Various Venues, Tallinn
27 March - 2 April
Estonia’s capital city of Tallinn is an interesting meeting point.
It’s the place where the Nordic states meet the Baltics, geographically and culturally — Helsinki and Stockholm are just a short hop away, and it shares a border with Russia to the east, and Latvia to the south. You can see the resulting mash of influences in the architecture, ranging from towering medieval churches to wooden houses, crumbling farmsteads and grand former-Soviet buildings, and in the street style, which is somewhere between sleek Nordic cool and Russian leather-and-fur glamour. And not least, you can hear it in the diverse, experimental line-up of the city’s well-regarded annual festival, Tallinn Music Week.
Old meeting new is an idea that permeates this effervescent, celebratory week-long event. The bill is peppered with artists that mine Estonia’s cultural heritage, from the country’s deep-rooted folk tradition — which often features sing-song chants accompanied by the kannel, a zither-like stringed instrument — to an impressive array of contemporary composers, following in the footsteps of the country’s greatest musical son, Arvo Pärt. Breakout avant-garde rapper TOMMY¥ €A$H brands himself heavily as “post-Soviet rap”, the “Estonian Dali”, and “Kanye East,” and the MÜRK DJ collective have a knack for throwing large-scale parties in impressive, desolate urban locations.
This mash-up mentality runs through the festival’s opening party, held in the cavernous ex-industrial cultural centre of Kultuurikatel. After an orchestral presentation that somehow joins the dots between Steve Reich and Radiohead, Maarja Nuut meshes the traditional, distinctive Estonian folk style with looped vocals, beats and basslines from Hendrik Kaljujärv. You can feel the weight of the generations standing behind her in the instinctive, repetitive cadence of her vocals, but also echoes of the generations still to come. Mart Avi takes to the stage in a high-belted mac and umbrella, and proceeds to prance, preen, croon and pose around the stage to his acid-lounge-pop backing track like a post-Soviet Baltic Bowie.
Contemporary composition in Estonia is a living, breathing form that’s a part of the mainstream music conversation. At the labyrinthine merchant house of Mustpeade Maja, the two main halls offer up a lush menu of experimental strings, electronic drones, prepared piano works and compositions interpreting the sound of the London underground from artists like Hauschka, Eeter and The Hermes Experiment. Upstairs, a tremendously skilled Kazakh violinist called Aisha Orazbayeva belts out solo compositions; downstairs, UK psych-rock collective Flamingods shake the ceiling with waves of noise.
The rest of the festival is suitably anarchic in flavour. Von Krahl hosts a showcase of metal that spans the extremes of the genre, and at the steamy warren of Kelm, the windows rattle with the thunderous, echoing shoegaze of Croatians ŽEN and the apoplectic Russian new-wave band Glintshake. The soviet-era cinema Kino Soprus hosts a performance of accomplished chamber pop from Finnish singer Astrid Swan, and the daytime showcases vary from a quiet, earthy coffee shop recital from Mari Kalkun to the bassy blast of fast-rising Icelandic hip-hop duo Úlfur Úlfur in the city’s verdant botanical gardens. The festival ends with a pounding twelve hour techno party in the Balti Jaam train station.
Perhaps the reason for this rich, forward-thinking and constantly cross-pollinating scene is that it lay unexamined so long, with the main spotlight of the music industry firmly on Western Europe and the United States. If so, it was a productive time after all, leading to the birth of a thriving music scene that Tallinn Music Week exploits to the full — and that will demand the world’s full attention soon enough.