The keynote speaker of the Tallinn Music Week quotes the Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra and regales the audience with anecdotes from the famous CBGB club in New York City. The room is filled with dozens of artists, journalists and other music professionals. At the end, they cheer and applaud as they would a rock star.
The speaker is Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the President of Estonia, who has been the patron of the event since its inception in 2009.
“We were once performing at the KUMU Art Museum ofEstonia when I noticed our President really getting into it in the front row,” reminisces Ago Teppand, guitarist for Estonian artist Iiris.
But even though popular music nowadays is favoured by the high-ups, this has not been the case for long. During the Soviet era Western youth culture was regarded as a threat to social order. lt was a necessary evil barely tolerated, strictly controlled and sparsely rationed to the public by state-run record label Melodiya.
Nowadays Estonia has positioned herself at the other end of the spectrum. Ilves assimilates Estonian artists and bands with start-up businesses in the information technology sector. For him, they have become symbols of a small nation striving to find its place in the global community and reach out to the Western world.
Tallinn Music Week is the self-proclaimed “largest indoor festival of the Baltic-Nordic region” and the first logical step abroad for many Estonian artists is their north-western neighbour, Finland. But what kind of a spiritual bond has been built up between the countries since the collapse of the Iron Curtain.
As President Mikhail Gorbachev pushed for progress in the stagnant Soviet Union of the 1980s, he launched a new concept of openness dubbed “glasnost” or “perestroika”. Meanwhile, in the Soviet state of Estonia, endeavouring minds were working hard towards independence, which ultimately led to the so-called Singing Revolution where masses of up to 300,000 people gathered together at the Laululava outdoor stage to chant forbidden national songs and anthems (See also Antti Häyrynen’s article In Estonia, music is celebration, FMQ 4/1998).
There was an underground revolution going on as well. One of the leaders was Villu Tamme (b. 1963), who recorded the track Tere perestroika with his punk rock group J.M.K.E. for the Helsinki-based record label Stupido Twins in 1989. In the April of the same year J.M.K.E. played their first two shows abroad. They took place in Helsinki, of course.
Simultaneously, Finnish bands were beginning to manoeuvre their way through the cracks that were beginning to show in the Iron Curtain. The bass player of Estonian group Kosmiküd, Raivo Rätte (b. 1970), recalls how Finnish rock music changed his life.
“When the Finnish rock band Sielun Veljet arrived in Tallinn to play a show I went to see them. A scared boy from the countryside in the middle of the masses stared at this weird-looking bunch of men playing noisy and wondrous music. It struck me that I was in the presence of something mystic I had never experienced before.”
The circle closed in December 2011 as Raivo Rätte became one of the organisers of the Sielun Veljet comeback show in the Tallinn Rock Cafe. Nowadays his band is one of the biggest in Estonia, with frequent shows in Finland as well.
A small country with small cliques
Estonia has only 1.3 million inhabitants and the number has decreased rapidly in recent years, with young professionals using the freedom of movement in the European Union to follow their dreams by migrating to other countries.
The Estonian musical tradition is strong and the association PLMF was founded to support the professional endeavours and education of talented musicians in the classical discipline. However, the head of the association, Leelo Lehtla, says that some enduring facts simply have to be faced.
“Our talent pool is not that wide or deep. It is a miracle that such a small country has been able to produce so many successful composers and conductors.”
According to her, a big factor in the equation is the high quality of Estonian music education. In addition, there are ample opportunities to perform and hear live music. Lehtla helms the Estonian Music Festivals, an umbrella organisation which lists close to 50 events that qualify as “art music” events.
“But the business side of things is an area where we still have plenty of work cut out for us. For instance, London has been setting up similar mechanisms and networks ever since the end of World War II. We just got started in the early 1990s.”
Raivo Rätte is no stranger to the limitations forced by a small population. His first-hand experience comes from producing the Naapurivisa club concert series in 2002-07 between Estonia and Finland.
The concept of this musical import-export scheme was simple: choose a band from Finland and a band from Estonia. Pick a weekend and book one show in Helsinki and another one in Tallinn. The bands will headline on their own turf and the visiting group will act as support.
“We got a good start at the Semifinal club in Helsinki and gradually Naapurivisa grew so big that we sold out Nosturi and the Tallinn Rock Café,” says Raivo now.
The Finnish bands that performed Naapurivisa shows include CMX, Kotiteollisuus and Maj Karma. Artists such as Kauko Röyhkä and Ismo Alanko (formerly of the Sielun Veljet) took part as well. From Estonia, Naapurivisa presented groups including Kosmiküd, Metsatöll, J.M.K.E. and Röövel Ööbik. Eventually the concept petered out.
“When we couldn’t find any more Estonian bands that were big enough, we had to call it quits.”
Faced with borders
A total of one third of Estonians live in Tallinn, which makes the arranging of tours very challenging. Aside from Tallinn and Tartu, with its 100,000 inhabitants, there simply isn’t enough audience in other places.
According to Raivo Rätte, the situation has only got worse in the last five years. He blames the demographic: smaller towns have lost a lot of their populace to Tallinn or foreign countries as people have a tendency to follow the jobs.
On the other hand, the facing of borders compels the operative to find new territories and spread out abroad. But as Leelo Lehtla says, sometimes the neighbouring country seems to be all too close.
“We are perhaps not the sexiest trading partners for one another. Whenever events are being set up, the gaze easily becomes fixated on countries far away. Blinded by the need for something exotic, we often forget that there is a lot that’s interesting going on right across the border.”
The same applies to a mental distance. Laughingly, Lehtla says that the Finns and Estonians are too similar.
