Live Report: Tallinn Music Week 2016

Estonia's got Tallinn...

It’s curiously early on a Thursday morning in Tallinn and Clash is already being near-crushed by pop-crazed teenage girls – be careful what you wish for – on a jam-packed tram, when suddenly a burly geezer leaps up and starts barking furiously because, it transpires, his lady friend is stuck right behind us, and what with all the squeezing and shoving and lurching I appear to have sat on her face.

A bit further up the carriage, meanwhile, and the cause of this enforced intimacy, Estonia’s heartthrob Pop Idol winner and Eurovision contender is crooning the tune that will carry a nation’s hopes in Stockholm soon. As more excited ladies pile on it’s clearly time to make a sharp exit, and a suitably surreal arrival at Tallinn Music Week, a head-spinning orgy of cultures and genres, geniuses and oddballs, dotted around this fair city.

There’s a decent argument that Estonia’s capital is the best city in Europe, in fact: Tallinn is likably Scandinavian in sensibility, being so close to Finland, and yet you can afford to eat, which is always handy. Indeed, the popular TMW Tastes (lots of fine restaurants offering special menus/discounts) is just one strand of this ever-evolving festival, which now takes over much of the city, spreading outdoors this year as artily-designed wooden stages encroach onto the streets.

The fest launches these, in elaborate fashion, with a found-sound installation by the fine British noise-anoraks Nick Luscombe and Steve Hellier, and friends; a fascinating, sometimes surprisingly dark audio-visual affair which they finished off just a few minutes before the performance, apparently. Impressive.

TMW increasingly takes over the Estonian President’s diary too. Now enjoying his final few months in office, the tremendous Toomas Hendrik Ilves is doing what any of us would in such circumstances: releasing a (pretty good) compilation album, 'Teenage Wasteland', then DJing chunks of it at an industry do, having already officially opened the festivities and sat on a conference panel. His DJing basically involves standing around with another middle-aged chap, chatting and turning the occasional knob: very much like Orbital, then, yes.

That tram gig by Estonia’s popular Eurovision guy, Juri Pootsman, is also a novel new addition, and his idea, apparently. It picks people up outside a shopping centre where the proper live gigs kick off, as a rocking Asian/Russian outfit (Hartynga) performs of hundreds of bewildered schoolkids and one particularly digging-it old dear. A boogying babooshka.

Music-haters must fear and loathe this time of year, as the daytime City Stage shows spread eclectic sounds to every nook and cleft of the city. In the corner of TMW’s excellent hub, the Nordic Hotel Forum, you’ll find effervescent DJ/producers – The Hearing from Helsinki and Mustelide from Belarus are both work checking – or more sedate singer-songwriters. Alise Joste, from Latvia, turns out to be the ideal early-afternoon comedown accompaniment.

Sauntering into the spacious Apollo bookstore, we encounter a band of young Iranians (“we are Barfak,” says the singer, “we have been through a lot to get here, but we’re here”) who are surprisingly Cocteau Twinsy, on occasion, and an impressive (but chatty) Estonian instrumental act, Micucu. Other daytime highlights: Canadian hip-hoppers The Lytics rammed into the cosy Biit Me record store, and a couple of talented Estonian indie acts at the lovely Must Puudel café: Black Lotus Experiment, led by the striking Elena Shirin, and the only act on this year’s bill inspired by Madonna and a Soviet space-dog: Laika Virgin.

That café is not to be confused with Tallinn’s best bar, Pudel, a hub for the city’s newly fervent craft-beer fetish. Clash pops in to discover British landlord James Ramsden looking as trepidatious as we did on that tram, as he awaits an onslaught of revellers kicking out of the annual TMW Craft Beer Festival. This is over in Tallinn’s rapidly-burgeoning hotspot, Telliskivi, an old Soviet railway factory/secret military base (depending on who you ask) turned varied Creative City.

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Estonia's president on the wheels of steel…

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Here you’ll also find an admirable new arts theatre called Vaba Lava (‘free space’) which is home to lots of jazz and folk over the weekend. Although the bloke from UK outfit Spiro seems to be channelling something else entirely, as he thrusts his mandolin-covered groin all over the shop: plink plink plink, thrust thrust thrust. Careful mate, you might pull something.

Eliciting entirely different reactions are two trad-but-rad locals, the looping, spinning Marja Nuut (her new album, 'Une Meeles', is a bloody Maasterpiece), and the stirringly-strident, zither-wielding Mari Kalkun and Runorun, Kalkun and friends having already wowed a small crowd with an impromptu call-and-response acapella chant in a hallway the day before, which actually turned out to be everyone wishing her happy birthday, Estonian folk style.

Traditional singing was a surprisingly subversive means of Estonian self-expression during the Soviet era – their subsequent uprising is remembered as the Singing Revolution – but 25 years on this more-Nordic-than-Baltic nation now encourages a wealth of influences. Away from the music, Clash somehow ends up at the launch of a Buddhist festival, which is fascinating and thought-provoking until you realise that it’s going on for hours and you need to sneak off to catch Danish jazz. Bad karma. Meanwhile a fine British stand-up called Alfie Brown is onstage at a local cinema telling a great shaggy dog story about Mastodon, Katy Perry and a mink dildo. Different worlds.

The music remains riotously diverse too. A lanky Estonian called Silver Sepp tells tall tales using plastic bottles and lumps of wood with nails banged in (good luck ever getting those through customs). The fine Swedish electro-poppers Hey Elbow are dressed like space-age porn-stars, and sometime Clash writer John Robb has reformed The Membranes – who admittedly now look like a wild-eyed punk fronting some jazz accountants – and hooked them up with Estonia’s Chamber Choir Sireen, to compelling effect. “Can Estonia dance?” asks Robb. “No!” shouts an angry-sounding bloke from the audience.

They’re performing in a vast converted power station, Kultuurikatell, which is hugely impressive but still can’t compete with the festival’s big finale. Tallinn’s hidden treasure, it turns out, is bloody massive.

The Seaplane Harbour Museum may not sound hugely exciting but the big reveal is jaw-dropping, as inside is a full-sized British-made submarine, plus loads of other cool old aquatic equipment: planes, catamarans, bombs. Tonight, they’ve turned the lights off, the lasers on, and host surely the best submarine-related rave ever. Until next year, when they’ll probably hold one inside the sub itself. Now that really would be intimate.

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Words: Si Hawkins
Photography: Tallinn Music Week

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