Various Artists, Estonian Folk Music 2001 (Viljandi Folk Music Festival, nd )

"The Estonian Literature Museum contains more than 1,300,000 pages of folk songs."

[liner notes]

The Viljandi Festival takes place every year in Viljandi, Estonia, a couple hours south of the capital city of Tallinn. This promotional sampler presents a wide variety of folk artists associated with the festival and the music institute at Viljandi. While Estonia shares a similar language and similar musical influences with its neighbor-across-the-Baltic Finland, the music on this sampler seems less polished, less interpretive, than on a concurrent sampler I reviewed from the Finnish Music Information Service. The inference is that Estonia has only recently thrown off the Soviet cultural yoke and the folk revival in Estonia is relatively new. I was reminded of the Swedish-Finnish band Hedningarna collecting Karelian material first hand for Karelia Visa. Estonia, numbering 1.4 million people, seems to also be discovering material and its own heritage with a passion.

My own two favorites on this compilation were according to taste; there is plenty of other good music here. Firstly, Oort's "Loveliness of the Road" is in their own words "runorock," a solution to "...the runosongs whirling and twirling inside us" which "did not leave us in peace any more." The track is a Kalevala-like chant-song with a electronic-blues-rock arrangement. My other favorite is "Jarvakandi Reilender" by the nautical band Untsakad. This acoustic song is happy European dance music similar to Finnish humppa tunes and to music from the Latvian band Ilgi. Both tracks feature male vocals.

There are other social dance tracks on the album. "Polka From Tori" by Krista and Raivo Sildoja is a reproduction of fiddle music from the early 20th century, and is more solid than JPP. Wirbel's "John's Waltzes," played on kannel (lap harps) and fiddles, is also quirkier and rougher than Kaustinen music -- and more Estonian as well! "Waltz By Erni Kasesalu" is played by the massed kannels of Tuulekandled. It sounds much like the old-fashioned large kantele music still played by nostalgic older Finns and Finnish-Americans. Aivar Teppo plays the wonderful "Harju Reilander" with an Alpine polka sound solo on "Harmonica," actually a little button accordion. Catlin Jaago plays a piercing "Flat-Foot Waltz by Jakob Kilstrom" on Estonian bagpipes which sound much like Northumbrian small pipes. Vagilased's more progressive "Bride's Dance" includes an overtone flute and a reggae beat.

"Thank You" is a quiet contemporary version, with guitars, of a religious song and is sung by Johanson ja Vennad. Triskele's interpretation of the hymn "Christ Has Risen from the Dead" includes kannels and a Hari Karishna rhythm. Another hymn, by Vara, also includes kannel, but with the female vocal style and harmonium, it sounds more similar to the Norwegian Bukkene Bruse. Krista Sildoja plays a hymn tune called "Stranger On Earth" from the Swedish-settled island of Vormsi. On this slow, pretty, minor-key tune, she uses the ethereal ancient bowed harp called a hiiu kannel, equivalent to the Finnish jouhikko. Also from the Swedish islands is "Oh My Ship" by Starnd...Rand, a group that includes among others Swedish Estonian Swede Sofia Joons and Garmarna's Emma Hardelin. In archaic Swedish dialect, this slow song features both lovely vocals and lovely zither.

Vike Hellero, a high school choral group from Tartu, sings a capella a traditional call and response "Swinging Song From North Estonia" in loud, ancient, flat voices --these songs were originally sung on and to the rhythm of communal village swings. Viljandi's veteran band, Alle-AA sings and plays a contemporary folk song "Remember," with a host of "modern" instruments, including accordion, backing the male vocals. The Livonian (an evanescent fenno-Ugric linguistic minority shared with Latvia) band Tulli Lum (Hot Snow) combines pop vocals, saxes and swooshy keyboards with ethnic roots on "Eijo." Ring, an Estonian-Swedish-Finnish band that includes Finlander Timo Alakotila, delivers a jazz loungy but strikingly traditional "Ai Niga-Naga," and this one does sound like Kaustinen! Eesti Keeled uses more abstract electric guitar jazz, experimental kannel, and other noises in "Estonian History." And within the first few songs, the Johanson family compile "Song Festival" a quick sum-up of some Estonian song styles.

Most of the musicians here are fairly young; what a thrill this would be for American and British commentators in their own milieu! No...well, possibly accordionist Aivar Teppo, after all source musicians are included; it may be because the musicians are coming from the festival and folk school. And further the sampler may be meant to represent the current face of Estonian folk music. None of the groups are spotlighted in the 1999 The Rough Guide To World Music and I have heard only a few previously. Finding a copy of this album would be a real windfall for anyone seriously interested in Nordic-Baltic music. Hopefully something more commercial will be coming soon that opens the lid to this rich music box!

[Judith Gennett]

The web site for the Viljandi festival is here.