Published: April 4, 2012 (Issue # 1702)
Pussy Riot unexpectedly occupied the spotlight at the Tallinn Music Week, as Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who addressed the Baltics’ largest music industry forum at the Estonian capital’s Nordic Hotel Forum on Friday, spoke in support of the musicians. Alleged members of the Moscow feminist punk band were imprisoned last month after performing an anti-Putin “punk prayer” in a church.
The statement in defense of the women came at the end of a speech given by Ilves devoted to the link between rock and roll and freedom.
Speaking to the delegates, Ilves showed extensive knowledge of rock music, citing Neil Young, the Sex Pistols and PJ Harvey, and referring to MC5 and Jello Biafra as well as to the Czech underground art-rock band Plastic People of the Universe, whose members were put in prison on charges of “an organized disturbance of the peace” after an unsanctioned rock festival in 1976.
“There’s a band right now in Moscow who staged a protest against the prime minister,” Ilves said.
“Four women, they are called Pussy Riot, and as a result of doing this protest, set in a church, they were arrested. They’re being held without bail for two months and they’re being charged with seven years in prison. Very young women in their 20s, they have young children. So you see, rock and roll — with all these clichés about being subversive — well, it is subversive, but in some places this subversion is taken seriously. And just to show you what can get you seven years in a Russian jail, I’ll put [a video of the protest] on. Keep in mind it’s not all fun.”
As Pussy Riot’s performance video of “Holy Madonna, Drive Putin Away” in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral was shown on the screen, Ilves sat down in the front row, between defiant Moscow music journalist and promoter Artemy Troitsky and Estonian culture minister — once an underground rock concert promoter Rein Lang.
The subject of Pussy Riot and freedom in Russia was picked up by Troitsky, who was interviewed in front of the delegates by Tapio Korjus of the Finnish independent record label Rockadillo Records.
During a conversation covering his diverse music activities and the history of Russian rock music, Troitsky, who started out as a music writer and underground promoter under the Soviets in the 1970s, played Peter Gabriel’s video address to protesters in Russia. The British musician made the video in the wake of protests against electoral fraud and ahead of the March 4 presidential elections. Troitsky also announced a concert in defense of Pussy Riot to be held in Tallinn on Sunday.
Tallinn Music Week is the biggest music industry event in the Baltics and a large-scale indoor festival with performances by dozens acts from Estonia and abroad taking place in many different venues across the city. This year, it drew more than 400 music professionals as delegates, while the music program featured 183 acts from 13 countries.
The Estonian program opened with a performance by the talented young Estonian singer Iiris, who presented her debut album “The Magic Gift Box” with a full-fledged, full-band concert at Rock Cafe, a large two-hall music venue just outside the center.
Russia was represented by indie rock band Motorama, whose concert at Rock Stars bar was a success with the event’s delegates and concert-going public. Alongside Motorama, who come from Rostov and sing in English, Russia was represented by electronic music artist Dza, who performed at Kultuurikatel (“culture boiler”) — a huge venue in a defunct power plant near the sea.
With Helsinki just two hours away from Tallinn by ferry, Finnish music acts had a high profile in the event’s program, which was prepared in cooperation with the Music Export Finland and the Music & Media music industry event in Tampere, Finland. The Finnish program included a live event at Rock Stars organized by the Helsinki-based label Stupido Records’, which ended with its head Joose Berglund spinning discs until the small hours.
Helen Sildna, the Tallinn Music Week’s director, founded the event to promote Estonian music and creative industries and export in 2009 after visiting similar music industry festivals like Eurosonic in Holland and Music & Media in Finland.
“It was pretty clear that a festival like this would really help the Estonian music scene,” Sildna said in Tallinn on Sunday.
“I have always believed that there is enormous talent here in Estonia, but it was obvious that the weakness of the music scene is just weak links to the international music market and the entrepreneurial structure, so there are no managers, labels or agents. It seemed to be a great way of getting in contact with international partners and raising the prestige and quality of Estonian music.”
