Estonian culture in the world

Review: Paavo Järvi and Philharmonia Orchestra at London’s Royal Festival Hall

Last week, Paavo Järvi conducted at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Järvi brought London a wonderful night of music, which included works by a living composer, a composer of the high classical period, and a high romanticist – and yet the entire evening was a seamless musical statement delivered by one of Estonia’s finest musicians.

Originally the great Christoph von Dohnányi was to conduct an evening of music from Mozart and Dvořák, but at the last minute the Philharmonia of London asked Paavo Järvi to substitute. It was a decision no one in the audience seemed to regret.

Järvi chose to begin the programme with a previously unscheduled piece, the Fratres of Arvo Pärt. Järvi demonstrated his supreme command of dynamic control in the piece for full string orchestra and percussion. Pärt’s Fratres begins with a gentle pianissimo in the strings and slowly swells to the heights of modern romance in a style, which is a signature of the world’s most listened living composer. Pärt’s music represents a synthesis of pre-baroque-, romantic- and contemporary music, and Järvi emphasised this balance in a manner that remained true to Pärt’s unique compositional style. The primordial percussion was balanced by a warm string sound, infused with heavy vibrato, which swelled from a quite murmur to the heights of Pärt’s introspective, yet paradoxically involving spiritual modernity. The piece ends as quietly, as it begins – and as Järvi brought it to a close, the audience at the Royal Festival Hall were as quiet and as pensive, as is possible. It was a deeply moving performance from a maestro who has personally known and worked alongside the composer for many years.

CSO maestro Paavo Jarvi conducts a practice session with the CCM Philharmonic.

The next part saw a departure from Pärt’s unique modernism to a piece from the high classical period. Pianist Paul Lewis joined Järvi in a spirited, yet deeply refined rendition of Mozart’s 23rd Piano Concerto. Järvi precisely guided the orchestra through the piece, which allowed both soloist and ensemble to shine in their respective moments. Järvi and Lewis both took two additional ovations at the conclusion of the performance.

The featured part of the evening was Dvořák’s 9th symphony. Here the audience began to fully understand why Paavo Järvi is a supreme asset to contemporary orchestral performance. Sadly many contemporary conductors of the classical and romantic repertoire feel a need to limit tempos to the confines of a metronome. The age of the maestro who infused performance with a deeply personal tempo rubato, regrettably seems more and more a thing of the past. Yet on the night, Järvi demonstrated that a highly lyrical and simultaneously narrative style of conducting can unleash the true beauty of a much listened to, but still deeply energetic and emotive musical pick. In the tradition of the truly great conductors of the recent past, Järvi crafted a performance deeply infused with rubato, which helped to bring Dvořák’s final symphony to life. It was a profoundly human performance – one which emphasised both the bucolic serenity of the piece, as well as the soulfully charged passion of the greatest Bohemian composer.

Whereas his father (Neeme Järvi – Editor) tends to emphasise forgotten composers of the romantic era, and his younger brother (Kristjan Järvi – Editor) excels at more modern music, Paavo is frequently most comfortable with the late classical and high romantic canon. Tonight he demonstrated that a style of performance which emphasises emotion over dull precision, and humanity over academic interpretations, can warm the hearts of audiences more sincerely than any other style of conducting.

Järvi was given multiple ovations for an evening of music which covered vastly different styles of music, but one which was united by his supreme commitment to both dynamic perfection and spontaneity of tempi. The Philharmonic responded to Järvi’s direction better than they have done to many less involved conductors. A performance that from a technical sense was an accident, turned out to be one which will be remembered for its artistic cohesion and unbridled beauty. On the whole, it was a wonderful night of music which saw one of Estonia’s finest musicians conduct works by Estonia’s most prized composer, as well as works by two of the world’s most cherished composers. If only he took the same approach to Beethoven as he does to Dvořák.


Photos: Paavo Järvi/Wikimedia Commons.

A Canadian in the Tartu University Academic Women’s Choir

A Canadian-Estonian Krista Kais-Prial writes about her experience in the University of Tartu’s Academic Women’s Choir in Estonia.

The first time I saw the Tartu University Academic Women’s Choir performing live was last summer in Toronto. The concert was lovely – the repertoire was beautiful, the ladies in the choir seemed to be really into the music and the conductor was obviously brilliant. Right after the concert, I decided that I was going to try my best to join the choir when I got to Tartu in September for my study-abroad semester.

I had been singing in choirs since I was young – a lifelong choir nerd. I had also always been a big fan of Estonian choral music and I loved composers like Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis. I had even been to the 2009 Estonian Song Festival. Choral music was a big part of my personal identity and tradition, and I also knew that it was a big part of Estonian identity and tradition. So, for me, singing in the Tartu University Academic Women’s Choir would be like “being on the mother ship”.

Exception for Torontians

I came to my audition in September, nervous that with my terrible Estonian and the fact that I was only here for a semester I would be at a disadvantage. Triin Koch, the director, was very patient with me and after my audition she kindly said, “Well, we normally don’t take students who are here for just one semester. But since you are from Toronto, and we love Toronto, we will make an exception.” And with that, I was thrown into the experience.

