About a week ago I felt something wasn’t right. A strange feeling I was supposed to be experiencing somewhere else, that slowly worked itself up into a much larger feeling of remove: around a specific place, displaced.
COVID related, of course. What isn’t?
Things slowly took shape. Increasingly, I felt I had to write about a festival that didn’t happen. Call it a hauntology of feeling, and ultimately a folly, but one I couldn’t let go. I couldn’t let these weeks go by without writing about Estonia and what would have been an annual jaunt to Tallinn Music Week.
What was – and hopefully still is and will be – so special about this festival?
Let’s start somewhere else. I am sitting in my living room staring at a glass roundel made by my mate Marije van Veen. Why a roundel? Not one for shopping, whether online or off, the recent #lockdown has seen me buy a heap of unrelated items: this roundel, a lambswool scarf in Border tartan (blame a sudden yearning to reconnect with my northeastern roots for that), an oversized t shirt I don’t know how to alter (but it’s the last run of a design), books by the pound weight and self-raising flour. The reason for the purchase of the roundel does have an element of altruism, as I bought it mainly to support Marije in these uncertain times. But not wholly; as this particular work reminded me of the Estonian flag. Regardless of what Marije was originally channelling, the blue and white and the slivers of black lead she used do conjure up memories of wandering round Tallinn and the secret, silent nature of the city; an atmosphere that lies heavy over wildly different districts such as the Old Town, Kopli, Pelgulinn or Kadriorg.
Come to think of it, Estonia started getting into my life back in 1993 when I hitched a lift on a bus holiday to Czechoslovakia for senior citizens; mostly WW2 refugees going back for “one last look”, it seemed. It was called – I kid you not – “A Bohemian Rhapsody”. Anyway, I found myself in a scuzzy Prague bookshop. After a rummaging around for a light and portable keepsake I became the owner of two postcards showing the Estonian symbols, the swallow and the cornflower. Back then in the hedonistic early ‘90s, any memento from a “former Soviet Bloc” country seemed cool and hinted at adventure and mystery, and beautiful women with high cheekbones. I can’t say I was totally sure where Estonia was; outside of knowing it was one of a handful of small satellite countries that had kicked out the Soviets after a novel revolution that seemed (if you believed the TV pics) to have involved holding hands and singing.
It’s weird how I still have these cards, and how I have taken and shown them to all my friends at Tallinn Music Week, as if confirmation that actions can begin in hindsight to become markers for future actions. Hauntology in reverse, maybe?
Back to music. Another Estonian connection is that Marije runs the Hot Topic bookings agency whose roster boasts a mutual friend, Estonian fiddler and producer, Maarja Nuut. In fact Nuut, and other Estonians have been getting everywhere in my life this past 5 years. This magazine has been a fan of Nuut’s for years, watching her change from a folk singer channelling ancient stories and a strong punkish attitude to a composer exploring wider, lusher experiments in electronica and dance as part of her ongoing duo with RUUM, aka Hendrik Kaljujärv. Maarja flits around Tallinn’s less known districts soaking up strange local lore and their inhabitants’ peculiarities. Like another brilliant local sound architect, Ekke Västrik (who we also got to know at TMW), she actively draws on her life in this city on the Baltic, working its strange rhythms and half-seen insights into her artistic practice.
We’ve recently written about another brilliant Estonian, Mart Avi, and his killer new single SoulReaver / Spark. Somehow it feels like Mart inhabits Tallinn as a resident visitor; when we’re in town we don’t see much of him. He appears, plays wild gigs that look as if they’ve been beamed in from outer space and then exits stage left. Outside of Tallinn it’s another matter. Voyages with Mart have included going native in the Deep South of the country and helping him build a photocopied sculpture that could have been a spaceship. This is a very special pop star.
Reset to another festival memory… Round about this time, if we lived back in the world we once lived in, I’d be conjuring up memories of the strange venues Tallinn had to offer for my review. Every year the festival had some new crazy place to slide down the walls in. A surprisingly dynamic city in terms of “renovations” and developments, the venue hosting policy for Tallinn Music Week mirrored both the city’s ever-shifting shape and the festival’s restless, devil-may-care programming. Places that were, literally, a heap of 1980s rubble would be a multispace venue with a craft brewery the following year. Or would disappear: so the memory of drinking supermarket Lithuanian beer amongst architectural models (living and made of paper) in a design academy that had inexplicably vacated the premises the year after, only made the beer seem sweeter. Some experiences of place are burned into my memory: the long-lost radio station that doubled as a shack and dive bar, where Henri Hütt and Ekke played blindingly beautiful shows that wormed their way back to a glittering electronic mothership. Being served soup(!) in the EKKM whilst surrounded by suffocating dry ice, and eating said soup whilst watching Ratkiller mince soundwaves at high volume. All while hanging with the high priests of Tallinn’s soundart set (Artyom Astrov, Andres Lõo, Hendrik Kaljujärv, take a bow). And, most notably, watching the rise of the Telliskivi complex from a set of drafty sheds and warehouses by a mucky railway line into one of those swish “creative” hubs. Likewise the rise of the bohemian Sveta bar, run by Mancunian-in-a-better-place Luke Teetsov-Faulkner and his wife Madleen. Nothing was ever the same, on every visit.
