the road to a folk hangover

THURSDAY IS THE first day of the Viljandi Folk Music Festival. I have decided to do this year’s festival sober, which may explain my melancholic mood. Also the rain, which sends me and my youngest daughter to seek refuge beneath some trees, only makes things less joyful. The rain is heavy and floods the streets, soaking the kebabs and donuts. I bailed on the opening ceremony because of the rain. Of course, the Folk people are starting to trickle into town. You can spend all year in Viljandi and never see these people, but then suddenly they are back and swarming in. Where do they go for the rest of the year? Maybe they sleep in the hills behind the castle ruins? When people do come, you look at them. I think lingering eye contact is the currency of Folk. Somehow a look is more meaningful than any words. What does that look mean? Sometimes different things. It can mean I like you, or think that you are beautiful. But it can also mean that I don’t want to have anything to do with you, leave me alone. Sometimes people just look familiar though. “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” Maybe that is what all these looks mean. I have learned to trust people’s looks. They are meaningful moments, moments that linger and haunt you, even while the accordions are blaring and the Cubans are performing. I wonder how many stories start with just a look in a crowd at a music festival.

The highlight of Thursday night is inarguably the Korean ensemble, whose name nobody can say, even though they have a special language lesson in the middle of the concert. (They are actually called “Ak Dan Gwang Chil“). They have great costumes and I can make no sense of the structure of their songs or melodies. I cannot name most of the instruments they are playing. This is exactly how the best music must be, challenging. I am surprised by the turnout for the Koreans, even on a Thursday night. I can only guess that pandemic-era restrictions have increased people’s appetites for live music. Afterward, I head to Romaan to hear Gilly Jones and the Evocations playing in the new samasama.studio in the back. Gilly Jones is from Ghana and leads a band of the “cream of rhythm players” in Estonia. They play afrobeat and highlife music. Even I have to dance to this music. The best dancer is of course Pepi, who manages this creative space. He is from Argentina and has the moves. I am studying Pepi to improve my dancing. The night ends in Joala Park, drinking wine from a plastic bottle with DJ Jaanika and Inxu. Inxu is a vivacious and sharp young woman who is giving an impromptu lecture about US domestic politics. A few young men are seated across from us. One of them is especially proud that he is seated on the spot, more or less, where the Joala Monument was. “And it was located right here where I am sitting,” he says.

AT ABOUT 7 PM on Friday night, Marko Veisson from Puuluup undertakes a stage dive. It is in the middle of their set on the Second Cherry Hill, or II Kirsimägi, and happens while the duo is performing “Roosad suusad,” “pink skis,” which is a song about pink skis. The dive is a success and the crowd is pleased by Puuluup’s performance. The band’s reggae-inflected repertoire is stunningly ridiculous. Even old people like Puuluup’s music. Especially old people. The show ends with applause, unanimous cheers, joy, whistling, and this “three, four, good band” cheer. 

At 8.30 pm, there is a young man in a kimono grooving to the guitar licks of a Malian performer called Samba Touré on Kaevumägi. Three kids in Pokemon hats walk by and I see them again at the Hempress Sativa concert, which is pure Jamaican reggae, along with some speeches about the sacrament of marijuana. There is a funny mood. In general, the music on Friday night is good and satisfying like that. By 11.30 though, I walk by a teenager who is leaning against a tent and watching Geneza, a Ukrainian band, play rock music in Freedom Square. There is something about the blank look on his face opposite a rock band that speaks to the exhaustion of Folk. Even the young get tired. I can’t tell if he is burned out or sleepy, but fatigue has set in. It’s the bagpipe music. I think. It gets to you. But how much bagpipe music can you hear? How many dances can you dance? How many old friends can you greet?

Of course, there are the real Friday night stories. The real thoughts you think while you are wandering around at the festival. The real feelings you feel when you see certain people you know. The memories you have. The ones that you can’t forget. The people you have lost in the crowd. The impossibility of dreaming of anything, and yet the bravery to still be hopeful in life, if only because you have no other choice than to be hopeful. There are secrets you can never tell. Even on your most honest and forthcoming day, you can never tell the complete truth.