“Both our nations are introverted, humble and modest by inclination. If two people with these characteristics set up a meeting to discuss possible future deals, it takes a lot for them to emerge from the session with a completed and mutually assured plan for cooperation.”
When it comes to popular culture, collaboration and networking has been greatly boosted by the platform provided by the Tallinn Music Week. And in recent years Estonian bands have indeed found a new market in Finland.
Estonian-born folk music artist Mari Kalkun was nominated for the Emma Award (i.e. the Finnish equivalent of the Grammy) this year and Estonian groups and artists such as Ewert and the Two Dragons and Iiris have performed on Finnish festival stages, while up-and-coming bands ranging from Odd Hugo to the Elephants From Neptune have done club shows in Finland.
Nevertheless, Finland remains a challenging area for Estonian musicians. Toomas Olljum, manager of the most successful Estonian band, Ewert and the Two Dragons, says that only a few Estonian artists have really tasted success in Finland.
“Helsinki is close by geographically but far away in a business sense. A breakthrough in Finland requires the best possible associates in cooperation, brilliant music, patience and good luck.”
Finnish artists visit Estonia on a regular basis these days and Tallinn Music Week alone has hosted dozens of our best live acts, from Rubik to Mirel Wagner to Amorphis and beyond. But as the event is an international showcase festival, its main function from the Finnish bands’ point of view is to be seen and heard by European festival promoters and other industry delegates. On the other hand, traditional live shows in Estonia have little to no economic importance for Finnish artists.
Raivo Rätte is nevertheless keen to underscore the psychological aspect and spiritual significance. ln the tiny Finno-Ugric language family, Estonia is to all intents and purposes the only “foreign” country where an artist singing their songs in Finnish can perform in their mother tongue and be understood almost perfectly. And being faced with a new audience to win over can provide a healthy trial by fire even for the ones already road-worn and successful in Finland.
“Every band that has played here has told me that this breaking of the regular routines has been good for their mental health.”
In recent years, the audiences in Finland and Estonia have mixed in a very tangible way as well. Such is the number of Estonian guest workers and other expats nowadays living in the area surrounding our capital that it might be said that Helsinki is the sixth largest city of Estonia. Rätte notes that this is clearly visible whenever Kosmiküd plays a show in the metropolitan Helsinki region.
“As we performed as support band for Viikate at the club Virgin Oil Co. in Helsinki, the audience very distinctly included a section of Estonians who had come to see only us. Whenever a Finnish band chooses to have an Estonian band as their support in Helsinki, they can expect to sell an extra 100 tickets at the door. This is an opportunity both Finns and Estonians should not miss.”
Translation: Petri Silas
The 10th Tallinn Music Week takes place from 2 to 8 April, 2018. More information here.
How rock broke through the Iron Curtain
A phone is ringing in a room at the Viru hotel. lt is the summer of1989. Singer and bass player Janne Joutsenniemi from the speed metal group Stone is jolted brutally from his nap by the sound. There is an agitated voice at the other end: the band should be taking to the main stage of the Rock Summer festival. “What time is it?” Joutsenniemi manages to utter. “Now. The time is now,” replies the stage manager calling from the concert site.
Rock Summer had been founded the previous year as a symbol for the opening of the Soviet Union to the West. Entitled “Glasnost Rock – Rock for Peace”, the inaugural three-day event managed to pull a crowd of 150,000 to the Laululava festival grounds in Tallinn, Estonia. So the abruptly awoken Joutsenniemi is well aware that his outfit will be facing their biggest audience so far.
The man rounds up his bandmates and soon they rush towards the festival area. “As we counted off the set opener, all I could hear from my monitor was the left bass drum. But to the best of my capabilities, I soldiered on,” he reminisces now, laughing.
And this is where the innumerable hours at the rehearsal studio and dozens of gigs pay off. Muscle memory kicks in and the band locks into a tight groove. No one out in the field notices a thing and the crowd, numbering in the tens of thousands, goes wild.
These people have never experienced anything like this. For them, Stone is bigger than Metallica. “The sheer sound pressure from the audience was absolutely staggering. lt almost made me fall flat on my back,” Joutsenniemi says now.
Two years later, Finnish hard rock band Havana Black performed at Rock Summer. Politically, the situation throughout the entire Baltic region was volatile but obviously no one knew that the Soviet Union would fall apart just a few months later. Even though the high council of Estonia had declared the nation a sovereign and independent state in November 1988, to all intents and purposes the country was still part of the Soviet Union.
As the band was shuttled towards the stage at Laululava, drummer Anssi Nykänen noticed posters advertising the event. According to them, Havana Black hailed from the USA. Not true, yet not entirely untrue: the group were signed to American label Hollywood Records so a few corners had been cut in marketing. And this was enough: As Havana Black stepped in front of the enthusiastic crowd, they were received like international superstars.
Raivo Rätte frorn the Estonian group Kosmiküd grew up during he Soviet era. He remembers the 1980s as a totally unique period in time. As the closed society began opening its windows to the outside world, the first ones to peer in were Western rock bands.
Travelling abroad was a concept his generation had grown to regard as mission impossible. Yet, all of a sudden, gigs and concerts provided a chance for Estonian youth to experience something available to all young people in the outside world. “The hunger was so ravenous that people rushed into see all foreign groups. I recall packed ice halls and broken glass doors as folk burst into see bands like Miljoonasade, who were maybe not that international in nature but actually very Finnish. I’m sure these must have been strange times for the bands as well.”
Main photo by Mart Sepp: Tallinn Music Week 2014.