Estonia has a love affair with music that comes alive every year during the Tallinn Music Week. The tiny country of 1.4 million people owns a historical tradition of choral singing that today, supports over 700 official choirs. To grow up in Estonia means you likely spent time in a school, community or church choir and participated in the country’s multiple festivals celebrating traditional Estonian music. But Estonia is also hip and cutting edge.
It was Estonians who created the software for SKYPE; Estonia whose government passed a law, making Internet access a basic human right. The Estonian citizens were the first in the world to vote online in elections. It is Estonia whose embrace of modern day sustainability, creativity and the arts is so ubiquitous, that as a tourist you get to breathe and live it as well.
Introduction to Tallinn Music Week
To get a sense of that vitality, the place to be is Estonia’s capitol city of Tallinn during Tallinn Music Week. In its ninth year in 2017, Tallinn Music Week (TMW) first began as a music industry conference to showcase new talent from all over Europe. The weeklong event still retains that original purpose.
While I was there in March 2017, I rubbed shoulders with agents, DJs, music producers, music journalists, photographers and musicians all in town to participate in the conference. But since 2009, Tallinn Music Week has expanded its program to include a variety of free events open to the public that gives anyone a chance to sample cutting edge music, art, food, design, film and talks without being a music industry specialist. As a bonus, all of the free events are held at unusual venues throughout the city which also gives you a chance to explore Tallinn in a way you wouldn’t if you were just using a tourist guidebook.
I attended free events in bookstores, museums, bicycle shops, yoga studios, art galleries, Soviet-era industrial warehouses, bars, consignment stores, bakeries and shopping centers. I found the venues as interesting as the music, art, food, beer and architecture.
Here are some of my favorite public, free or low-cost Tallinn Music Week activities.
Pop-Up Restaurant Ungru
The temporary festival restaurant Ungru opened in the Tallin Design and Architecture Gallery and was my go-to eatery and beer hangout during Tallin Music Week.
The personable, award-winning chef and wait staff were from Estonia’s second largest island of Hiiumaa. The locally sourced food from the island, prepared Hiiumaa style, was complemented by craft beer brewed on the island. Their ale was served in a wine glass because that’s the Estonian way—a curved glass creates more aroma. The pop-up restaurant was one of 32 in the city offering special menus showcasing the variety of Estonian regional cuisine.
Speakers Panel # 1
The first speakers panel at Tallinn Music Week included informative speaker presentations open to the public. My favorite discussed the influence western rock music played in the fall of the Soviet Union.
The panel presentation by a jazz musician, a music critic and a sociologist was held at Pop-up Restaurant Ungru which meant I could sample Estonian cuisine while learning how the Beatles, Elton John and Elvis Presley contributed to the fall of the Iron Curtain. With most radio communication blocked, western records were smuggled into Soviet countries and the lyrics’ messages of free thinking, protest and anti-war actions gave repressed citizens in the Baltic countries a sense of life on the other side of the wall.
Speakers Panel # 2
Expanding Human Presence in the Solar System was the second speakers panel of Tallinn Music Week. This evening panel consisting of an astronomer, a sound engineer, a psychologist and a futurist composer held court in an intimate bar/restaurant where they discussed how music would fare once humans populated other planets.
I’d never considered the issues of whether sound as we know it could exist in the rarified atmospheres of outer space or if inhabitants of other planets had some form of music. It was a lot of heady thinking in a crowded room—clearly a popular topic.
Svjata Vatra Performs at Tallinn Music Week
Part of Tallinn Music Week’s free City Stage series, the Svjata Vatra concert happened in the common area of shared space building for start-up tech and creative businesses featuring a young Ukrainian/Estonian folk band who was my festival favorite.
The band's fun, lively and very animated front man played trumpet, Estonian bagpipe, whistle and bass guitar engaging the audience in dancing and interactive music.
As their website says: “Prepare for a blast of Cossack Viking folk rock. On stage, the band evokes a hard to resist ancient pagan rite through bagpipes, jew’s harp, scythe and husky lead vocals, blown into the 21st century by shimmering trombone. The Ukrainian-Estonian Svjata Vatra (‘Holy Fire') plays folk music based on traditional songs, nostalgic children’s games and Baltic melodies, with a fresh punk attitude. Since 2006 they’ve been making people dance and breaking down walls by demonstrating shared roots through music in 16 European countries and recently even in Canada.”
Tuesday Night Art Walk
Art is part of the festival and Tuesday night featured a tour of six galleries exhibiting contemporary Estonian and international art and performance art. Most of the art made a political statement and the artists were present to share their thinking on themes that included the tri-colored Estonian flag, the European Union, the Baltic resistance movements and European political/military history.
I was in the country to do research on the Estonian and Baltic Soviet era and found the art exhibitions a fascinating visual explanation. On Friday and Saturday, art took center stage again when visual and sound artists opened their studios allowing exploration of the nooks and crannies of the city not normally possible to see as a visiting tourist.
The festival showcased a documentary movie each night and I went to see the U.S. documentary Death By Design. Sustainability was a festival theme and this distressing movie highlighted the environmental and human downside of the tech and electronics industries. It illustrated the issues with our addiction to improved versions of cellphones, tablets and digital devices.
Clothing, textiles, home furnishings, art, eco-cosmetics—this was a two-day market featuring over 100 contemporary Baltic designers. The event was held in one of Tallinn’s creative hubs—repurposed warehouses converted to office and studio space. Also one of the City Stage venues, shopping was accompanied by live music.
Self-Guided Walking Tour of City Stage Venues
One hundred free concerts were held all over the city in unusual venues and, realizing I wanted to see as many of those places as I could, I used a Tallinn Music Week program and city map to check them out when there was no concert.
In doing so I met friendly shop owners and learned much about Tallinn from its local entrepreneurs. Bookstore on Parnu is a sparsely furnished, newly opened bookstore with a ping pong table where I played a quick game while chatting with the owners about a book I’d been trying to find.
Homeheart is an upscale home accessory store where the owner showed me where the audience would stand among the tables of delicate inventory while the band played in a beautifully curated display of white finery.
I dropped by a tiny bike store that had crammed a 10-piece band and 100 audience members in and around bikes when they hosted a City Stage concert at the previous year’s Music Week and planned on doing the same this year.
I climbed the stairs to a vintage record shop still in the process of opening that would be hosting a concert in three days.
I bought bread at a bakery that planned on packing everyone into their bright yellow foyer for their concert.
And I dropped by an upscale restaurant that would be hosting a sold-out Tallinn Music Week event called “Trash Meal”—a multi-course meal made from discarded food—another example of the sustainability theme pervading the festival.
In 2018, Tallinn Music Week will take place April 2-8. Its informative website gives you all the tools you need to navigate the festival’s free and low-cost options. The festival attracted 37,000 visitors in 2017, so early accommodation booking is advised.