SATURDAY DAWNS the same way that every Folk Saturday dawns, with flies tickling your nose. You walk to the café, any café, to get some coffee. Strangers emerge from tents, cars, and apartments, wearing those little quasi-religious “Folk hats.” One wonders about the true lives of these devotees. Maybe they lead a humdrum existence in Tallinn border towns like Jüri, working as accountants, pushing along in drudgery through the year. Now and then they spot the Folk hat in the back of the closet and sigh to themselves, knowing it will be maybe half a year until the next festival. 

The peak of Folk, I think, is the slow Saturday afternoon before the bigger crowds show up. This is when you can take time to eat with your kids, sit around and reflect. You hear church bells chime, the creak of the hammocks tied between the trees. You have time to sit and think. Teenage fry cooks struggle to fill all of the orders for fries. And sometimes people forget their orders. “Maarja” has apparently disappeared to see Polenta, a Finnish group. The cooks keep calling for “Maarja” to pick up her fries, but “Maarja” never comes to claim them.

At 8 pm on the First Cherry Hill, Black Bread Gone Mad takes the stage. This is one of my favorite local bands. During the encore, bassist Mati Tubli asks people to sing along, but the lyrics to their songs go, “u-ja-ei-u-ja-ei-u-ja-ei,” or something like that, and then the next one is “ayibobo.” Okay then. After that, Zetod storms the Second Cherry Hill and the crowds are stricken. Much longer after that, I decide to see Untsakad which, believe it or not, I have never seen. There is a long table behind these Untsakad fellows — it is their 30th birthday celebration — and notable musicians like Ruslan Trochynskyi and Brad Jurjens are at the table. It reminds me a bit of King Arthur’s Roundtable, with Sir Galahad and Percival. I confess, I am jealous. Who wouldn’t want a seat at the Untsakad’s table? The music is Estonian traditional song, but I am surprised by the numbers of young people who are dancing boldly to tunes like “Metsavendade Laul,” a song about postwar guerrilla fighters. This year it is especially relevant.

ON SUNDAY AFTERNOON, Imar Kutšukali, a Dutch adventurer and part-time folk musician, informs me in the yard of the Green House Café that he understands most of Untsakad’s lyrics. This is perhaps the highest level of Estonian comprehension you can have. The next level is understanding what drunk men mumble to you outside the bottle returns and trash bins. Imar is wearing a cowboy hat he picked up in Louisiana, and plucking at a friend’s mandolin, then switching to his own fiddle. Kutšukali is so embedded in Estonian Folk culture, he can name the members of Untsakad. Later, I drag my acoustic bass guitar out of my house, making sure to wipe the dust off it, and dive into a jam session with some other musicians. Folk music operates according to other rules. It has a repetitive, spiraling quality, almost like a cyclone, and it can billow up high or swirl down deep. Providing the bottom end is a challenge, what to play, what not to play, but it seems my fellow musicians welcome my contribution. We even joke about forming a band. Later, at another concert, I run into Ramo Teder from Puuluup who informs me that he also wanted to stage dive during the performance of “Pink Skis,” but there weren’t enough strong men in the audience to support both him and Marko. Maybe next year.

The evening ends in the company of Silver Sepp and Kristiina Ehin, who cannot walk a few paces without meeting old or new friends. Talking with both of them is a challenge, but Silver more so. We just can never manage to have a straightforward, average conversation. It can only go from absurd to more ridiculous. Dancing is easier with this cultural power couple. Kristiina is a sensitive dance partner, and Silver slips me some pepper vodka during VLÜ’s set, most of which I spend dancing frantically with a Swiss psychiatrist. By midnight, people decide to move to the upper floors of the Ait. Within this confined space, there are constricted dances, and there is some kind of guitar, fiddle, accordion jam. I had promised myself this would be a sober Folk, but it is proving once again to be impossible. Kutšukali is seated with Ando Kiviberg. They are drinking cognac and I pour myself a big glass. Veisson is there too. I am asking him if women are constantly trying to seduce him on account of his fame. Veisson assures me that this is not the case, but I am doubtful. A guitarist named August is seated with Lee Taul, and they offer me wine. I inform Ms. Taul that I’ve had too much to drink and am perhaps enjoying myself too much this year. She responds that you’re actually supposed to enjoy yourself at Folk. “Come on, it’s a party,” she says. “You’re supposed to have a good time.”

