Tuuletargad, Tuuletargad (Wind Wizards) (Independent Release, 2000)

Playing music from (mostly) Estonian tradition, Tuuletargad takes its name from the wizards of Estonian legend. There's some wizardly playing here from this Chicago-based ensemble.

Featured on this recording is the kannel, a psaltery that is related to the Finnish kantele and other Baltic zithers. Its strings have a bell-like tone. At times, when a strumming technique is used, the instrument sounds similar to an autoharp, even more so when two kannels are played in this fashion simultaneously. Bagpipes appear on several tracks, adding a wildness to the overall sound. Not too wild, though; the Estonian bagpipes aren't as piercing as some of the bagpipes found further west in Europe. Swedish nyckelharpas (keyed fiddles) are used on many selections, and Russian gusli (lyre) and a Finnish bowed lyre each appear on one track. More familiar (to many of us) instruments are also present -- violins, guitar, mandolin, recorder, and concert flute.

A wide variety of music is presented. There are plenty of dance tunes, sound similar to Finnish and Swedish dance tunes. Lilting and merry, these waltzes, polkas, and schottisches are a good excuse to roll back the rug and spin across the floor. There are a series of pieces from Estonian enclaves outside of Estonia, in Latvia, Crimea, and Siberia. In contrast with those are tunes from ethnic Russian, German, Jewish, and Swedish communities in Estonia. There are even two cuts with no visible Estonian connection; one a Danish tune dating back to the 13th century, the other a melody from the Hanti people of Siberia. Both are particularly haunting.

To my ear, the best listening is found in some song melodies. There is no singer on this disc, but a few of these practically beg for a vocalist. A storyteller might be a good substitute on "Came the Reckless Lemmingoine" -- even listening to this one in the car I could sense the narrative feel.

The sound is remarkably balanced, especially considering the manner in which this CD was recorded. The musicians gathered together -- in someone's living room, judging from the photographs -- and a couple of room microphones were set up. As the insert states, "no additives, no preservatives." Surprisingly, no instrument overpowers the others, although the bagpipes do dominate the arrangements whenever they are played.

This was a wonderful opportunity to listen to instruments that I don't ordinarily get to hear, but I would have liked more of that. There's loads of kannel, now what about gusli and bowed lyre? One cut apiece is just teasing. And, as mentioned earlier, a few of the songs could benefit from a human voice. Those are minor complaints, though, that didn't surface until after several listenings.

The melodies on this disc are the sort that stick in your head long after you've stopped listening.