Set in a medieval city bordering on the edge of a Russian and Ukrainian conflict and at a time of intensified diplomacy, this year’s Tallinn Music Week (27-29 March) was inevitably going to centre around the polemic issues of late.
Now in its sixth year, "TMW" showcases hundreds of varied talent from Estonia and close by northern European countries. With a population of around 430,000, Tallinn has suffered from the invasion of British hen nights and stag dos, with the facilitation of downing several steins of beer and cheap Russian vodkas later, it is in essence, combatting the Nordic Viking ambiance of the city. So now TMW is demanding its artistic heritage back .
Opening the festival with a speech about the city relishing on creative freedom, the President of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, told the assembled journalists how at times when people want to be free they will come together and sing; often to “threaten the status quo and create something new”.
The president introduced Pussy Riot’s most notably famous members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikove and Maria Alyokhina (above), as role models to the Estonian spirit of post-Soviet liberation. Taking part in a press conference at the Nordic Hotel Forum, the duo looked relaxed and comfortable under the glare of the media spotlight, but the majority of the time were on the edge of their seats as they addressed members of the media with their plan for calling upon economic sanctions against Russia in the wake of their country’s military action in the Ukraine. Also having spent time in Russia's more brutal prison for their "Punk Protest" in Moscow cathedral, the pair used the platform to expand on their campaign for prisoners’ rights, before continuing to defiantly attack against Vladimir Putin and his regime.
After the series intensely topical conferences, the festival did provide an opportunity to soak-up Estonian culture and a chance to check out the very best bands within the Baltic music scene, as one of the main allures of the festival is that the shows are scattered across unique venues in the city: hidden courtyards, theatres, shopping malls, and grey corners of grungy, underground nightclubs.
A timely performance from the award-winning Ellerhein Girls Choir at the Nokia Kontserdimaja served as a resourceful insight into the traditional form of Estonian music. With hints to the supernatural, haunting vocals and dancing around in traditional dress, it was a customary offering to the cities art, music, and literature all rolled into one.
Moving on to an Estonian household name within its independent music scene, Junk Riot remain unsigned and rely solely on mouth-to-mouth to promote themselves. Playing at stylish club Sinilind, which is set behind the old town walls, thier heavy infusion of pitch-shifting guitar effects, infused with rough lyrical blasts, drew favourable comparisons to Foals or a jerkier Franz Ferdinand.
Everything Is Made In China also turned heads and could easily feel right at home slotting into an ambient Shoreditch bar, with the Moscow trio’s impressively dense electro beats and combined with hovering vocals, finding space somewhere between Hot Chip and Bloc Party's carousing sound.
Spiritual lead singer Ruslan introduces his band Svjata Vatra ("Holy Fire" in Ukrainian) by playing an uplifting trombone routine on the roof of a shabby building – which is certainly one way to stand out in a festival of suavely presented acts, while their political-infused chants proved a heart-warmingly and peaceful call to arms.
Guided to the famous haunts of the Depeche Mode bar by a local Estonian, we were joined by tourists and residents alike in singing along to Enjoy the Silence and Personal Jesus without one judgemental glance. 'It couldn't have been a more fitting end to TMW, with the bar restating the obvious; that the city has so much to offer in terms of true eclectic musical offerings and staying true to the president's opening speech that when people want to be free they will come together and sing. Amy Gravelle @AmyGravelle
For more head to Tallinnmusicweek.ee.