An Estonian version of this article appears in the 3 August 2022 edition of the newspaper Sakala.

honey

IT WAS SUMMER and splendidly hot. The white tower of the town hall looked like one of those old colonial administrative buildings in the Danish West Indies. If you’ve ever heard that old Muddy Waters tune, “Good Morning Little School Girl,” then you have heard this story. But I actually didn’t know she was a school girl, I swear. I thought she looked interesting. In retrospect, the skirt should have tipped me off. It looked like it had been stitched together from old curtains. And then the worn red blouse, the messy blonde hair. She was not one of those bank clerks. She was holding something in her hands too, bearing it in front of her, but whatever it was, I couldn’t see. I decided to follow her but to keep my distance, as if I just happened to be headed in the same direction. If she looked back, I could inspect a hedge, or stroke the little dog of a passerby. Pretend to be a legitimate pedestrian. She walked through the park and then down Hollow Street. At one of the old houses, she paused to chat with a young man who was sipping his coffee in the doorway. She laughed at his joke. Then she came up Trench Street and arrived to the intersection with the main road. It was here that I caught up to her. I felt guilty for following her. I should have just glanced her and let her go. Yet she waited for me there. It was as if she had known I had been following her. We stood there and she looked forward and then turned and cleared her throat, but said nothing. Instead, she showed me what was in her hands. A small container enclosing a honeycomb. “Would you like some of my honey?” the girl asked. She had such a pleasant air, and I said, “Of course, I’ll have some of your honey.” She smiled at me and pulled a dripping hunk from the container and handed it over. She took a separate chunk and slipped it in her mouth. “It is good, isn’t it?” said the girl. A touch of golden honey was on her lips. From the crest of the hill looking down the road, I could see the lake in the distance. I could see the beach and the pines. “It is,” I said. The youth said nothing and we crossed the street. The wind blew and toyed with her sunshine hair. It was that kind of day. Disarming. Innocent. Bluesy. Honeysweet.

use your illusion

People at the Viljandi Folk Music Festival, July 2021

I CAME TO VILJANDI years ago because I was really in a hard place. I felt that I needed to leave Tartu, where I was living, to create some space for myself. I really felt like the rabbits in Watership Down, who have to avoid the predatory bears and foxes and weasels to stay alive. Viljandi became a sort of rabbit hole for me then, a place where I knew I would be totally safe.

At least, I thought I would be safe, at first.

Back then, I was exhausted. I remember I drove into Viljandi one night, probably in November, that now infamous November when I turned 37, and I sat down in the Green House Café. It seemed like such a relaxed and welcoming environment, and I remember thinking, I could just sit in this chair here in the corner forever. There was no place else I wanted to be or to go then. 

Of course, Tallinn was always an option. Tallinn promised some kind of job and some kind of career. But Tallinn also required some major startup capital just to get going, several months worth of rent money, which was hard for me to put together, because I was totally broke, and also educational issues. The school system in Estonia is complex. Kid A, who lives next to one school, has to travel across town to go to another school, where there is space, while Kid B, who lives next to that school, has to travel across town to go to the school next to Kid A. 

It makes no sense to me either. 

IN TARTU, this situation was somehow more ideal, because most of the schools were located within walking distance. But Tartu is also a bit like Los Angeles, in that you have to drive everywhere. Multiple times a day in Tartu, I had to drive to take a kid to swimming lessons, or to pick one up from kindergarten, or to take another to her zoology course after school. There were a lot of logistics involved. So, to imagine living that kind of life in Tallinn was more challenging, especially since my kids had a habit of going on their own adventures and calling to have me pick them up from, say, McDonalds at 7 pm after their zoology course. How did they get there? We walked! But now should I expect them to hike across Tartu in the dark in December? No. Imagine these incidents happening in a place like Tallinn. Imagine your child getting lost in Kopli or Lasnamäe? It just didn’t seem like the kind of setup I needed in my life at that moment.

