President Ilves: a better DJ than certain other world leaders (Kristjan Indus/Tallinn Music Week)
It’s easy to be cynical about such things, of course, and I’m sure that Estonian politics is just as appreciative of a well-orchestrated photo op as the politics of any other country. But it also shows that the festival has some serious institutional backing, which manifests in little touches like streets being closed for shows and festival branding being prominent throughout the city (and also in one of the city’s trolleys being set aside for a performance by the 2015 winner of Estonian Idol, a performance that to my eternal discredit I managed to miss by misreading the tram timetable.) It also demonstrates the relative intimacy that a small country can enjoy — all jokes aside, our President could never DJ to a bunch of randos, all of whom were within touching and high-fiving distance, for fear that someone would shoot him. That fear, however founded or unfounded, does not seem to keep Ilves up at night.
And finally, it demonstrates that this festival is for something. Quite what that thing is remains open for debate, but it seems there’s a concerted effort here at presenting Tallinn and the region as a whole as forward-thinking, modern and progressive. As The Quietus point out in their review of this year’s event, “The festival gently exploits our latent cultural snobbery, our “Western” notions of “The Other” for its own ends. It drives ideas of change using tropes and events based round issues that many sensitive types hold dear, like ‘preserving traditions’, or ‘authenticity’. Tallinn is full of people brought in locally and from around the globe, invited to talk about TMW’s agenda.” The fact that the festival’s budget extended to flying Flavorwire from NYC goes some way toward demonstrating how concerted this effort is; we’re proud of our publication, but as far as our profile goes, we’re not quite the New York Times, y’know?
Ilves’ DJ selections were entirely UK or US music — he grew up in New Jersey, curiously enough — but they were the only familiar songs I heard over the course of my week in Tallinn. The festival line-up was almost entirely bands from Estonia and thereabouts — I ran into one solitary Australian band at the bar, because there is always an Australian band at the bar, but apart from them, it was pretty much entirely Eastern Europe. A festival entirely populated by bands you’ve never heard of mightn’t seem like a selling point, but in its own way, it is — you’re only going to be pleasantly surprised, and I was pleasantly surprised more often than I expected. Metal is clearly as big in Estonia as it is in the rest of Europe, which is to say BIG — amongst other things, the festival line-up features, gloriously, an Estonian stoner metal band called “ESTONER” — but so too is experimental electronic music and ambient noise.
The Funky Bus! Eternal Erection: just out of shot (Martin Ahven/Tallinn Music Week)
There’s even something called a “classical rave,” which is perhaps a better idea in conception than execution — if I’m honest didn’t hold my attention for more than 15 minutes, but then, I wouldn’t pretend to be a classical aficionado. And elsewhere, if you’ve never seen a Latvian funk band play on top of an orange bus called The Funky Bus (which apparently belongs to another band called “Eternal Erection”), you’ve never lived. The latter performed at Kultuurikatel, a fascinating post-Soviet industrial area that’s been reinvented as a cultural center. (“This was done entirely by market forces,” festival director Helen Sildna assured assembled journalists, a curious choice of words that harked back to the 1980s, when capitalism was seen as a benevolent force. It all seems so naïve now, right?)
It’s hard to say bad things about a free trip, of course, which is why they’re frowned upon in journalistic circles, but as someone who’s been to a lot of music festivals over the years, I’ll happily say in all honesty that Tallinn Music Week is most certainly one of the best I’ve been to in recent, and certainly the most interesting. In an age where the festival “circuit” exists to satisfy the needs of an aging and increasingly wealthy one-gig-per-year demographic, it’s a pleasure to attend an event that exists for an entirely different purpose — even if that purpose is, in its own way, just as commercially driven.