Flag waving. It’s a thorny issue among many Europeans, for whom a show of national pride conjures memories of sinister flags being waved for sinister reasons. But only the terminally flag-phobic would bemoan Estonia’s right to bear their national colours, on a stick.
Once every five years, about a tenth of the entire population parades through the capital, Tallinn, before gathering at a purpose-built auditorium in the Singing Festival Grounds. About 90,000 people then head into the audience, while another 30,000 young Estonians hit the stage. It’s the most extraordinary choir you’ll ever hear, and see, as a sea of blue, black and white flags flutter proudly.
And you can’t blame them. Estonia has come a long way since declaring independence in 1991, from a Soviet Union that practically swallowed it and the other Baltic nations; Latvia and Lithuania. For 40 years, Estonia didn’t officially exist. But it escaped by singing. Which is why Clash is here, on a pretty momentous weekend.
The varied vocalising began just before we arrived, on Thursday, where euro bigwig Jean-Claude Juncker was the main attraction at a concert launching Estonia’s first x of the EU presidency. He didn’t sing, but did blow kisses to the thousands who’d turned up, before a splendidly quirky celebratory gig got underway, the highlight being the guitarist from heavy-rockers Winny Puhh hurtling down a tripwire from a rooftop to the stage having apparently been dipped in oil beforehand.
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The presidency is a big deal here – not that the nation was entirely pro-EU, pre-admission. “I remember there was a big national debate,” recalls Erki Pärnoja, another notable Estonian guitarist, with a big connection to the weekend’s events. “I think one of the major arguments against joining was ‘we just exited from a union, and now we’re joining a new one.’”
They jumped in though, and it’s a celebratory weekend all round. Saturday and Sunday will boast two of the world’s biggest dance then song displays. But before that, on Friday, there’s a more cutting-edge mini-fest, featuring the excellent Pärnoja. He’s in the hugely popular band Ewert and the Two Dragons, but here performs his own instrumental rock/electronica stuff, at an appropriately evocative location.
The venue is a newly-built stage at Telliskivi Creative City, mysterious Soviet factories now upcycled into the coolest bit of town. It’s part of the old fishing area Kalamaja, which has several other eyebrow-raising attractions. By the docks there’s an abandoned Soviet prison – spooky tours are available – but, pre-gig, Clash needs to check something next door.
In 2016, the admirable Tallinn Music Week festival held a full-blown rave at the vast Seaplane Harbour Museum, and we’re pleased to confirm that, yes, there really is a full-sized submarine in there. That sub, the Lembit, experienced a significant chunk of this nation’s history. British-built to help Estonia fight Nazis before WWII, it was requisitioned by the Soviets, reclaimed after independence and brought to this (EU funded) museum, and partied. Heady days.
From there it’s a short hop to Telliskivi, where 3,000 punters are watching Pärnoja’s outfit knock out enjoyably resonant rocktronica. The show is headlined, though, by another increasingly successful Estonian export. Trad.Attack were once described by sometime Clash scribe John Robb as “21st century Nordic turbo folk”, which works, and they’ve staged this hefty gig to launch new album ‘Kullakarva’ (Shimmer Gold).
“Telliskivi is kind of a newborn area,” says Trad.Attack’s Sandra Sillamaa. “We always try to push the boundaries further and Telliskivi got in the way, because we hang out here a lot. Plus, there had never been a concert of this magnitude here.”
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The setting sums up modern Tallinn rather well. In the distance famous spires surge up from red-bricked Old Town roofs, we’re surrounded by still-empty Soviet factories, while hi-tech trains hurtle behind the stage and Trad.Attack fans wander around in masks mirroring the album’s digital animal motifs. Impressive visuals do likewise onstage: great digital wolves and bears stalk around while Sillamaa and co make a powerful retro-modern groove.
Trad.Attack are part of a fascinating neo-folk scene unique to Estonia, embracing trad and tech influences. Another acclaimed purveyor, Maarja Nuut, is in the studio with Scottish producer Howie B (Bjork, U2) this same weekend, which should be interesting. After decades where old Estonian and new western music were banned, you can understand the attraction.
“We appreciate our roots; we’re proud to be Estonian musicians,” says Sillamaa. “As our drummer's mother say to us, ‘you are the business cards of our country, be good!’”
The new generation get the trad-tech thing too, and on Saturday there’s a mini revolution. That’s dance day: tens of thousands of kids performing moves they’ve practised for years. Unfortunately it buckets down, and the afternoon performance is cancelled. But the kids decide otherwise, and via social media arrange an impromptu performance in Tallinn’s Freedom Square. They may well commemorate this in years to come.
Sunday is the main event though. Clash joins the procession from the city centre to the Song Festival Grounds, infiltrating a random city. “Tartu!” we shout, despite never having been. “Hooray for nice people!” responds someone on the sidelines.
This five-yearly festival dates back to 1869, but took on even greater significance as the Iron Curtain began to fray. It was singing these restricted songs, together, that fuelled Estonia’s new confidence. The Singing Revolution. “Music is a big thing here,” says Erki Pärnoja, with classic Estonian understatement. “I have been a part of the choir. It’s huge and truly important.”
Indeed, and you can’t fail to be moved by 30,000 voices, beautifully arranged. Another fine Estonian singer, Mari Kulkun has composed a new piece “in a minority dialect, Võru, about the power of song,” she tells us later, a performance that also includes a full zither section, which is always good. Kalkun receives a quite remarkable cheer afterwards, the sort of euphoric noise you might hear if, say, Nigel Farage accidentally impaled himself on a St George’s flag.
The performance goes on long into the evening, a staggering spectacle throughout, then reaches a late peak. Two soloists emerge on the mega-populated stage and, backed by that mighty choir, perform an old folk tune now called ‘Beauty of the Evening,’ that’s the most glorious thing you’ll ever hear. Flags are flung, national pride is sung, but they’re still firmly embracing a wider union. It can be done.
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Words: Si Hawkins