In this sense, Viljandi emerged as a strong contender as a place to live. It had affordable rents, multiple cafes to work from (if you are a remote worker like me), lots of green space around, and it was entirely walkable. My child could walk to school, and to all of her activities, and even to the cinema or supermarket, all by herself. It really was, in some ways, the perfect place to live, at least for someone in my situation.

I NEVER COMMITTED myself fully to Viljandi in my heart though. It always seemed like a temporary base camp from which to launch future expeditions. Yet the fact is, my kids are tied to this place, and one of them was even born here. Viljandi, in this sense, will never leave our lives, even if we did move very far away. As you see, there were a lot of moving pieces that led to the decision to live in Viljandi. I suspect for anyone who comes to live here, they have their own reasons, both practical and personal. I am not by any stretch some kind of cosmopolitan, who absolutely must dine at the finest restaurants and pretend to be someone of importance by attending various showy public events. I think some people in, say, Tallinn, would feel less of themselves for living in a small provincial town. I couldn’t care less what people think of me. I don’t even do these things in Viljandi. I rather prefer how exiled I feel living here. The loneliness suits me at times though in winter it can really get to you, and you can get severely depressed. You won’t even know you are depressed, that’s how depressed you can get in winter. Not sad, mind you. You are not actually sad. Just somehow detached from your own feelings, detached from the joys of living this life.

Viljandi’s community is both a blessing and a curse. In Tartu, I did not know my neighbors very well. I still get this anonymous feeling when I go to Tartu, that people give each other space, distance, room, because in their minds Tartu is a big city, and such anonymity is normal. In Viljandi, I cannot walk down the street without bumping into multiple people who know me very well, almost too well. Sometimes they know more about me than I know about myself. This has real value. If you have a problem, for example, your car won’t start, you can always go ask the Krishna devotee upstairs and he will come down with a fist full of krokadiilid and get your car going. If your child doesn’t come home, there are at least five acquaintances who saw her heading toward the Castle Ruins. Having eyes everywhere is really helpful. It creates a social safety network. On the other hand, let’s be honest, having people around you all the time, who involve themselves in your business, can be tiring and make you yearn for the anonymity of a larger city. It seems at times like people in Viljandi even know what color underwear I have on, even when I don’t. This is why it is a relief to leave Viljandi at times, to get away from all of those prying, curious eyes.

WHEN I THINK BACK to that decision I made, to move to Viljandi, I have to say it was an emotional decision as much as it was a practical one. Obviously, I could have gone to Rakvere, or even Pärnu, or Kuressaare, and enjoyed many of these things that I enjoy here. I had strong personal reasons though for setting up a new life here. My best friend was going through his own strife, and we were supporting each other in a way. He was living here then, and he sort of pulled me back into Viljandi, though he has since left. I also was really in love with someone at that time, which was a unique and compelling feeling I had not felt often in my life, and still do not feel often, or encounter, at all in my daily life. I suppose I just do not feel love that often or am bereft of romantic love. After dealing with complicated situations, hers was a light that shone as bright on me as the north star. She also left Viljandi behind, very long ago. So that was also bubbling away inside of me. The illusion that life could be different. It was an illusion, of course, but even those of us with the strongest constitutions can be led on by an illusion. My daughter’s best friend in Tartu had also moved to England, and life felt so hopeless then. Viljandi promised at least some kind of new experience, some way out of what was going on, and a way toward something new.

At that moment in time, staying awhile in the Green House seemed like the best decision I could make.

I DO NOT REGRET coming here at all. These have been very creative years for me as a writer, and I have to thank Viljandi and its dreamy landscapes for it. Someday I will probably pack up and hit the road again, but Viljandi has fulfilled at least some of its promises. It has been supportive.

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An Estonian version of this article, translated by Triin Loide, appears in the 27 May 2022 issue of Sakala.