Krista at Estonia concert hall (1)Above all, I loved the music that we learned. Estonian is an inherently musical language, so singing Estonian words seems natural to me; it just makes sense. I find it fascinating that so many songs have onomatopoeic words like sirisege sirbikesed, tipa-tapa, piiri pääri and liiri lõõri. The words sound like the things you are singing about. It creates a beautiful mental-musical picture.

I enjoyed going home after rehearsal and translating the lyrics for myself; the songs were often about being out in nature, love of country, the contemplation of time or music itself.

I didn’t talk as much as I normally would back home during rehearsals and social events, but instead, I listened to everything around me. I listened to the conductor’s instructions, I listened to the girls chatting and joking and laughing around me. I especially enjoyed listening to the way the singers around me pronounced the words as they sing and imitating them until my pronunciation matched theirs.

Subtle cultural differences

I noted the subtle cultural differences between Tartu choir and the choirs back home. First of all, I love how much Estonian conductors make fun and imitate the singers when they are singing lazily. Not only does it bring a lot of laughter into the rehearsal, but it also gets you to be more conscious of your technique, your posture and your attitude.

I also think that the Tartu women’s choir is much more physically oriented than some Canadian choirs – there is always a solid chunk of time spent in warming up the body and then the voice, at the beginning of every rehearsal. The singing warm-ups involved an exercise in sounds and vowels that English-speaking choirs do not use or focus on very much. The vowels are pure, and the movement between the different vowels is quite subtle.

choir performance

The exercises not only helped me improve my singing, but also the way I speak Estonian. The long buzzing scales and the insistent rolling of the Rs were challenging for me at first. Lucky for me I can roll my Rs, but for many Canadian choristers this exercise would be next to impossible. Estonians, however, take it for granted – of course you can roll your Rs for five minutes straight while going up and down the scale!

Although sometimes I got lost during rehearsal (things happen and people talk fast), the girls around me were always helpful. I learned a lot, not only about the Estonian language, music and tradition, but also about my own singing and my attitudes toward socializing and intercultural exchange. It was a great opportunity for me to get out of the cozy international student bubble and put myself in new situations, testing my limits and my patience.

Emotional memories

At the end of my time with the choir, one of the girls told me a story about their Canadian tour and in particular their visit to an Estonian retirement home in east Toronto. She told me that they had done a performance on the main floor of the home, but were not originally planning to sing on the top floor, where the most unwell patients were – the staff had told them they would not get too much reaction from that particular audience. They decided to sing to them anyway. They began with Ei sa mitte vaiki olla, a beautiful women’s choir hymn, full of meaning.

To everyone’s surprise, as they were singing, one of the residents was moved to get up from out of her wheelchair and started to sing herself, with a shaky voice, in pure Estonian. The girl noted to me at this point that generally speaking, the choir is not often very emotional about things – the conductor frequently tells them they need to have more emotion when they sing. But as they watched the lady sing with them, remembering all the words, they struggled to continue singing themselves as tears formed in the corners of their eyes.

variant 2

I sat there as she told me this story, struggling myself not to shed a tear. I marvelled at the coincidence of the fact that my grandmother, with severe Alzheimer’s disease, lives in that very same wing of the retirement home.

I marvelled at the powerful healing effect of music, at the way in which music brings out life and emotions in people and connects people in ways that would otherwise be impossible. I wondered if my grandmother had heard them sing too, although she wouldn’t now be able to tell me about it. I hoped that she had heard the music and had been singing the song in her heart. Who knows, it could even have been her who had stood up. She had always had a beautiful voice.

Photos by Krista Kais-Prial.

Artist in focus: in conversation with singer-songwriter Hedvig Hanson (video)

Hedvig Hanson (38) is an Estonian jazz singer. All her songs prominently feature expressions of emotion and closeness to nature. Hedvig got her first musical impressions from her mother, who listened soul and R&B music at home (Earth, Wind And Fire, Randy Crawford, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder etc.). According to her mother, Hedvig began to sing at the age of two…

She went on to study piano at the Tallinn School of Music and has released seven solo albums so far, her latest being Esmahetked. Her inspirations in vocal jazz are Dianne Reeves, Kurt Elling, Sarah Vaughan, but she is also a great admirer of instrumental jazz musicians – Pat Metheny, Milton Nascimento, Brad Mehldau, Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, Ralph Towner, Paolo Fresu.

Stuart Garlick chatted to Hedvig Hanson in Viljandi, a town in South of Estonia.


Hedvig HansonViljandi, home of the world-renowned folk festival, is close to the Estonian singer-songwriter Hedvig Hanson‘s country home, and clearly the town is as comfortable with her, as she is living there. I asked if she felt she was regarded differently on- and off-stage. “I haven’t really noticed; what I’ve noticed is that when people see me, on photos, television or the stage, I’m bigger in every way, the costume, the lighting… When people see me in real life, they say, ‘oh, you’re much tinier!’ And they can see I’m a normal person like everybody else.”

