One Night At…. Tallinn Music Week

Tallinn’s core reputation as a travel destination is for wild nights and stag dos. For the record, this is an exceptionally poor summary. In amongst the basements of Old Town and the more lively bar scene around the Balti Jaam (main station) area, the city should be known for its fairytale architecture, its remarkable spa scene, and a pointedly impressive penchant for the alternative in its shops, food scene and music.

Tallinn Music Week is an annual event with impressive diversity. Surprisingly light on the local scene, though it is firmly present, it instead offers venues ranging from art galleries to restaurants (and, of course, more regular gig venues) hosting evenings celebrating Taiwanese and Korean music, or non-male-only showcase events, or tributes to Eastern European folk in its modern form. It is, in short, one of the more experimental showcase events you could hope to see, and very difficult to see in a single one of its three evenings. But we tried.

Naturally, the local seemed a sensible place to start, and Kännu Peal Käbi (Estonia) are a memorable and slightly surreal modernisation on the Estonian ‘Finno Ergic’ music scene of centuries past. Performing with fir cones balanced on a log at the front of the stage (and launched into the crowd at the end), the band from Estonia’s second city Tartu blend eight performers including at least six vocalists (not least four core, beautifully harmonised female frontwoman) with a style that is rootsy and tribal, hippie and slowly entrancing.

In a slightly weird moment, they serve up a twist on The Monkees ‘I'm a Believer’ in Estonian, but their initially a capella, before tribal sounding rhythms are more broadly combined with a stomping of instrumentation and what sound like a series of witty asides. We briefly found them slightly irritating and contrived, but as the music came together as a kind of soaring, organic, evocative overshadowing of the sum of its parts, it grew on us fast, and we left slightly spellbound.

Of course, part of the appeal of Tallinn Music Week is that diversity, so only moments later we find ourselves in a dingily lit bar and shop turned performance area watching Sinzere (Canada), a politically charged, punchy Canadian rap artist who performs briefly from within the audience with a shouty intensity in front of a sadly indifferent seeming DJ. Sinzere’s big moments to date are the single ‘Kin’ and ‘Tricky’, the first an emphatic and defiant nod to her roots set against a slow-building backdrop that screams R&B hit, and the second a nice nod to black history that shines through its clever vocal hook. A clever act, somehow feeling in place miles from her own environment.

We decide to spend the rest of the evening in Uus Laine, hampered from attending a glance at the heavier side of Estonian music by one venue’s location around half an hour walk from
the others, but Uus Laine – a beautiful, carpeted bar venue – has a stunning line up of female and queer acts until the night’s close. Anna Bassy (Italy) is an act that sits somewhere between the upbeat heart-led explorations of a good dream-pop act, and the dingy soul evocation of the likes of Portishead and that downbeat Bristol scene. Bassy performs much of her set with her eyes closed, emerging from behind her lids to accept applause. While she’s vocally memorable and does a fine job of weaving spells, and the end product is beautiful, it also still feels like she’s missing that breakthrough moment, that shining single that will really propel her into the limelight.

Of course, you’ll never get a whole night of acts at a showcase that connect, and for us, the one that doesn’t is Tallinn locals Vice Vera (Estonia). The most interesting element of the synth duo clad in leopard print is the Kraftwerk-like beats. Perhaps because of the set up, however, their synthetic tone, with the lighter moments edging towards Morcheebas sunny rhythms, utterly overwhelmed a disappointing vocal performance which it feels like the pair themselves sense is falling flat. In a different environment and with a little more energy behind them this pair could be a real euphoric mood, but on the day they’re largely forgettable.

That lack of impact feels especially notable in the context of the raucous act that follows, Bedless Bones (Estonia), a guitar and drum meets electronic duo with heavy goth influences. With abrupt, soaring vocals, a hooded drummer, and beat heavy, the pair come across as anguished techno-driven Evanescence, fronted by a relentless bouncing blonde
woman in pure gothic get up.

Kadri Sammel describes her sound as ‘nocturnal rapture’ and it delivers in visceral punches, stringing track into track of dancefloor fillers in a half hour set that’s riddled with dingy, head-spinning energy. Aside from reminding us of the infamous Berlin goths under the bridge meme, there’s genuinely quality to be had here: weighty songwriting and sophisticated, morphing dance rhythms performed with live guitar and enthralling depth, the kind of things best listened to, perhaps, in a sweaty basement with the lights on their lowest setting.

Closing the night is Efe Ce Ele (Colombia), a slow building electronic beats artist with heady bass undertones and an atmospheric visual backdrop. Hers is a slow-morphing form of mellow dance, blended with a visual experience that the venue is perhaps not quite set up to fully accommodate. It’s the kind of sound that would grace a mega-club with the right backdrop but, with its clever exploration of space, and change, amounts to evocative sparseness.

All in, Tallinn Music Week is a great advert for the concept of genuine diversity: the idea that a festival really can attract an unbelievable spread of nationality, style, and feel into a single evening. We only wish we could have seen the other two.