Tallinn Music Week 2019
Tallinn, Estonia, March 25-31, 2019,
Apr 15, 2019
For three days each spring, a corner of the old town in the Estonian capital transforms from a preserved, post-industrial throwback to a bustling, anything-is-possible playground for hundreds of invited artists and speakers to splash around in. This eleventh edition of Tallinn Music Week finds the usual diversity of musicians from across the map, both stylistic and geographic, concentrated in one creative centre. No one account can convey the sheer range of activity, but take a sample of the highlights from the weekend below.
Thursday evening is ushered in by Puuluup, an Estonian duo that self-identify as “neo-zombie-post-folk.” They wring the most bewildering array of sounds from their talharpas, a form of Northern European lyre, whether by drumming, bowing, plucking, or brushing them. From such seemingly rudimental equipment, the rhythms that they loop and the melodies that they harmonize are immediate crowd-pleasers; by the time they demonstrate the two-step dance-along for one of their closers, the growing audience need no convincing. It’s folk, it’s contemporary, it’s funny, and it’s danceable. It’s a perfect launching pad for the weekend.
In the disarmingly lounge-like surrounds of The Club of Different Rooms (in a situationist modern art touch, festival goers have to trade their shoes for slippers on entrance, reframing proceedings with a sense of intimacy that would be hard to replicate), Halifax, Nova Scotia’s Hello Delaware blow apart the quietness with their bombastic glam punk pop. Frontwoman Dana Beeler uses her body as a weapon on stage, whilst the band swing from The Big Moon-like power chords to sludgy, Iommi riffage. The band will win fans wherever they go, their presence as memorable as their hooks.
A wander through the site on Friday can result in encountering anything from a long-form panel discussion on the rise of “Cancel Culture” in our social media-directed society, fuelled into topical relevance by the recent Michael Jackson HBO documentary, Leaving Neverland, to a pop-up set in the bookstore from ambient, Boards of Canada-speed meditators Vera Vice. Indeed, stick around in the bookstore long enough and you will get to watch the squelchy, big beat production of Alex Kelman vibrate the books from their shelves.
Elsewhere, in the ornate Vaba Lava, a jazz night plays host to Captain Kirke and the Klingons, a pan-European supergroup that have people leaning around the entrance, straining to get within earshot. They explore multiple moods throughout their set, peaking with a tight, rhythmic number that finds saxophones bursting to skronk but being forced to live on only short jabs of air, whilst pianos and basses are slapped as much as played.
One of the most arresting sets of the festival is delivered by Vassvik, a sound artist from the northernmost tip of mainland Europe, within the Arctic Circle. He draws on the joik tradition, a folk music that uses vocals to conjure animalistic, guttural sounds that, as he explains, are designed to embody the subject matter of the piece, whether person, animal or place. These songs are quarried from a scarred land, and his heartfelt ode to the water carries a poignancy from an artist from his part of our melting planet that few others could match. These are still melodious tracks, a universal communicator, but shrouded in centuries of habitual learning and Vassvik’s own desire to push the boundaries yet further.
Japanese noiseniks Moja don’t bring the curtain down on Friday but rip it to shreds and set it ablaze. With a bulk of the festival crowd compressed into the Sveta Bar in anticipation, their two—that’s two—members create a towering cacophony of noise that never even threatens to relent. There is of course a long tradition of blistering noise-makers from Tokyo, and Moja are at least a match to Bo Ningen or Acid Mothers Temple, mastering what is ultimately a simple exchange of energy, but one that this audience proves is entirely universal. They play with reverberations, looping new knots in the inner ears of all in attendance, cheekily sampling “Turning Japanese” by The Vapors near the climax in a sly, post-modern nod. Monumental.
By the time Saturday afternoon arrives, something more tender is in need. Finland’s Trees are just the ticket, a soothing massage. Their ambling, cushioned folk-rock clearly calls to mind the traditions of Laurel Canyon, although their vocal harmonies are compromised unfortunately by the absence of Joose Keskitalo. Nevertheless, their sweet arrangements caress sore minds and revitalise their audience for the night ahead.
Back in Vaba Lava, the most beautiful set of the weekend is surely delivered by Tuulikki Bartosik. The Estonian accordion master cuts a solitary figure sitting alone on a large stage, whilst luring heart-stopping, achingly human sounds. Her piece inspired by the plight of political refugees is as haunting and profound as a feature-length documentary, an unforgettably touching tribute that rounds off one of the most memorable and well-observed 40 minutes of music that you could hope to see.
Duo Ruut continue the magic immediately following Bartosik, a duo that share one instrument. A kannel is an indigenous variation of the zither, a miraculous machine that can be simultaneously harmonic, melodic and percussive, especially in the hands of this twosome, whose four hands still each appear to multitask. They sit on opposite sides of the tabled kannel, and excavate countless forms of vibrations from it, as one, in tandem, indivisible. This is contemporary classical music, with none of the challenge; bare-naked musical magic.
Anybody familiar with SADO OPERA will know that their only place on the line-up could be the final act on closing night. The St. Petersburg duo of The Colonel and Magic Doll have long since decamped to Berlin, where their queer performance art troupe is much more at home. Their face-painted, lurid, ecstatic, never-ending party has Tallinn on its slippered feet throughout, channelling the wiry, disco-funk of decades gone by, sassing like Grace Jones, seducing like Prince. Like an underworld Midas, everything they touch turns hedonistic, a dream away, carefree escapism that is as inclusive as it is anarchic. For Tallinn Music Week, the place where every form of music is welcome, SADO OPERA represent the perfect way to sign off.
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