Later on, as we sat in the impressive local cultural centre, Hedvig explained that one of her proudest moments was having performed with Kurt Elling, when the singer, composer and doyen of American jazz came to Tallinn on tour earlier this year. Meeting one’s hero can be awkward or nerve-inducing, but she said, “he was a great surprise to me, because we got a chance to talk in the hotel, and he was so cool! I think a great artist still has to be a great person as well. Stage life is a different thing, though, you have to give a show.”

“There’s something very “mojito” about her jazz – cool like Nordic ice, refreshing like mint, with sweet and sensual Brazilian influences in her vocals… “ – Alex Kruzin (Billboard)

Esmahetked, Hedvig’s current album, which takes some of its influence from the tranquility of life in Viljandi, could be viewed as a return to the breezy, unhurried, jazzy style that she made her own throughout her career, propelled by her butter-smooth vocal style. It seems to be a change of direction from her previous album, Tants Kestab Veel, which was an attempt to up the tempo and make an album for the dance-floor. “I wanted to show that I’m not just a mother living in the country and getting old – I wanted to play some funk! I know it’s not what most of my fans were waiting for; most people like the mellower material.”

Hedvig Hanson with Kurt Elling - photo by Kaupo Kikkas

“When it comes to music, I love to come back to the place or time when I was a big romantic, and keep that purity in me that I had when I was a child.”

“[With the new album] I wanted it to be especially romantic as, maybe, it’s the last album that can be so romantic, since I’m getting old! That’s a joke, but I love to be romantic in music; I’m not that romantic a person in real life; you’ve got to be a realist to live. When it comes to music, I love to come back to the place or time when I was a big romantic, and keep that purity in me that I had when I was a child. It was really important for me to not wear a mask in music. You have to still keep faith in life, in love, in people. You have to find the balance between reality and your dreams.”

It seemed an appropriate point to talk about Hedvig’s formative influences. I had read that she grew up in the 1980’s liking Whitney Houston – right from her first LP, which came out when the 10 year-old Hedvig was first deciding on her own musical tastes. We discussed the soulfulness of Whitney’s early songs, and how fame affected her, changing her outlook, many felt, for the worse, as she got older. “I think the main reason was she got tired, she gave so much. Maybe she also fell in love with the wrong man. We don’t know anything about the big music business; it can be tough and it must be tough. It can be that everybody’s using you. You get tired and you get bitchy. She was a really kind and loving and trusting person when she was younger. She became bitchy and bitter in the end, so what happened? She got tired, I’m sure.”

“My faith is music, and mostly I love black music, and black music comes from gospel [music]. That’s why I admire their faith. The music I love comes from faith, so I really respect it.”

I raised the point that Whitney’s background was in gospel music – a style I knew (from a short stint in Birmingham’s Town Hall Gospel Choir) to be an avowedly passionate one, fuelled by religious faith, but carrying an audience along, regardless of belief. I wondered if perhaps Hedvig had gained anything from gospel music, in spite of not growing up around religion. “My faith is music, and mostly I love black music, and black music comes from gospel [music]. That’s why I admire their faith. The music I love comes from faith, so I really respect it.”

Hedvig Hanson

So what next? There is an English version planned of the Estonian-language album Esmahetked. “Actually, I started singing in English, so it seemed quite natural for me. When I’m in Estonia, I’d rather sing in the Estonian language. But I understand that maybe if you want to go to an international market, you want to sing in English and Spanish – big languages.”

“Internationally, Estonian jazz is becoming respected and gaining a larger audience. But maybe people are thinking it’s not really an Estonian thing we should support, because it comes from America?”

Internationally, Estonian jazz is becoming respected and gaining a larger audience. “But maybe people are thinking it’s not really an Estonian thing we should support, because it comes from America,” Hedvig said, a little sadly, reflecting on a relative lack of Estonian government assistance for jazz compared to choral music.

Hedvig’s mother and father played together in Fix, a pop-rock group of the 1970s, but they divorced shortly after Hedvig’s birth. Hedvig did not learn from her mother how to sing or play music, “I must tell you, she didn’t teach me a single note; it’s sometimes that parents can’t teach their children – I see it myself – and I just wanted to listen to music and try to make my own sound.” Instead, she spent her early years living in Tõrva with her grandmother, who, aged 94, continues to support and remains very close to Hedvig now she is an established star.

Hedvig Hanson

I still wondered if she missed her parents when she was growing up. “They couldn’t live in a little village, and my granny didn’t want me to tour. Of course, they separated, like passionate people do, so I think it was the safest way for me to grow.” What kind of person is her grandmother? “My granny’s not a musician, she’s a working person. She came from Karelia and she’s a really colourful person. I have to write down, some day, the memories of my childhood.”

Sat, as we were, looking at the verdant valley, thoughts turned to nature, particularly gardening. Seeing Hedvig warm to the topic, I told her of my own increased enthusiasm for flowers. “It’s called growing up,” she said, laughing.

“Doing gardening – it’s called growing up. In a way it’s just like taking care of children – the responsibility you take. When you really take this responsibility, I think that some day you’ll be happy that you did.”

“The whole philosophy of it – it’s the taking care of it, it’s really philosophical, it’s like children – another responsibility you take. When you really take this responsibility, I think that some day you’ll be happy that you did.”

