Helen Sildna from Tallin Music Week Estonia – talks about music and the politics of music









Helen Sildna runs Tallin Music Week which is music event in Estonia with a great line up of regional bands proving that music culture is now a true international force.Estonia is a small corner of Europe with unique pressures of its own nestling up to the mighty Russia on its borders which could bring pressures of its own but the music week is a determined effort to deal with these pressures culturally and politically.

Louder Than War review of Tallinn Music Week.



  1. Was the tension with Russia a factor in this year’s event? I detected a certain tone in the president speech… was Pussy Riot’s appearance part of this? I heard the Russian language bands from Estonia threatened to pull out because of Pussy Riot – how did you persuade them to remain and how important is the Tallinn music week for Estonian/Russian relations?
The background of Pussy Riot participating at this year’s conference goes back to 2012 actually, it was shortly after Pussy Riot’s performance in Moscow’s Orthodox Church. President Toomas Hendrik Ilves was in fact among the first people to support their right to freedom publicly. From his speech, strongly stressing the importance of freedom of speech and self expression, was picked up by international press, Amnesty International followed. Ever since we wanted to invite the girls to Tallinn to share their experience. Due to the very unfortunate coincidence their visit to Tallinn coincided with the crisis in Ukraine, which of course highlighted the topic and put Pussy Riot’s visit into a new, more acute context. Our President has always been a true rock music fan, but also a true believer in the values of human rights and democracy. He has reminded us and the world repeatedly that having these values as basis of our society, should not be taken for granted and furthermore, if these rights are being violated, it is our duty to act on it. The case of Russian politics VS the people of Russia is a very complicated one. I have learned to make a clear distinction when talking of these things, between “Russian politics” and “Russians”. These are the free thinkers and creative people of Russia who suffer the most from their country’s politics. Yet I see and I can understand and sympathize how frustrating this is for the Russians be be caught in the middle of this – it has created a situation that many of them are tired of talking about politics and want to avoid it. The Russian-speaking musicians of Estonia were asking if TMW was a “political” festival now – to which we replied that freedom of self expression is something that rock musicians and creative people should definitely stand up for. In the end we did not have to persuade these musicians, I believe they understood our message and the point.
I think Tallinn Music Week is as important to Estonian / Russian relations than any cultural event that attempts to include the local Russian speaking community and also to establish closer ties to the music and creative scene in Russia. And I have to say, this is something we have truly attempted to do. We are learning a lot as we go along and there have definitely been steps of progress. More and more Russian bands play at TMW every year, this year there were 8 of them, also more and more Russian music industry people, but also just music fans are traveling out to Tallinn to the festival. I truly believe that cultural events have immense power in uniting people. Still, there is so much more we can and should and want to do. No matter what will happen with Russian politics, we should never turn our back to the Russian people – the only way to change the shape of this enormous country, is through its people. The more internationally linked, the more networked they are – the stronger is the grant of our security. Cultural events and collaborations should be part of the defense policies I believe.
2. Estonia has a uniquely creative music scene – can you explain why? // 3. What is the current music scene like in Estonia? any personal favourite bands?
We have a long and vibrant singing tradition – the huge choir festival Song Festival gathers together around 100 000 people to sign together, our music education is strong, we famously sang ourselves free from the Soviet Power with the “singing revolution” – seems that music is part of our DNA. Traditional music – songs and poems were part of people’s everyday lives, part of all family and community traditions. All of this is an important cultural backdrop to what is going on in our music scene today. Our folk scene is really vibrant, you can witness influences of it in rock, indie, metal, contemporary classical. Contemporary composition is of course very strong – Arvo Pärt, Erkki Sven Tüür, Helena Tulve, but many more young and talented composers. Soviet times put a huge gap into the development of the pop and rock music scenes  – most of it was just prohibited at the time. We also did not have international rock music available here to listen to. The underground was truly underground, basically illegal. Of course whoever had the urge in them to make music, did not let this stop them. In a paradoxic way I think this forced the musicians to be uncompromising, authentic, rather being influenced by their cultural routes than from international standards. This vibe has remained. The lack of industry structure has been tough, yet there is something pure and honest in the music scene due to it – musicians are not trained to think in terms of what sells – their driving force has been creativity. The influence of traditional choir singing, the folk tradition can be witnessed in the music of several contemporary indie bands. There is something interesting going on in all the scenes-  be it then metal or dance, jazz, pop. I think the foundation of Estonian music is rich and deep, we just need to make sure the artists get the type of support and nurturing they need – then I think we have any chance to follow in the footsteps of either Icelandic or Danish success stories. Ewert & the Two Dragons, Maria Minerva, Erkki Sven Tüür, Helena Tulve, Kerli, Mord Fustang, Metsatöll  – all of these names mean something in their own scenes internationally. Arvo Pärt is opening up a international Arvo Pärt centre here in Estonia, in picturesque Laulasmaa – will be exciting.
4. 30 years ago music was dominated by the anglo american bands but there are micro scenes everywhere now – why is this?
I think internet has chanced the way we consume music for ever. The time of mega stars might be over, but good news is that there is more choice than ever. This is of course good news for small countries, micro scenes, indie labels, unsigned artists – new music, new players. Digital music services like iTunes, Spotify, Deezer, Rdio are available in more than 185 countries, only some a few years ago the number of these countries was 20. It means new music can reach new places. Also, the nature of services like Spotify, is to recommend new similar stuff to people – in addition to social media where people act upon friend’s recommendations. It is definitely the audience, music fans, who win here  – eventually this will change the type and shape of music festivals as well. Smaller scene based events, boutique festivals – different experiences at unexpected locations. Think of the success of Airbnb – people around the world suddenly have access to each others homes and cottages and it is safe and its exciting. The world is changing and getting much more accessible, but much more fragmented.
5. what is the future for the Tallinn music week? can it make a difference politically and culturally to Estonia and on the world stage
Tallinn is a gorgeous city, but also a very easily navigable, cozy and atmospheric playground for a festival like TMW. Thanks to the fact that the centre of town is very concise, walkable it is easy to fill the whole town with the festival for a weekend. At the same time, things are still developing here-  each year there are new exciting places-  run down factories that become art centers or creative hubs, brand new restaurants – its exciting time for the city which means its exciting also for the visitors. Historically Tallinn was always an important port for trading between northern and central Europe, our position geographically is unique – my dream is that TMW is really a stepping stone and a gateway to the whole region. A friendly access point to Russia, Ukraine, Poland etc. At the same time right next to the cool Nordic countries. The festival will definitely make a difference to Estonia in terms of tourism and press coverage – it already is, but I really hope it will make a difference also in terms of real collaboration within the region. All in all, this will create more opportunities for our artists, but everyone else as well. I’d like TMW to be free-spirited, creative, fun but at the same time sensitive to our community’s needs and tendencies. Whenever somebody get “on air” time in media they have to make sure they use the mic time for stuff that matters. We don’t run the festival to “entertain” people, we run it to do our small part in attempting to build a better, more creative, more considerate and sensitive society – thats the way I like to think about it.
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Award winning journalist and boss of Louder Than War. In a 30 year music writing career, John was the first to write about bands such as Stone Roses and Nirvana and has several best selling music books to his name. He constantly tours the world with Goldblade and the Membranes playing gigs or doing spoken word and speaking at music conferences.


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