Event Review: Tallinn Music Week (Tallinn, Estonia; Thursday 27th to Sunday 30th August 2020)

There was something extra jubilant and euphoric about the Tallinn Music Week that managed to take place, against all odds, in the latter part of August. Amidst a worldwide pandemic, Estonia invited delegates and music lovers from the world over to flee any which way they could, to Tallinn Medieval Old Town.  

With COVID dominating most parts of the globe, the already postponed and delayed conference / festival cautiously received the go ahead by the Estonian government, with whom they were in close conversation with. In an unprecedented administrative structure, characterised by risks, problem solving and cancellations, the team contacted the press with a fight AND flight plan which allowed the UK and EU press to land on their feet in Estonia mere hours before a two week travel ban was implemented on the British.

With cascading cancellations from international artists and speakers, it must be said that the shift to local and home bands of the neighbouring countries, and low key switching of panel members and hosts was done with the utmost discretion and calm organisation. So much so that you might have remained unaware of the difficulties of organising festivals and conferences during a pandemic! With the help of neighbouring countries – Latvia, Finland and Lithuania – the musical landscape became Baltic heavy with focus on jazz, urban, trad-folk, rock and heavy metal and plenty of electronica. The chance to hear various home-grown music from across the board was intense, and I personally loved the opportunity to have the local musical landscape painted out in its entirety for us to explore. I wonder if future events might keep part of this intensive focus on home-grown sounds.

The overall experience of Tallinn was a surreal and certainly a beautiful one to remember, with the traditionally teeming tourist towns suddenly void of tourists. Muses were left to roam in relative peace throughout the various multitudes of venues featuring music and panels throughout the Old Town and creative district – Telliskivi.

A particular musical highlight for me came at the very opening moments for music in the festival at the central Fotografiska Museam which hosted the opening ceremony. After speeches by delegates from neighbouring countries we were introduced to electronic baltic sounds from Finland through the voltaic band. Suistamon Sähkö, whose infectious and exploding energy was the perfect antidote for shaking off the COVID blues, and remembering how infectious dancing can be, mixing traditional accordion sounds familiar throughout the Baltics with Karelian (North West Russia) folk music and elements of hip-hop. 

Whilst perhaps some people weren’t ready for their energy, they had me on the first booming kick drum beat, all four band members in euphoric rhythm, fist pumping, foot stomping as though they hadn’t gigged in months, which of course, was true.

In the same evening we were treated to stages with their focus on Baltic traditional instruments, and later their electronic offspring. Other stages had showcase evenings or featured line ups each with differing focuses: one venue favoured the heavy metal sounds that are so popular in the regions, whilst another focused on alternative music. DJs played every evening into the morning at the locals’ favourite queer-friendly The Sveta Baar tucked in the storage container land in the transformed creative district. Sveta Baar has continuously won the bar of the year award, despite being the only independent venue to be considered.

Another highlight from the early days of the festival was a traditional hiiu kannel (a strung harp-like instrument indigenous to the Estonian area) duo, although the name of the lyre can differ depending on which region and tradition you’re from. That was the Estonian band Puuluup, who combined playing and plucking the ancient harp instrument with loop pedals, electrifying and adding percussive elements, with harmonic singing and a lively serving of humour and wit. Whilst on one hand classical, traditional, sincere and serious, they played not only with the instruments, but with the audience as they sent laughter throughout during the moments between songs. Upon completion of their intense, classical-sounding opening track, they said after the applause died down: “Thank you, this song was about…skiing”. After a round of laughter: “ No, seriously, a lot of our songs are about sports”.

Exploring what the festival had to offer meant exploring the cultural and artistic corners of Estonia. Not only the historical heritage medieval main city, but the neighbouring former factory zone  / turn centre for arts, galleries, bars, record stores and food delights: the Telliskivi Creative City.

The cultural possibilities with Tallinn Music Week stretched to an eclectic array of conferences: favourites included talks surrounding issues of appropriation in the music industry in Estonia, and the all important conversation about the future of live music events after COVID, and an uplifting panel on the future of print, which has seen a rise in support since COVID.

An evening of folktronica in the Fotografiska on the Friday evening took my primary fancy for the weekend – resulting in the conclusion “I love folktronica”  – with the help of Estonian based band OOPUS, who set up  in the middle of the dance floor an electronic pyramid which they plugged their bagpipes and various other instruments into, electrifying the dance floor into an evening of catchy, infectious and habitable grooves.

A perfect evening of note from the Telliskivi Creative City main stage in the centre square, was with Estonian chart toppers Trad.Attack! With their electrified bagpipes and stomping traditional rhythms, the trio exploded onto the stage with a ferocious, unrelenting energy, enthralling the entire audience infectiously – a feeling of utter euphoria seemed to sweep through with extended smiles and giggles of joy from the audience – a group of fans, all finally allowed to celebrate the music they loved. Their popularity was as clear as their recent album’s success, but the feeling of being a part of something so jubilant shook me free from the COVID blues.

Tallinn music week, against all odds, was a musical, cultural and cross-borders success. I particularly loved the emphasis and depth in which the local sounds were explored and showcased, and I came away feeling I knew so much more about he Baltic musical landscapes, as well as the heritage Tallinn has to offer.