It was a pleasant day in Viljandi, and I had had the pleasure of hearing the life philosophy of a true Estonian cultural great – something that does not happen every day. We concluded a pleasurable chat talking about the young pianist, producer and songwriter Holger Marjamaa, “the future of jazz in Estonia,” as Hedvig put it. Some artists may be the future of Estonian jazz, but I felt sure I had been talking to someone who would remain influential for, and supportive of, her fellow musicians for many years to come.

Hedvig Hanson

Photos: Maris Ojasuu.

Sydney Opera House interviews Arvo Pärt in Tallinn (video interview)

Sydney Opera House recently devoted a special event in honour of one of the most revered composers of our time, known for his minimalist style and self-invented soundscape, tintinnabuli. “The Composers 2013: Arvo Pärt”, was a celebration of Arvo’s work by the Sydney Youth Orchestra, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, and musicians from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

On 7 April, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (EPCC), conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste, gave an impressive concert titled Arvo Pärt – A Sacred Journey with violin soloists, Satu Vänskä, Kirsty Hilton and Veronique Serret, and the musicians of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra performing alongside the chamber choir. Magnificat, Spiegel im Spiegel, Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen, Tabula rasa, Fratres, Salve Regina and Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten were all played, and at the end of the concert, the choir accompanied by the orchestra performed Adam’s Lament.

The chamber concert, performed on 6 April at the Sydney Opera House Studio, was also devoted to Pärt’s music and played by Sydney Youth Orchestra musicians. The week before, the young musicians took part in workshops under Tõnu Kaljuste, where the works for the concert programme were prepared. They performed Arbos, Sonata Sancti Polycarpi by Biber (arranged by Edward Tarr), Fratres, Kvintetiino, Festina Lente, Spiegel im Spiegel, Summa and Mein Weg, followed by EPCC’s performance of Virgencita, a choral piece originally composed for concerts in Mexico.

The concerts attracted considerable media coverage and tickets for the EPCC concert in the 2,600-seat main hall of the Sydney Opera House were sold out. In preparation for the Arvo Pärt Festival, Yarmila Alfonzetti, Head of Classical Music at the Sydney Opera House, also visited Tallinn at the beginning of this year, and the composer and Tõnu Kaljuste both shared thoughts in the resulting interview (accompanying video interview).
The music series The Composers initiated by the Sydney Opera House last year is dedicated to the most influential composers of our time. The 2012 festival focused on the composer John Cage. The programme for the Arvo Pärt festival was arranged by the Sydney Opera House team in collaboration with the composer. EPCC with Tõnu Kaljuste had already performed in Australia in 1993 and 1999, when they also presented the works of Arvo Pärt.



Adam Garrie: Is Eurovision a national obsession?

For anyone who has had even the most rudimentary training in the musical arts or who enjoys high-quality music, the Eurovision Song Contest is something to be avoided at all costs. But to others it’s something of a yearly Olympics – if forgettable pop music were an Olympic sport.

The Eurovision Song Contest began with the noblest intentions. It came about in 1956 – the year the Treaty of Rome was ratified – and was something of a musical equivalent of the European Economic Community. The idea was to use music to bind nations who just over a decade earlier were engaged in war. Originally there were only seven, all western European, nations involved in the contest whereas today the contest includes countries well outside the borders of Europe.

Occasionally the contest has either produced or been the showcase of internationally renowned stars. Britain’s Lulu won the contest in 1969 with “Boom Bang A Bang”, leading much of Europe to question whether she was singing about sex or nuclear war. Most famously, ABBA burst onto the world stage in the 1974 competition with “Waterloo”, becoming Sweden’s biggest export after Volvo.

Estonia takes the contest seriously

Estonia’s first year in the contest was shortly after re-independence in 1994 and for much of Estonia’s time in the contest, the country has finished in the top 10, winning the contest in 2001. It is unsurprising that many in Estonia take the contest more seriously than in other countries. Estonia has the richest folk and classical choral tradition in the world, so an international singing contest would seem the right place to show off Estonia’s most treasured art form – vocal music.

It’s something of a pity then that the contest is usually comprised of inexperienced pop star wannabes whose singing is often far-far below the standards of the Estonian choral tradition. That being said, some notable Estonian vocalists have done well in the contest, including Maarja Liis-Ilus and Eda-Ines Etti.

Of course, many acts whose style is rather different than vocal pop have entered the contest, some with success, including Finnish heavy metal band Lordi. In 2013, Estonian metal band Winny Puhh attempted to repeat Lordi’s success, although the established vocalist Birgit Õigemeel ended up beating the exotically dressed rockers in the selection process to pick the representative for Estonia.

Estonia’s love of the Eurovision contest, however, may be explained by something other than the famed choral and vocal tradition. Much like the UN General Assembly, all Eurovision countries are given equal time and there is no exclusive “singing security council” to veto any member state whose songs threaten global security. Estonia has one of the smallest populations among the participating members and thus, it would seem natural that Estonians are keen to display their vocal talents before a wide multinational audience.

