed over to Swedish duo GHLOW’s set at Sveta, where an outside hut provided a very welcoming lounge area, the discreet smell of Estonian weed emerging from times to times to bring about an uncannily familiar ambience.

GHLOW by Ken Mürk

As day three peaked through the window my body was beginning to complain about the amount of hours I was sleeping each night and the ones I was spending standing on my feet — the former obviously largely surpassing the latter. But a couple of glasses of white wine in an empty stomach at sundown made wonders to the part of my brain that rules tiredness and physical pain, and Iceland-via-Berlin Rokky did the rest, making sure I was properly warmed-up for what was probably the only UK act I ended up seeing: Red Telephone. I, unfortunately, had to cut their set short to run to Trees before doing the wise thing and actually having dinner. A short stop at the Folk stage afterwards proved a wonderfully weird cultural gap as Catlin Mägi made sure she put a mesmerising spell on the whole room with her skilful Jew’s harp playing.

Finnish garage psychers Teemu & the Deathblows were another band from my to-see selection that did not disappoint in any way — I actually felt their set was too short, which is always a good sign. Plus, they got my blood properly immune to the harsh Baltic winds so I could sweat everything out at SADO OPERA’s brilliant show. I danced like I hadn’t danced in a very long time, and it actually came in handy that the venue, Erinevate Tubade Klubi, requested that all guests took their shoes off and put some slippers on instead. Fuck the slippers though; dancing barefoot is one of the best, most liberating sensations in the whole world.

SADO OPERA by Kristelle Ahone

I thought this was the end of the festival for me, but I was subsequently dragged first to the metal stage to see a Finnish band called Cumbeast (yes) and then back to the Estonian Academy of Arts for a set of Irish electronic duo Lakker. I never say no to good new experiences and the night seemed to go on forever, properly fueled by good Irish whisky and lack of sleep euphoria. The last stop was an afterparty at Sveta where the DJ was playing Shocking Blue’s ‘Love Buzz’ as I arrived; I pride myself of being a lady who can hold her liquor, but I got emotional and almost cried.

When I was a little girl, I used to watch loads of Eastern European fantasy films. One of them, a Czech fairy tale called Princess Jasnenka and the Flying Shoemaker, stayed with me the longest: I would revisit it from time to time, fascinated by those aerial plans showing towers, castles, dungeons, and seemingly impenetrable city walls. In spite of the obvious geographical differences, Tallinn did feel a bit like being inside one of those films; the first day I was wandering around the Old Town looking for St. Catherine’s Passage when I noticed a semi-hidden entry in the medieval wall. I got in and climbed upstairs, eventually finding my way to the tower through what felt like endless steep stairs carved in the stone. As I was alone in a round room with windows overlooking the city, I remembered when the king locked princess Jasnenka in the tower to try and prevent the witches’ curse of her marrying a shoemaker; but the shoemaker made himself a pair of wings in leather, flew to the princess’s room, and they fell in love.

You can never escape your own destiny, especially since it’s you, either consciously or subconsciously, who gets to decide when and how to fulfil it. That’s when I realised all roads had recently been leading me to Tallinn, and I quietly thanked the universe that it was so.

Originally published at https://www.thefourohfive.com.

Paris-based trilingual music journalist. fingers in other pies include film, psychology, history, politics, social dynamics, gender issues, tarot and astrology.