Words by Helienne Lindvall
It was clear right from the start that last week's Tallinn Music Week was not your ordinary music festival – and Estonia not your average country. The Estonian president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, opened the festivities by reminiscing about his days at CBGBs in New York, mentioning Neil Young, quoting lyrics from PJ Harvey's Let England Shake, and touching on the perils of being an outspoken musician when the country was part of the Soviet Union.
He said the worst thing for an artist is to be ignored – hence why Dead Kennedys' Jello Biafra had always wanted to get arrested. But, he said, in an "unfree" society, such as the Soviet Union, being jailed was a real possibility, and such risks are not just a thing of the past. As a stark illustration, Ilves wrapped up by showing a video of Russian punk band Pussy Riot being dragged away by the authorities after staging a protest gig in Moscow's largest cathedral earlier this year. "They've been held without bail for weeks, facing seven years in jail for that performance. They have children," he said. "Keep in mind: it's not all fun."
Ilves isn't the only serious rock fan in the Estonian cabinet. With the minister of culture, Rein Lang, having set up some of the country's first rock festivals it's clear to see why Tallinn Music Week (which is actually three days long) receives such huge support. Lang is a strong supporter of copyright and artists' right to be remunerated for their work. "Why is it telecoms feel human value can be questioned, but technology can't?" he asked, adding if we don't pay for the music we consume it'll fall on the state to look after artists, which would turn the clock back to the music environment experienced under communism.
The foreign visitors to the festival were invited to tour the KGB museum, located inside a hotel. Standing inside the former KGB office used to spy on staff and guests (the door to it displayed a sign saying "There's nothing behind this door"), the guide spoke of how, growing up in the 80s, bananas were so rare to come by that they'd eat them like popsicles and walk around proudly waving the peel for all to see – and how, when they managed to, secretly, get a Finnish TV signal, it would make her sad to see everything the rest of the world had access to.
It's little more than 20 years since Estonia gained independence, and maybe that explains the enthusiasm still palpable among the country's musicians and their fans. The festival featured 183 acts – most of them Estonian, but also from Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and other countries in the region. There were also British bands performing, thanks to Brainlove Records, which has developed an artist exchange between the countries since last year's festival.
Many of the Baltic bands didn't shy away from theatricals and campness. The singer of Estonian-Ukrainian "fire-folk" band Svjata Vatra had the audience singing along to his every word, while he juggled fire and played the sword, and Estonian singer Iiris's dramatic performance would do well in Eurovision, I suspect. As would Instrumenti, whose singer appeared to be Latvia's answer to Adam Lambert, flanked by four horn players wearing monster makeup and oversized hats.
The programme described Finnish duo Jaakko & Jay's music as "a high-latitude spin on classic punk themes like drinking, revolution, drinking, making music, drinking, acute social commentary and drinking", but, as it was difficult to hear the lyrics, I'd describe them as a cross between White Stripes on speed and Tenacious D. I was told they're quite political and refuse to use the internet, choosing instead to communicate with their management by letter.
Lithuanian singer and pianist Alina Orlova reminded me of Regina Spector and Ane Brun, or, possibly, a female Antony Hegarty. It was barely noticeable that most of her lyrics were in her native language, as the music itself seemed to illustrate their meaning.
Scandinavia has long been the source of some the most interesting new music around. As acts such as Sigur Rós and Ane Brun have moved into the mainstream, maybe it's now time to set our sights on the Baltic states. The Estonian capital seems to feature all sorts of art in the most unexpected places (as well as the world's only Depeche Mode-themed bar, which only plays the Essex band's music). As one promoter visiting the festival put it: "I think Tallinn can be the next Reykjavik – there's enough craziness here."