Tallinn Music Week regularly draws the best bands in the region to Estonia, where the focus is on local flavor.
Published: February 20, 2013 (Issue # 1747)
ALLAN HMELNITSKI / SPT
Estonia’s Mart Avi & Ajukaja will perform music from their new album at the Stereozima festival this weekend.
Tallinn Music Week, the Estonian capital’s major music industry festival, due to take place from April 4 through 6, is coming to St. Petersburg this week to introduce the neighboring country’s burgeoning music scene to local music lovers. The St. Petersburg Times spoke via Skype with the festival’s director, Helen Sildna.
Q: What’s the idea behind the upcoming Estonian music event in St. Petersburg?
A: This year we have the hope, or ambition, to invite more bands and music lovers, and also those tourists interested in culture from Latvia, Finland and Russia, to the Tallinn Music Week. We had the idea that the [organizers of] the Stereoleto festival could help us to spread the word about TMW, so they will help a bit with marketing to Stereoleto fans through their channels. We also thought it would be great to come to St. Petersburg. The reason for doing so is that we would like to meet some of the key music industry people who are active in Russia, and especially St. Petersburg, on location. And if some [of the] music industry press come [to the event] and find out more about TMW, that would also be great.
Another bit of good news is that one of the Estonian artists that is performing at TMW this year — Mart Avi & Ajukaja — will be playing a full live set at the Stereozima festival on Feb. 23.
On Friday, Feb. 22 we’ll have a little reception and get-together for the Russian music industry and press at Helsinkibar, and we’re welcoming everybody who is interested. I will introduce the festival and Ilya Bortnyuk, the organizer of the Stereoleto and Stereozima festivals, will be there as well. There will also be other people from the Russian music scene who have been to TMW before and who will talk about their impressions. That will be followed by a little party with drinks and food. Raul Saaremets, who is a kind of underground legend in Estonia and a respected DJ, will also play records. So it will be an easy-going, relaxed pre-party.
Q: Why did you choose to bring Mart Avi & Ajukaja to perform in St. Petersburg?
A: The way it happened was that Ilya Bortnyuk saw the band playing at TMW in 2012 and really liked them. That’s why we decided that it would be great to bring them over to St. Petersburg in February. They are an intriguing electronic act, with electronic sounds mixed with Mart Avi’s vocals. He’s been compared to a young Scott Walker or David Bowie and has a very special, peculiar voice. It’s quite a special live show, I would say. Ajukaja, who is actually Raul Saaremets, has mixed together the electronic part and Mart Avi sings live on top of it. They just had the international release of their debut album, “After Hours” (Porridge Bullet), which came out a few days ago.
Q: Raul Saaremets used to play drums with Röövel Ööbik, a legendary Estonian indie band from the 1980s and early 1990s, so there is also a connection to the older Estonian music scene, isn’t there?
A: Yes, basically he was active in the old Estonian punk scene, but then became active again in the 1990s. He was the guy who first started [putting on] house and techno music club shows, which are now called Mutant Disco. Mutant Disco just celebrated its 15th anniversary this year. We can say that he and another producer and DJ called Rhythm Doctor, who is actually English, brought club culture to Estonia. That’s the reason why underground house parties became so popular as well as being really good quality.
Q: The Estonian music scene seems to be thriving at the moment. Could you please give a brief description of what it’s like?
A: There’re many various music scenes that are all very active. One of the first reactions that we’ve received through TMW from the international music press is that everybody is intrigued and interested to find out that there’s such a large variety of different genres and scenes; and that within all the genres and scenes themselves there are so many different artists. We have a very strong folk music tradition, and, of course, there are a lot of traditional folk groups, but there are also examples like Metsatöll, which is a folk-influenced metal band and then, from another angle, Mari Kalkun, who is a singer-songwriter.
Folk music influences a lot of different scenes: There are indie bands who have been influenced by it, as well as singer-songwriters; there are even some metal bands. Let’s say that ethnic Estonian folk has been able to add quite a strong flavor to [the work of] many artists. Of course, there’s also a strong choral tradition, which is in itself large and well-developed in Estonia. International journalists were also intrigued by how much this choral tradition has also influenced many indie bands, and that vocal music has such strong roots in Estonia. There is also a vibrant experimental electronic music scene and a strong punk scene, which was started by bands like J.M.K.E. and Röövel Ööbik. Now there’s a particularly lively scene of experimental singer-songwriters.
Of course everybody knows Arvo Pärt, but there’s also a new generation of young contemporary classical composers in Estonia as well.
Q: How are the artists selected for TMW?