According to Sildna, it was a fortuitous coincidence that the project was launched in the year when preparations for the year of Tallinn as European Capital of Culture were already underway, which helped to fund Tallinn Music Week at the beginning.
“The great thing — and this is what we also heard from international delegates and the press — was that they were impressed by the variety and the uniqueness of Estonian music,” Sildna said.
“I mean the whole music scene in a way was a well kept secret for years, so all the artists have always basically done it from their own inner motivation; they have never been forced to think ‘What sells?’ or ‘What is the market?’
“In that sense, everybody is just doing kind of uncompromising art that they feel they should be doing, and this has created quite a unique scene, so there’s a lot going on in the folk scene, in the contemporary classic scene, and a lot of exciting stuff in indie, electronic and kind of leftfield music as well. I don’t think anybody expects a proper pop format artist from a small country like Estonia, and I think everybody comes here in search of something unique and original.
“If you think about the case of Bjork, for example, from a tiny country like Iceland — they have something unique that can become really big if the team is right, if the timing is right, if the band gets the right contacts, I think it can really work well.”
There were plenty of talented and diverse Estonian artists — from modern classical to indie and folk — at Tallinn Music Week this year.
The band Väljasoit Rohelisse, which performed at the restored old Soviet film theater Kino Soprus, received a lot of critical success during Tallinn Music Week, drawing comparisons to acts from the Velvet Underground to Joy Division to The Cramps. The band’s music is described as “one-chord psychedelia with swamp blues, surf and Krautrock tinges and Estonian echoes.”
From the town of Viljandi comes the “fire-folk” band Svjata Vatra, fronted by singer Ruslan Trochynskyi who moved from Ukraine in 2005 and formed the band with Estonian musicians. The band, whose name means “sacred fire” in Ukrainian, is famous for using naked flames in its shows and for its rendition of the Ukrainian folk song “Kalina-Malina,” which has become a massive hit in Estonia. At a concert at Tallinn’s Teater NO99, fans sang along with the band.
Experimental improvised music band Kreatiivmootor, which performed at Von Krahl — a theater and bar in Tallinn’s Old Town — will be seen in St. Petersburg soon, as it has been scheduled to perform at the SKIF International Festival in May.
“By mixing all the styles, we want to give out the message that music is a universal thing and it’s great to be open about it,” Sildna said.
In addition to the Night Venue program, this year’s festival included the City Stage program — a series of free performances held in unusual places across the city, from shopping malls to the offices of Skype, a technology created in Estonia, which is proud to be on the cutting edge of programming and is almost entirely covered by free Wi-Fi Internet.
Orelipoiss, a one-man band created by classically trained singer and poet Jaan Pehk, was one of the acts performing from a bed in a Nordic Hotel Forum suite with the audience listening to them from the other room of the suite. Those unable to cram in could enjoy an Internet video broadcast from anywhere else.
According to Sildna, one of the motivations behind the City Stage program was to make music available to broader audiences, including people under 18 who are not allowed to go to nightclubs, and older people who simply do not like going to nightclubs.
On Sunday, President Ilves attended a concert in support of Pussy Riot — featuring Estonian punk legend Peeter Volkonski and Propeller — organized by Estonian parliamentary deputy Juku-Kalle Raid, who drew on his experience of being a punk concert promoter in the past.
Inside the packed Von Krahl theater and bar, Raid read aloud an open letter to the Russian government and state duma from nine Estonian MPs who protested the use of the courts to achieve political goals and demanded the release of the arrested women.
“These women were arrested on hooliganism charges, but it is clear to all that they protested against the elections, against Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism and against the lack of freedom of speech in Russia,” they wrote.
“We stand in solidarity with those people, the citizens of Russia, who are aware of the situation in Russia and see the arrested punk musicians as prisoners of conscience, who are being persecuted for expressing their views.”