Life in Estonia, Part 15: Viljandi Folk

Some things are easy to brag about, because you get to be proud of your achievements. Other things are hard to brag about, especially if either people don’t know what is so special about these things, or they have no clue what the heck you are talking about…

Enjoying the morning sun between the lake and the castle ruins of Viljandi...

I remember my first Viljandi Folk Music Festival. It was not my first time in Viljandi, but this city is a completely different place during the festival than the rest of the year. There are as many, if not more festival guests (more than 20,000) than there are inhabitants (only about 17,000). I remember the relaxed, peaceful atmosphere, the great music, my first time hitchhiking, and all the famous Estonians.

I remember hearing Silver Sepp perform. I had read about him in Justin Petrone’s books. These two famous people were friends. Everybody knows Silver Sepp, the musician. His music is not straightforward, and I remember not getting it at all. A year later, I witnessed him perform again in Tartu, and I enjoyed it – it was like the part of my brain that processes music had woken up, just by being in Estonia. I didn’t get to see Silver at this year’s festival – well, I did see him, but he was a visitor just like everyone else. He and Justin Petrone were sitting on the grass chatting, and later Silver came to say hello to his relative, who happened to be my friend, sitting next to me. In the years that had passed, not only my understanding of music had increased, but I had also sat on a dinner table with Silver Sepp. After a long day of working in the stable and the lab, helping the kids with their schoolwork, and trying to keep the kitchen acceptably clean, I finally sat down, only to realize that because of that, Silver Sepp didn’t get a chair.

That’s the thing about famous Estonians. Everybody knows them, but everybody also knows them personally.

At my first Viljandi Folk, Villu Talsi sat down behind me to hear a newcomer band. I was so excited. I texted my friend in Germany. “Who the hell is Villu Talsi?”, she replied.

Later, I told my Estonian friend. “Oh, he’s here already?”, he said, “ I had sauna with him a few days ago.”

I have been to sauna with Lauri Õunapuu from Metsatöll. Metsatöll is a well-established heavy metal band in Estonia, in case you didn’t know.

Estonia is a small country where everybody knows each other, at least through some mutual acquaintances. Someone like Jalmar Vabarna will greet us at a Curly Strings concert, because both he and his wife and I and my friends are regulars to these events. But he is still a rock star. A rock star with a great sense of humor. And, of course, a character in Petrone’s books.

The main stage. Photo: Henri-Kristjan Kirsip/Viljandi Folk Music Festival

I discovered the folk-rock band Zetod at a small concert in Tartu, and became a big fan immediately. They sing in their Seto language, and although half the country can sing along, most people don’t actually understand Seto. Their concert is the climax of Viljandi Folk, thousands have gathered before the main stage on the Cherry Hill. The band is announced, they don’t need much introduction. Then the music starts. But the musicians are not on the stage. They leave us hanging for an entire song. The crowd screams as Matis Leima, Jalmar Vabarna, and the other members finally jump on the stage. We dance, and sing, and cheer. These guys were only sixteen when they founded their band, eighteen when their first album came out, and songs from that early time are still big hits all over the country. They reminisce. About how Jalmar first got into playing karmoška, and how that later inspired Matis to learn this instrument, too. They are in their thirties now, no longer children, but fathers themselves. Now they are stars. This is the biggest concert I have ever been to. It is fantastic. The crowd goes mad. Then Jalmar has us whistle the song. All is quiet, except for the people in the audience who can whistle. Jalmar’s arm is raised to cheer us on, and slowly, slowly, sinks down, as the whistling starts to die down. Only when everybody is confused and quiet, does the band pick up playing again. They are having their fun with us.

The next day, I squeeze into a little tent with my karmoška. Together with fifteen others, I am here to learn a song from Matis Leima, violinist, karmoška-player and second front man of Zetod. When he is not being cheered on by thousands of fans, Matis is a music teacher. One of his karmoška-students is now my teacher. He has published a textbook on this instrument. And as we thank him for taking the time for this music lesson, he smiles and says he has to hurry now, he is going to perform with his students on the “Green Stage” (for the newcomers and school ensembles) now. The sixteen people who attended his little workshop are not specially handpicked, or had to pay anything, or won this somehow. We are simply the people who showed up. Last night, Matis Leima was a superstar. Today, he is a teacher.

The festival has grown in the five years since I was last here. Back then, around midnight, it got quiet. There were still small groups of youngsters playing their instruments and dancing polka, but most people seemed to be leaving.

"Eesti ETNO" and the children's ETNO are performing songs they taught each other in a music camp

Now, during the day, you can still wander from one stage to another, sit in the grass and drink sea-buckthorn juice, eat ice cream, and listen to children play some music all over the place. But as the sun sinks lower, it gets crowded. I see security personnel now, and they check not only the wristbands, but also the contents of your bag. Crowds are cheering. Still, there are children in the front rows, five-year olds, there are grey-haired people sitting in the back, there are the teenagers, and there is my generation. Viljandi Folk Music Festival is for everyone. But at night, it is no longer the cozy family gathering that it is during the day. It’s big, loud, crowded. Concerts start at 1 am, and the after party on the neighboring hill last until well after sunrise.

I had also learned Estonian for less than half a year when I came here first. I needed to start every conversation with “Do you speak English?” My friend had recommended the band Naised Köögis (Women in the kitchen), but I couldn’t really enjoy their music, because the lyrics carry so much meaning. This time, I could understand everything that was going on – announcements, karmoška lessons, conversations around me, and lyrics. Except, of course, the Zetod lyrics, but I was not alone in that. After exchanging a few words with the person at the counter who gave me my wristband and who would put my instrument in a locker so I wouldn’t have to carry it around all day, I asked for the booklet with the timetable and descriptions of the performing artists. I paid and grabbed one. “Oh, wait”, she said, “that one is in English. Here is the Estonian one.” This little comment made me so proud. It was followed by another conversation with a fellow concert guest, who after a few minutes blinked confusedly as I said “I didn’t learn that as a child, I’m not from Estonia”, and an acquaintance with whom I’d been talking over the course of a few weeks before mentioning Germany for the first time. “What do you mean we in Germany?” he interrupted me mid-sentence. “I’m from Germany.” “Oh. Seriously, I did not notice that you’re a foreigner.”

Viljandi Folk has changed a lot since I last came here. But so have I. Although I might never get used to all the famous people.

As I come home, I start telling my partner about everything, how great the concerts were, that I slept in the car because I didn’t want to pay 30€ just to put up my tent, and that I ended up buying Justin Petrone’s newest book “My Viljandi”. In the mornings, I sat on the edge of a hill, the music playing behind me, and read. On my way to another concert, I ran into the author again, had a chat and got the book signed, I tell him. He stops me in my story to ask: “Who is Justin Petrone?”


Black Bread Gone Mad on YouTube


Silver Sepp

Justin Petrone's My Viljandi

Justin Petrone's view of the festival on his blog North!


  1. Beyond the thrill of live music, there's a special joy in experiencing it through physical formats. CDs, vinyl records, and tapes offer a tangible connection to cherished songs and memories.


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