Estonia takes the contest seriously and this is demonstrated by the fact that Estonia typically selects either established serious artists or serious up-and-coming artists to participate in the contest, where other countries might select comic or novelty acts, death metal bands whose style is consciously out of touch with the contest’s pop ethos or, as Britain recently did, dig out ageing millionaires – the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Engelbert Humperdinck (the English crooner, not the dead German composer).

Occasionally a subtly political song is allowed to slip through, as Israel’s 2007 entry “Push The Button” demonstrates, but for Estonia singing is far too important to be used to deliver a political message. Generally the songs are about love and other similar emotions. There is no sign that in next year’s contest Kerli Kõiv will burst on stage singing a song about the difficulties of having a grey passport, although there might always be a slight chance that Arvo Pärt will compose a three-minute oratorio on the advantages of Estonia’s flat tax for entrepreneurs in the IT industry.

Important to remember that art is not sport

But perhaps this is why Estonia’s Eurovision love seems somewhat strange to the outside world. Estonia takes the contest more seriously than the contest takes itself. To many Estonians, a singing contest of any kind conjures images of the deeply beautiful Laulupidu (Estonian Song Festival – editor) whereas in much of the world outside of Estonia the Eurovision conjures images of tight skirts on men who look like Demis Roussos and sing like a drunken tourist at a South Korean karaoke lounge.

It is important to remember that art is not sport. Sport necessarily breeds healthy competition, but in art there can never truly be competition. Art is all about cooperation and collaboration, a lesson which might do all countries more good than yet another flag-waving festival of “singoism”. Whether or not Estonia does well this year or not, it is an Estonian who is the world’s most listened contemporary composer and no other country in the world holds a song festival where over half the population of the country gathers to sing and does that well. These are things Estonia can rightly be proud of.


Cover: Dave Benton and Tanel Padar singing the Estonian 2001 Eurovision winner, “Everybody” (YouTube).

Estonian folk costume stripes on Australian Aboriginal art

What do the world’s oldest continually living cultures, i.e. those of the Australian indigenous people and Estonians, have in common? At first glance not much, but at a closer look at their respective cultural history, we can surprisingly find many similarities.

Although the recorded Aboriginal history traces back at least 50,000 years and the Estonian one “only” 5,000, both have traditionally lived from the land and have a very close connection to it. Nature guides them both. In Aboriginal Australia, it is the whole life philosophy or the Dreamtime that is the foundation of all; in Estonia it used to be the nature god Taara and being connected to the land.

Similarily, the history of displacement and foreign people taking over their land, is what both Aboriginal people and Estonians have in common.

One of the most fascinating spheres that reveals the aboriginal world view is their art. Australian Aboriginal art is among the oldest art movements in the world. But art should not be separated from the rest of the aboriginal philosophy since it is just a part of it.

When we look at a Western painting, often there is no right or wrong answer and different interpretations may be welcomed. In case of an aboriginal painting, however, specific knowledge of the tribal members would be needed to fully understand the work. There is almost always an outside story for the public and an inside story that only the initiated tribe members would understand.

An artist called Jimmy Robertson Jampijinpa has said: “Our tribal members look at our paintings and they can read them. They know where things began and ended, and which place is holy. The Europeans have to look onto the paper and read from the book what the artwork is, they do not read from a painting. They only look at the patterns.”

Aboriginal art is not created for aesthetic purposes. It is rather a natural process to describe the surroundings and pass on the stories of Dreaming. Art has a strong didactic meaning.

The most common technique used on Aboriginal paintings are dots. Historically, they would cover a secret subject or represent the desert environment which looks dotted from high above due to its grass tufts. Lines are also common and they usually represent sand dunes in the desert. In addition, a myriad of different but often repeating symbols are used, such as concentric circles, half circles or animal prints. The meaning of these differs in different regions and tribes. The artworks are tied to the specific place where they were created, the images are often from a bird’s perspective – and paintings can be viewed as maps of the country.

Aboriginal art is characterised by a complex set of rules. Some works are meant to be viewed by initiated men only, some are for women to see, and only a part of the created artworks are for the public.

But if Aboriginal art is such a multi-faceted complex world of hidden meanings and historical secrets, how would a person from a non-Aboriginal background feel to be involved in it?

Di Stevens, who runs an art gallery dedicated to indigenous art, Tali Gallery in Sydney, explains that the art is aesthetically beautiful and contemporary, yet holds traditional stories that are 40,000 years old. She says that she is passionate about it because it never ceases to amaze her. The extraordinary diversity of Aboriginal art makes her realise that the more one learns about it, the more one realises how little one knows about it.

Stevens also points out that the people at the Tali Gallery have found that indigenous art is a highly successful medium to create a profound and impactful understanding of Aboriginal cultural traditions among non-indigenous Australians in a more general sense. Artwork also conveys evidence of living cultural practices still to be found. Its diversity shows that Indigenous Australians are not a homogeneous culture. The paintings and crafts can hold the key to generating respect as well as a far greater appreciation of this complex and cleverly structured civilisation which is the longest living continuous culture in the world that should be widely revered.


Paintings by Alice Nampitjinpa. Nampitjinpa’s all three paintings are called “Sandhills” – and to an Estonian viewer they look distinctly like the stripes of our folk skirts. Alice Nampitjinpa comes from Haasts Bluff, Northern Territory, Australia.