A: First of all, we are really committed to the idea that we want absolutely all music styles and genres represented on the program. That’s the guideline for the whole idea. We want to have contemporary classical, punk, rock, metal, hip-hop, urban, avant-garde and electronica. There’s an open call for applications, which closes in December or early January, and then we have a roundtable of key Estonian organizations that are very active in their respective fields. For example, the biggest local jazz festival is involved with the jazz programming for TMW, the biggest metal festival is involved in getting together the metal bands, etc. So when it comes to programming the festival we have around 30 people who are all top specialists in a particular musical genre in Estonia. The program is then put together in collaboration with them on the basis of the applications we have received.
This year we received close to 600 applications and the final program now includes 233 acts.
Q: What’s the history of TMW?
A: TMW started in 2009, but the idea was born as early as 2007, I would say. A few people in the Estonian music industry had been visiting many similar events, such as Music and Media in Finland, By:Larm in Norway and Eurosonic in Holland, and a bunch of us started thinking about how we could better develop the export of Estonian music. We thought that holding an event like this would have an immediate impact, and this is how it began developing. Of course the broader idea was to begin by working strategically on the Estonian music export front, but we felt that we had to start with something very concrete. The first step was actually setting up the TMW festival. It seemed to us to be a format that was working effectively for other countries, and so could also work for us. One of the main reasons to start then was that at the end of 2008 it was announced that Tallinn would become a European Capital of Culture in 2011. In 2009 those funding structures opened up as well, so the Culture Capital money was actually the first bit of public funding that we got. It’s hard to say if we would have been able to start in 2009 without that Culture Capital element. I am sure we would have started, but perhaps a year later, or something like that.
Q: Was it smaller than it is now when you began?
A: Yes, much smaller. For the first event we had 65 artists and around 230 delegates. So the number of artists has increased nearly four times — from 65 to 233 — and the number of delegates has also grown significantly. In 2012 we had over 600 delegates — half of them international, half of them Estonian. And of course audience numbers have also grown. In 2009 we had 4,500 people coming to the clubs; last year we had 11,200.
Q: What is your background in music industry?
A: Before TMW, I was an international artists’ booker for a company called BDG, which is one of Estonia’s biggest concert promotion agencies. I worked at the company until 2008 and through this work was able to gain some basic international music contacts and the knowledge and understanding of how the business works. And also because I’d already gone to international music events like the International Live Music Conference in London, Eurosonic, or By:Larm, I already had knowledge of how the business operates. But what I was really surprised about, and what I realized through this work, was that most of the concert business and music industry in Estonia at that time was based on international artists and an international repertoire; anything Estonian was completely random. There were absolutely no professional promoters, record labels or music companies working with the local artists. I remember our Finnish partner, Risto Juvonen, who is the head of Live Nation Finland, once said that a country’s music industry can never have a stable development until it can regularly work and do business with its local talent. This sentence kind of stuck in my mind, and I started looking at how music industries in other countries operated. For instance, let’s look at the Fullsteam label in Finland, or even at Live Nation Finland; most of their stable, regular business comes from working with local Finnish acts.
So I realized this through my work with international acts and decided that somebody had to do something about it. There are a lot of exciting artists in Estonia, and it was quite obvious that somebody had to start working on this.
Q: What are your own tastes in music?
A: I like many different things. It can be anything from singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan to contemporary electronic experimental music or hip-hop. It doesn’t matter what the music genre is, it’s just about creativity. I’m not after perfectly produced products, I’m more about becoming fascinated by a unique talent.
Q: The Russian involvement with TMW is growing from year to year — what is the reason for that?
A: There are five Russian acts this year: Chikiss, Kim & Buran, Mooncake, Paradith and Trelleborg. I am interested in establishing working relationships with all of the neighboring countries. It’s the first logical step we should take. It makes absolute sense for bands from our countries to travel and be able to play in clubs in Finland, Estonia, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, etc. It’s kind of a strategic approach that we have. After all the years we’ve been doing TMW, it’s now a normal thing for an Estonian band to play in clubs in Riga, for example. With the Russian band Motorama, who were at TMW last year, there was an immediate interest from the Estonian audience. They also got noticed by a French label and agency called Talitres, which is the same company that represents [Estonian indie band] Ewert and The Two Dragons in France. They’re now working with Motorama as well, and they found Motorama here in Tallinn.
Estonia’s Mart Avi & Ajukaja will perform alongside France’s Wax Tailor, Norway’s Casiokids and St. Petersburg’s own Juniper as part of Stereozima at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 23 at A2, 3 Prospekt Medikov. Metro: Gorkovskaya. Tel. 309 9922.