How Estonian capital Tallinn became a burgeoning city of music and culture
- Arusa Qureshi
- 18 March 2019
Ahead of Tallinn Music Week, we speak to some acts playing this year's festival to find out more about the city's unique music scene
Known for being one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe, Tallinn is also one of Europe's newest capital cities. Combining a fascinating history with a forward-thinking attitude towards modern living, the small city on the Baltic sea has become a hub of innovative technologies and diverse cultures, boasting a music scene that benefits from both. With a population of around 430,000, it may be difficult to envision the city having a music scene of particular significance but in recent years, the scene in Tallinn has not only grown in scale but has gained international prominence thanks to recent breakout acts like rapper and artist Tommy Cash.
'The biggest change is that music from Estonia is really recognised in the rest of Europe and in the world now.' Songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Erki Pärnoja explains. 'We have bands touring, there are big features and articles about Estonian artists in various well known music magazines and blogs. The thinking and the mentality of the scene has changed a lot too – playing live shows and having your music played on radio stations abroad is a possibility now, not a dream that seems impossible for an artist from these parts of Europe.'
'Tallinn's music scene truly has a community feel,' he continues. 'It is not a very big city but my guess is that Tallinn hosts the same percentage of musicians and artists as any other capital, the numbers are just smaller. All in all, I think the scene is very welcoming and supportive.'
As co-founder and resident DJ at the popular MÜRK label and parties in Tallinn, Artur Lääts agrees that the sense of community in the city is important, regardless of genre. 'We have a lot of small communities here that do their own thing,' he says. 'We have a healthy amount of friendly competition that pushes each other to stay on their game, but we all help each other out. I've been in the techno community for ten years or so and it is great to see how the community has matured over the years. The support is stronger than ever.'
Part of the reason for this growth across genres is down to Tallinn Music Week, the city's weeklong celebration of music, art and ideas, which is now in its eleventh year. Having established itself as one of Europe's top city festivals, the event features an impressive number of showcases as well as a creativity conference, where roughly 200 artists meet an audience of around 30,000 people from all over the world. It may be a fantastic place to explore eclectic sounds on an international level, but the TMW lineup is also packed with local artists that perfectly exhibit Tallinn's wide-ranging cultural heritage.
'Looking at it from a folk musician's perspective,' says Ann-Lisett Rebane of Duo Ruut, 'it is surprising to see that traditional music has slowly made its way to Tallinn.' The pair are known for playing together on one single kannel, creating stunning soundscapes in the process. Likewise, contemporary R&B artist YASMYN suggests that there has been a change as far as hip hop goes. 'Estonians have started to listen to more new age rap and there have been a lot of new artists popping up. Tallinn has a lot of hidden gems (artists) who you'll accidentally find on SoundCloud or bump into at [Tallinn party spot] Sveta Bar. We don't have any huge labels or companies who promote music that's not pop music or commercial, so we all do it on our own, and that's what I love about it. The real artists from Estonia all speak the same language of hard work.'
'Tallinn is quite a small city but the amount of events that happen here is amazing.' Artur Lääts adds. 'There is something going on every weekend, from techno to drum & bass, house to psytrance. For the size of the city we have a lot of great DJs.' One such DJ based in the city is myspacebabe, the rising 18-year-old producer who creates otherworldly sounding beats and melodies. 'There's a really good energy here and it's really exciting to be part of it, especially at the age of 18.' He notes, 'The electronic music scene is growing as fast as the whole scene right now and there are so many new contemporary projects by people like Raul Saaremets, Nikolajev, Simon White, Luke & Madleen Teetsov Faulkner and their friends. I've personally felt accepted since the first day I started playing and creating music.'
Estonian folk band Trad.Attack! have built up a strong following, not just in Estonia but also abroad, and they view the music scene in Tallinn as 'innovative and versatile, consisting of great artists from all the different genres.' For the group, which is made up of Sandra Vabarna, Jalmar Vabarna, and Tõnu Tubli, TMW is a chance to 'get a great overview from all the different genres from folk and classical to pop, metal and hip hop. Also the venues are really cool and all around the city, so it is a great way to see Tallinn.'
'TMW stands out because of its wide-spread action all over the centre of Tallinn,' Ann-Lisett Rebane says. 'It is a festival that comprises the whole town with its city stages and it is very noticeable, walking through the city. That way, it creates action and excitement on the streets of otherwise quiet Tallinn.'
'There is a lot to choose from, every genre is represented,' Artur Lääts continues. 'It unites all the different artists and opens up the possibility of finding new interesting music and scenes to discover.'
Tallinn based singer-songwriter Anna Kaneelina, who sings in English and Estonian, says the festival is an opportunity to connect with audiences, whether they be from Estonia or elsewhere. 'It is so very important that all audiences are able to understand what my songs are about and what my thoughts are,' she explains of her choice to sing in both languages. 'I'm only starting out with my music and Tallinn Music Week is the first time I'll interact with a broader and multilingual audience and I'm so looking forward to that.'
Musically, it may still be viewed as an 'emerging' scene, but Tallinn Music Week is doing all it can to change this, having quickly become one of Europe's leading showcase festivals and conferences. In 2019, with the backdrop of an increasingly hostile political climate, TMW and events like it have the power to impact social issues and foster change by bringing together creatives from all levels of the arts, something that Artur Lääts is keen to highlight.
'The arts have often been a medium to challenge social issues, and TMW brings together a variety of artists with different perspectives. Therefore, I believe it can have a stronger impact on political and social issues.'
'Music is power; always has been and always will be.' YASMYN says. 'We the artists need to know how to use that power and TMW helps.'
'I think that in the post-Soviet society that Estonia has, it is very important for the music industry to bring different cultures and people to the Estonian audience,' Ann-Lisett Rebane stresses. 'We believe that it can change the general understanding of the world and also raise awareness of the current political and cultural issues. People want authenticity and that is exactly what TMW and other festivals and events like that offer. It gives people a chance to share their stories and to bond over and celebrate the universal quality of being a human.'
Tallinn Music Week, Mon 25–Sun 31 Mar. Find out more at tmw.ee.