Tuhala Witch’s Well and ancient Estonian mythology

Tuhala Witches’ Well, located at the 3,000 years old settlement, represents an ancient Estonian folk tale.

Estonia has experienced a variety of belief systems over the centuries, from Catholicism to Lutheranism to Russian Orthodoxy and Soviet atheism. Twenty two years after regaining independence from the Soviet Union, Estonia is one of the world’s most secular nations; in the 2011 census, only 20 percent of its citizens declared themselves followers of a particular faith. But most Estonians retain sometimes almost mythological connection to nature.

It wasn’t until the late 12th century when Estonians had a first taste of Christianity: the landing German merchants brought along Christian missionaries. Their mission didn’t go down smoothly – Estonians resisted strongly against an alien religion. It took about a century for Christian crusaders to conquer the country and with the new religion forced upon them, it also marked the beginning of a long period of foreign rule in Estonia.

In the pre-Christian period though, Estonians were not completely faithless. They were drawn to the animistic religions: Taaraism, whose god Tharapita was worshiped in forest groves, and Maausk, which translates as “faith of the earth.” Their god was in nature. Although Estonians are quick to dismiss modern religions, ancient beliefs like these are still embedded in the Estonian culture: over 50% of Estonians say they do believe in a certain spirit or life force, however ill-defined.

Throughout the long period of foreign grip on Estonia, ancient beliefs survived in the form of folk tales. In tales, the sins of humans resonate in nature — lakes fly away to punish greedy villagers, or forests wander off in the night, never to return. Trees demand the respect of a tipped hat, and holes in the ground must be fed with coins.

Tuhala - Aimar Säärits

Tuhala Witches’ Well represents one of those old folk tales. Tuhala settlement is believed to be 3,000 years old and sits on Estonia’s largest field of porous karst, where 15 underground rivers flow through a maze of caverns, audible but unseen by human inhabitants. One result is sinkholes large enough to swallow horses — the Horse’s Hole, as it is known, appeared in 1978 — and there’s also the “Mother-in-Law’s Hole”. 

Tuhala - Ilme Parik

In the case of Tuhala Witch’s Well, water starts to spout up from the well and flood the area when excess water from the Mahtra swamp fills up the underground river and the overflowing river water seeks an escape through the well. The quantity of water flowing through the Tuhala River must be at least 5000 liters per second in order for the river to overflow. Water erupts for only a short period of time and not every year. It usually happens in late March or early April.


But reasonable explanation from geologists aside, there has always been a more mythological tale to explain the wonder of Tuhala Witch’s Well… According to local legend, the well boils over when the “witches of Tuhala” make a sauna below the ground and beat each other with birch branches, causing a commotion on the surface.

It is then no surprise that in 2012, Estonians voted Tuhala Witch’s Well to be their biggest wonder.


Cover photo by Janek Alliksaar (courtesy of Tuhala Witch’s Well)

International jazz festival Jazzkaar returns to Tallinn (video)

International jazz festival Jazzkaar returned to Tallinn over the weekend and continues until 28th April at the specially built unique Marina Pavilion by the sea at the Port of Tallinn grounds. It’s twenty fourth time for the festival and it is again attracting many international talents.

The main performers are soul-jazz talent Zara McFarlane from the UK, Japanese charming piano virtuoso Hiromi, American new-generation star vocalist Gregory Porter and the New Quartet of the legendary composer and sax player Charles Lloyd, featuring Jason Moran, Reuben Rogers and Gregory Hutchinson. That concert is also a part of Maestro Lloyd’s 75th birthday tour.

The festival’s opening weekend belonged to young jazz musicians such Zara McFarlane Quintet from London; Hanna Paulsberg Concept and Heliotroop from Norway and MaiGroup from Estonia.

The best European jazz is offered by the French masters Andy Emler Trio, Michel Portal and Bojan Z, Austrian accordion-cello duo Klaus Paier-Asja Valcic; fashionable and magnetic Hildegard Lernt Fliegen from Switzerland; Kruglov – Sooäär Quartet and many others. The internationally acknowledged Italian trumpet virtuoso Fabrizio Bosso with his Quartet are playing to the background of Italian cult film „The Easy Life” (1962). Notable Estonian jazz singer Hedvig Hanson will be presenting her new album  „First Moments”. World music is represented by Serbian guitar trio Balkan Strings and Portugese young fadista Claudia Aurora.

Young musicians from Georg Ots Music School will fill the streets and parks of Tallinn with vibrant music during the whole festival period.

Jazzkaar (“Jazz Arc over Estonia”) got its present form in 1990, following a tradition initiated by Estonian composers Uno Naissoo and Valter Ojakäär. The jazz tradition survived the Soviet era with difficulty. After Estonia regained its independence, new possibilities opened up to invite world-famous jazz artists to perform next to Estonian musicians and mark the Tallinn Festival onto the world’s jazz map. Jazzkaar offers the best opportunities for Estonian jazz artists to see the work of current top jazz artists from all over the world, and for listeners it is a window into the wide world.
The aim of the festival is to offer a broad selection of music, from avant-garde tendencies to mainstream-jazz, but also the more interesting levels of world music and blues. The first festival years hosted such great artists as Ray Anderson, Steve Lacy, Leroy Jenkins and Roscoe Mitchell Quartet. In the mid-90’s, the tradition of club jazz events were initiated, aimed at younger crowds. Among the performers of these dance-orientated events have been DJ Gilles Peterson, Nils Petter Molvær, Osibisa, Bugge Wesseltoft, Beady Belle, Mad Sheer Khan, Koop, NoJazz, Bossa Eletrica and others.