The city was never still, it seemed. At some point after the festival I would text the founder of this website, John Robb, and we would laugh at the memory of some absurd spot where we were supposed to find the latest talent this unassuming country had to offer. Shopping malls, Chinese takeaways, cafeterias, Russian cinemas, tropical greenhouses, library entrances, magical and ancient guildhalls, a renovated industrial site where Tarkovsky part-shot Stalker… I know it’s been part of the wider showcase festival game to host gigs in “unconventional settings” but somehow, by embodying the absolute paradigm of this trend, (maybe by taking it a notch further whilst laughing at the absurdity of it all), Tallinn Music Week completely sidestepped all the snobby baggage that goes with being a showcase festival. Their little sister festival, Station Narva, in the Estonian-Russian border city, takes this further. I think I’m in a select bunch of people who have seen a carp landed to the live sounds of Asian Dub Foundation.
The favourite has to be the wild KuKu Klubi, where, over the years, a parade of gamine musical youth were given the chance to shake things up. KuKu Klubi was the stage for the great Crypto Market showcase back in 2018, a carnival of mostly solo acts; some desperate for their 5 minutes of fame, others quite brilliant: I will never forget one sonic punter making love to a cream cake whilst railing against the inanities of Estonia over a glitchy soundtrack. And it’s fair to say that KuKu Klubi was often the place where we first encountered some of the Russian acts everyone’s been raving about for the last 5 years or so.
A year back I went on holiday to Estonia with my wife Mariska. She had never been, so the urge to show her some of Tallinn’s more notorious hangouts was strong. And at Kuku Klubi on a nice sunny Tuesday afternoon, we got a strong aftertaste of the strange atmosphere that somehow gave Tallinn Music Week such a trickster feel. KuKu was deserted, apart from a bored barmaid and a pensioner who’d passed out blind drunk into his soup.
Showcasing Russian acts is important in another sense and what made Tallinn Music Week different, and very exciting. Like Ljubljana’s MENT festival, TMW is a cockpit for a wider region, and an increasingly vital bridge into a wider Scandinavian culture. It’s an outward-looking event, promoting its Baltic neighbours and Young Russia’s brilliant, mercurial music, maybe overshadowing some of its own scenes. John and I will never forget being blown away by a crazy, glittered-up Lucidvox in the stately Mustpeade Maja’s cellar or being shaken to the bone by Spasibo’s shattering update on grunge in a literally shaking KuKu. Or, for that matter, being dazzled by the glorious musical combinations around the brilliant pair of Kate Shilonosova and Jenya Gorbunov (whether as Inturist, Glintshake, or Kate NV). Not forgetting – of course – the shuddering brilliance of Shortparis. Always in Estonia, first stop Tallinn. You can make the same case for the brilliant Finnish and Swedish acts or the fascinating folk showcases built around Karelian music, for example.
I think it’s good to say, now you’ve stuck with me for so long, that I promise you, this piece isn’t some softsoap job. It’s certainly true I have made some strong friendships amongst both the organisers and many musicians and cultural workers in this intriguing land. In the course of building both friendships and musical investigations in Estonia, I’ve ended up staying in a shack on the Russian border hearing Russian air traffic control break through the radio. I’ve been told some wild stories about the Kopli neighbourhood, secret booze trains and chess playing on tree stumps at dusk. We’ve stared at the rings of Saturn in the Kingdom of the Ants. Nothing ever really feels real in Estonia. Yes I am waxing mildly lyrical. But, after all, what kind of “requiem” for a festival, and by default its home country, gets triggered into existence by a small rectangular piece of stained glass made by a mate? COVID’s ever encroaching claws surely means that the music industry can – for now at least – drop the pretence about writing about the places where the music is and the artifice around set-piece music festivals?
Not that Tallinn Music Week ever deserved that kind of bullshitty, cod-sociopolitical /music-bizz / holiday-destination / humblebrag package that masquerades as a review; even if it inevitably suffered them.
I’m not saying, either, that Tallinn Music Week was perfect. Far from it. Sometimes you felt a gust of breeze would blow it away. And you’d always hear grumbles and from performers, press, old hands… Tallinn is a small city and Estonia is a small country and things reverberate around both. I’m saying the festival was – and will be – a remarkable festival, warts and all. Of course there is an image to be cultivated to an outside world and who cares what goes on in the city when we foreign press types aren’t there to coo and dream up half-remembered nonsense into an endlessly recyclable 2000 words…
Maybe I’m trying to say – to myself – that this world I’m looking at through the prism of a small roundel isn’t coming back. It’s a new dawn. But if that also fades, and one of the festivals that graced it could live on, I’d hope Tallinn Music Week – alongside a select handful of others – would shape things to come.
Pics courtesy of the author.