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
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?”
Justin Petrone's My Viljandi
Justin Petrone's view of the festival on his blog North!