Besides the above-mentioned, the festival has hosted many distinguished artists over the years, such as Joe Zawinul, Toots Thielemans, Dave Douglas, Jan Garbarek, Charles Lloyd, Béla Fleck, Courtney Pine, John Abercrombie, Eliane Elias, Mike Stern, Joey De Francesco, Richard Bona, Omar Sosa, Bobby Previte, Brad Mehldau, Diane Schuur, John Scofield, Randy Brecker and Markus Stockhausen.


Jazzkaar Festival takes place in Tallinn, Estonia on 22 – 28 April 2013

More information:

Video by MaiGroup. MaiGroup is an Estonian-Swedish jazz-fusion band led by Estonian bass player Mai Agan. She called together a group with whom to play her own compositions. The band has just released their debut album “Luv”.

Cover photo: Lizz Wright at the 2012 Jazzkaar by Sven Tupits.

Club Radio Free Europe – bringing music from Estonia (and beyond) to London (video)

Chris Glew talks to British music journalist Andrew Childs about his latest venture – featuring Estonian bands Kreatiivmootor and Elephants from Neptune.

Foyles Jazz Cafe in central London seems an appropriate place in which to discuss music. My interlocutor is Andrew Childs, a music journalist whose latest project – Club Radio Free Europe – aims to bring bands from mainland Europe to play in clubs in central London. A regular at Tallinn Music Week for the last four years, Childs is as enthusiastic about that as he is about his own events. “It’s amazing now,” he says. “When it got off the ground, there was some great music, but it was a bit… patchy. Whereas now it’s swamped with amazing music and artists. It compares very favourably with some of the larger showcase festivals in the world – Estonia really punches above its weight.”

The idea behind Club Radio Free Europe is simple – to bring acts from all over mainland Europe to play in smaller venues in London, a city where they previously could only have dreamed of performing. These “hidden gems” are enticed over not on the (unlikely) promise of making a fortune, but because London offers something far more valuable – good press and good publicity. Indeed, one of Childs’ next acts, Estonia’s own Elephants from Neptune, has already picked up plays on the influential Amazing Radio, a station dedicated to new and emerging artists from independent labels. This is impressive, considering that they’ve yet to perform in London.

The entire concept is very much focused on quality music as opposed to making mega bucks. Tickets are cheap (£7 on the door) and their chosen venues are deliberately on the smaller side to create a close, intimate atmosphere. Each event also has back-up from local support acts to entice more people through the doors and get the ball rolling. According to Childs that’s half the battle – once they’re inside they like what they hear, but one needs to get them there in the first place.

It starts me thinking on precisely why it’s so hard for European acts to break into the British music scene. “There is quite a bit of jealousy,” says Childs. “You have to remember that it’s a pretty tough business to get into, even with a stack load of press contacts etc. The digital age definitely makes it easier to promote yourself, but this is balanced out against the increase in competition that it also brings, so it’s not easy.” We venture that one of the reasons why continental acts struggle to make it in the UK, comes down to a certain arrogance by local music press and industry. Childs, to an extent, agrees: “There is a lot of arrogance in the Anglo-American music industry. Don’t get me wrong though, it has a fantastic history and plenty to be arrogant about after all!”

As for the bands themselves, Elephants from Neptune are a vibrant unit creating their own groovy rifforama. They quickly conquered the Estonian rock underground, earning praise from critics and fans alike. Their unique blend of influences has been positively compared to Queens of the Stone Age, Foo Fighters and even Prince. The band has previously played packed shows at Tallinn Music Week and dubbed “the best Estonian band at TMW” by UK music site Drowned in Sound. Their mighty performance at the Positivus music festival in Latvia led to a support slot at Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ last year’s Tallinn show in front of 30,000-strong audience.

Kreatiivmootor were brought into existence in 2003 in Tallinn by philosopher Roomet Jakapi and lawyer Allan Plekksepp who had intended to make music without genre or scene constraints. Their alternative style has ranged from eccentric experimentalism to psychedelic pop, so it would be difficult to categorise. After expanding to become an octet, the band has used computer programmes, live electronics, guitars, bass, sax, percussion and drums in their live performances. Apart from releasing two albums and standing up at Tallinn Music Week, they have also performed at other festivals, such as Waves Vienna, Positivus in Latvia, Brainlove in the UK and SKIF in Russia.

There are plenty of future ideas for CRFE – in May, Latvian band Brainstorm will be performing and Childs plans to invite more Estonian artists in due course. “There’s a great firefolk band I’d love to have over! That’s the thing about Estonia now: it’s a really exciting country in terms of new music and artists. It’s no longer an emerging market in the traditional sense – it has compactness and openness which makes it very attractive,” explains Andrew Childs enthusiastically. So we should see some more Estonian artists in London then? “Definitely,” says Childs resolutely.

