Clash reports from the Estonian capital…

Flashbulbs exploding in the face of an attractive young woman is hardly a novel occurrence; that’s been an occupational hazard for the hugely famous ever since cameras were invented. But this paparazzi incursion feels particularly uncomfortable, more like something you’d see outside a courthouse than at a cultural event. Even Estonia’s usually unflappable president, preparing to give his annual Tallinn Music Week speech, seems slightly bemused.

“Good morning… I’ve never seen so many people here,” ponders Toomas Hendrik Ilves, surveying the scrum below his lectern. “There must be a reason. It isn’t me.”

Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, formerly of Pussy Riot

The young woman in question is Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, formerly of Pussy Riot, who has arrived a little early for her own talk. Her entrance certainly causes a stir. Lasciviously eager professional snappers converge like hi-tech hyenas, followed by opportunistic phone-wielding amateurs, while Tolokonnikova sits and stares impassively ahead. She has, of course, endured worse treatment.

It’s an interesting time to be in the Baltics, to put it mildly, and the increasingly important-in-these-parts Tallinn Music Week seems more than just a music festival this year: freedom is the oft-mentioned theme. Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea and apparent designs on the remainder of Ukraine has the other old Soviet republics, and the rest of the world, understandably perturbed. Estonia – independent from the Soviet Union since 1991 – has a 25% Russian populace. If enough of them start waving the white, blue and red, who knows what might happen.

Certainly Tolokonnikova and her fellow ex-Riot girl Maria Alyokhina remain suitably acerbic about the Russian president during their testy TMW talk (and even testier press conference). Indeed, according to our interpreter, they finish up by likening Putin to Hitler, before someone corrects the translation: actually, the comparison was with fascism generally. Still, the point’s made, and there are other intriguing contrasts along the way. “If you apply modern legislation [in Russia] to Jesus Christ, he would get five years in prison,” suggests Tolokonnikova. “Although we are not comparing ourselves to Jesus Christ…”

They jet off for a supportive stopover in Ukraine, while in Tallinn the music begins in earnest, although not without more conflict-related rhetoric. The festival’s very apt headline act is Public Service Broadcasting (pictured, main),  whose enjoyable riffs and beats reverberate evocatively around an old Soviet paper factory now called Rock Cafe.

Their refashioned wartime propaganda films don’t feel nearly as fun here as they usually might, however: a little too close to home. Indeed, outside afterwards I get chatting to a doom-mongering Lithuanian delegate who insists that an official-looking security document has leaked online suggesting that the Russians will march into Ukraine on Sunday, then Estonia on Tuesday. Now Estonia, unlike Ukraine, is a member of the EU and NATO, which makes Russian intervention less likely, you’d hope. Still, I make a mental note not to repeat last year’s mishap and miss my flight home. We come, we see, we flee: that’s the modern westerner’s way.

Curiously, the best breakout band at this year’s TMW also has a protect-the-homestead kinda name: subconsciously prescient booking, perhaps. Get Your Gun are from Denmark and make the sort of gravelly-voiced, gloomily-lit baroque ‘n’ roll (complete with violinist) that inspires near religious head-noddage from the locals down the front, particularly the epic track ‘Ghosts Of Scandinavia.’ Think Queens Of The Groan Age.

TMW is increasingly awash with Scandinavian acts, but then Tallinn could easily be a Nordic city, really. It’s just a short ferry ride to Finland and the links have always been strong, so much so that after independence Estonia was able to split more fully from Moscow than some of the other republics. Not that Russia took kindly to that: in 2007 Estonia’s whole internet service came under a sustained cyber attack after Tallinn contentiously relocated a Soviet-era statue. Moscow denied any involvement, but the hacks were sourced back to Russian state servers.

Sinister stuff, but while paranoid whispers about Putin’s state of mind pepper the festival chatter, so there are glowing noises about Estonia’s head of state. An avowed punk-rock fan, President Ilves invariably raises the TMW curtain with a speech that makes you want to smuggle him into 10 Downing Street, and the former Pussy Riot girls had spoken warmly of his bold support for them. This year’s address is courageous too, a thinly-veiled condemnation of Putin’s actions, the general theme being that good art should attack the status quo. You won’t hear many leaders condoning that sort of thing.

Maarja Nuut, a standout domestic talent

President Ilves may love guitar bands (the former Peel-sessioners Röövel Ööbik are reportedly his favourites, and play a well-received set on opening night) but TMW also showcases less-fashionable genres, and it seems appropriate to indulge in some traditional Estonian stuff this year. In a tiny shop that seems to just sell brightly-coloured woolly scarves – one of the quirkier daytime City Stage venues – I happen upon a couple of veteran guitar/mandolin types called Jaanus Nõgisto and Tõnu Timm, who switch from 100-year-old folk songs to Led Zep covers. The local kids seem to dig it.

Sometimes the more out-there acts are a must-see. On a much bigger stage later on that final evening, taking trad-folk in a tech-savvier direction is the much-admired Maarja Nuut. The charismatic vocalist/violinist uses a sample pedal to build her own vocal harmonies, but doesn’t always need them: during one reworked folk standard, her chorus gradually gains a live accompaniment as many of the crowd around us begin to sing along. It’s a lovely moment: aural balm for a troubled mind.

In stark contrast to that sonic beauty is the reaction yours truly elicits at the festival after-party, a few hours on. Chatting to a chirpy young restaurant manageress (there’s a food offshoot too, TMW Tastes), I slightly flippantly mention the Lithuanian chap’s prophecy about the imminent Russian invasion, as if passing on a bit of juicy celebrity gossip. And she starts to cry. Such things really shouldn’t be taken lightly. 

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Words: Si Hawkins

Tallinn Music Week online.

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