Club Radio Free Europe feat. Kreatiivmootor and Elephants from Neptune commences at 18:00 on Friday, 26 April at The Miller, 96 Snowsfields, London SE1. Doors at 19:30.

Tickets £5 adv from


Cover photo and video by Elephants from Neptune

The Ascension – Room 63’s best kept secret

A host of Christ’s followers gather on a hilltop to witness his ascension into heaven. As the group watches from below, Christ’s feet disappear into an opening in the clouds. No, not a quote from an abridged New Testament, but from the British National Gallery’s description of The Ascension, one of only a handful of confirmed works of Michel Sittow, 16th-century painter from Tallinn – or Reval, as it was then known.

Room 63 in London’s National Gallery is not unlike most of its numbered siblings – open, light and airy. But, geometry aside, different rooms in the gallery (the world’s fourth most visited art museum) have their own distinct atmosphere. Having spent many an afternoon within these walls, staring in wistful abandon, I’ve noticed the most convivial ambience is to be found directly in front of Delaroche’s 1833 work The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, where in spite of its gruesome subject matter, people chat away with gay abandon. But Room 63, despite its architectural brightness, retains an atmosphere that is almost sepulchral. Again, this is not something I can explain – despite the religious character of some the assorted works (ascension scenes, mother and child, choirs of angels, etc) there is nothing exceptionally mournful about them. Yet it is a room that not only seems devoid of mirth or happiness, but one of sadness and melancholy. Nobody even whispers. People shuffle from piece to piece and move on, almost mechanically.

Undeterred by feeling as though you’re a guest at a funeral that’s being held in the middle of a shopping centre, Room 63 is one certainly worth visiting – for tucked away in one corner is the only piece of artwork you will find here whose painter originates from the land we now call Estonia. Born in the late 1460’s in what was then Reval (now Tallinn), Michel Sittow was trained in the early Netherlandish school of painting and enjoyed, by the standards of the day, a fairly lucrative career as a court painter. Amongst his clients he counted Isabella of Castille (also known as Isabella the Catholic), for whom he produced a series of painted panels of oak, to be likely used as altarpieces. Indeed, Isabella appreciated Sittow’s work so much that she paid him over double that of his nearest rival.

Despite his royal favour, life didn’t always treat Sittow well – he had probate battles over his family’s estate and lived for some years almost itinerantly, going where his work took him. After his death in Reval, probably from the plague in 1525/26, his work remained almost entirely forgotten until the 20th century, when art historians investigated the works owned by Isabella of Castille. Even then, as Sittow never much adopted the habit of signing or dating his works, much of the information about him is the result of conjecture and educated guesswork. However, almost all historians agree that The Ascension is one of the few works that can be securely attributed to him.

Painted on oak, the first thing to be noted about The Ascension is its size – at only 22.5cm by 16cm, it isn’t especially dazzling (if art should ever “dazzle”). Unlike many other depictions of the scene, Christ himself is here shown only from the knees down, Sittow perhaps wanting to focus on the witnesses to the event as opposed to the holy son himself. As the bible doesn’t list those present, the artist is free to use his own judgement on the witnesses – here we are shown Saint John the Divine, Saint Peter, Mary Magdalene and, of course, the Virgin Mary.

In a gallery full of paintings that are well over five or six times as large, you could be forgiven for making the mistake of overlooking The Ascension. And overlook it people did. I observed, quietly, for forty minutes the passing stream of assorted arty types, tourists and those who had come in to relieve themselves of the cold weather and only a handful looked at The Ascension for more than two or three seconds. Respectfully, I asked some of them what they thought and the results were less than impressive. The theme of the day (from those who speak enough English for a conversation about art) was, “It’s nice but small.” Rather saddened, I made to leave.

It was then I saw her; a lady, short, grey-haired and smartly (but warmly) dressed, making her way along to the corner spot. I made a note to myself that if she displays any interest in the painting, I’ll try and make conversation – if not, then coffee and home. To my gratification she lingered by the painting. As she moved off, I stalked my prey. To my (probably all too visible) relief she was happy to converse and hadn’t just walked in to keep the blood flowing to her extremities.

“Well, dear,” she began, “I don’t suppose you’d call me especially religious, but I do like to come and see the paintings showing Jesus and the events of his time and the bible. It’s [The Ascension] not as big as some of the others showing him going into heaven or coming back to life, but I quite like that. It doesn’t feel overwhelming if you…” and then her voice trailed off. “I know exactly what you mean,” I added reassuringly and she continued: “It seems… I don’t know… honest. Honest in showing the people there. It all looks quite simple and not overblown and more real. Not that I know anything about art, but I do like it.” I thanked her for her time and let her be on her way and she told me to “have a nice day, dear”.

I looked at my notes of what she said and in her own simple and rather charming way, she’s right.

The Ascension by Michel Sittow is currently displayed, on loan from a private collection, in Room 63 of the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London.


Photos: National Gallery, London.

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