Svjata Vatra “Svjata Vatra” CD review by Andrew Cronshaw 2007

VARIOUS ARTISTS Estonian Traditional Music 2006

VÄGILASED
Ema Õpetus
Eesti Raadio/Vägilased, no number (2006)

SVJATA VATRA
Svjata Vatra

Own label 4740156902280 (2006)

RO:TORO
Estonian Bagpipe

Tutl SHD 78 (2006)

Back in 1998-9, less than a decade after the country’s new-found independence, when I was writing the Estonian section of the present edition of The Rough Guide to World Music there were virtually no CDs of Estonian roots music on Estonian labels, and precious few on any others. But as a new edition of the RGTWM looms, things have changed. Traditional music has developed quite a youth following, and a growing number of musicians are emerging from the folk music courses at the Viljandi Cultural College, or involved in the Estonian Traditional Music Centre organisation that has staged Viljandi folk music festival every July since 1993 and also in recent years other events including Tartu’s Maa Ja Ilm festival in March.

Some nearby countries – Denmark and Finland, for example – have drawn attention to the range of their burgeoning roots music scenes by releasing annual compilations, and the Estonian Traditional Music Centre has followed suit with Estonian Traditional Music 2006. It’s indicative of the new roots music activity that there are now enough Estonian-released CDs to make seventeen tracks from different albums released since 2001, and most are from the past couple of years.
The CD is a showcase and encouragement of recent releases on labels available to the compilers, not a full Estonian roots sampler. Though it does include a 2001 track of a traditional female vocal group from Setumaa, there’s nothing from significant Estonian roots musicians such as young fiddler and electronic musician Tiit Kikas, singer Kirile Loo (who made two interesting albums for a German label but seems to have gone quiet since the turn of the millennium), or those who, while influential, haven’t recorded much or recently, such as kannel player Tuule Kann or traditional instrumentalist, singer and ethnomusicologist Igor Tõnurist. Nor is there any of the pioneering traditional music work of composer Veljo Tormis. But it is a useful taster of what’s happening now, particularly among the Viljandi-centred young musicians, and pointer to what might evolve in the future. It’s still early days; some tracks are more confident and accomplished than others, but that was the case, too, with the early Danish Folk Music Council compilations, and things have certainly developed there.
What is happening is not folkish guitar-toting but a direct engagement with the old folk songs known in Estonian as regilaul, which in their narrow compass of rarely more than a fifth and their short repetitive tunes are the runo-song kin of Finland’s runolaulu. And the new enthusiasts are taking up traditional instruments including kannel (Estonia’s close kin to Finland’s kantele), hiiukannel (bowed lyre), jew’s-harp and Estonian bagpipes (which have a single-reeded chanter and up to three low-slung drones, and had nearly disappeared during the 20th century).
It was clear from the sight of the Maa ja Ilm Festival audience, largely early twenties or younger but with a healthy mix of the more aged, enthusiastically circle and chain-dancing to Vägilased, and the increasing audience and number of Estonian bands at Viljandi festival, that the scene for home-grown roots music has achieved that critical energy or fun-factor which attracts audiences and players. It’s still early days and the bands aren’t high-powered or flash yet, but their members, many of them current or past students at the Viljandi college, are young, motivated and experimental and carry their audience with them as they explore.

Vägilased (“The Mighties”) is a sextet featuring the vocals of Meelika Hainsoo and Cätlin Jaago. Hainsoo plays fiddle, Jaago plays bagpipes, flutes and jew’s-harp, and they’re joined by Russian diatonic accordion, guitar, bass and drums. Arranging these runo-songs in way that will enthuse modern ears isn’t easy; Vägilased applies a variety of texture, weaves harmonies and rhythms around and across them, and punctuates with the occasional less ancient dance tune, and in this shifting instrumental environment the songs’ short lines and melodic repetition become a virtue. There’s an appealing, inventive unpretentiousness about the album, and the band, while still developing, is clearly one of the leaders in the new movement.

Svjata Vatra, also well received at Maa Ja Ilm this year, is another promising new band, with potential not yet fully realised. Leading it are the charismatic vocals and trombone of Ukrainian Ruslan Trochynskyi, who was a member of the meaty Ukrainian folk-brass-rock band Haydamaky and now lives in Estonia, where he has put together a quartet with Estonian musicians on bagpipes, accordion, flute and percussion, playing a mix of Estonian and Ukrainian trad plus some originals. On this debut album it feels like most of the energy is coming from Trochynskyi, with the rest of the band not really gelling yet. His vocal and trombone are strong but not fully supported by the other instruments, and the very literal, stark recording doesn’t enrich things. Numbers that could be powerful, such the chant-like Revolutsioon, don’t peak as they could. The percussion, largely of just darabukka & tambourine jingles, could do with being wider in tonal range and less tentative, and the accordion could do more but tends to sit back or out rather than really digging in. The bagpipes and flute help a lot when they’re playing, but in much of the album only two or three of the band seem to be contributing at a time, increasing the feeling that there’s a key player missing.

As in most new scenes, with limited performing opportunities, musicians tend to play with more than one band. Ro:toro is built around the twin bagpipes of Vägilased’s Cätlin Jaago and Svjata Vatra’s Sandra Sillamaa, joined by saxist Marko Mägi and Svjata Vatra percussionist Silver Sepp. Sepp here forsakes darabukka and tambourine for a more eccentric range of percussion centering on water-drums made of floating inverted plastic washing-up bowls, which emit a muted booming sound, augmented with sundry woody and metallic clatterings, pinging bicycle spokes and tuned nails. The bulk of the band’s repertoire is dance tunes, learned largely from recordings and transcriptions of Estonian bagpipers in the early 20th century, when the instrument was still popular in village life and celebration. On their CD, licensed to the Faroese label Tutl, they play them and a handful of originals with plenty of life and variation of pace, the unison and harmonising skirl of pipes well leavened by the sax, which moves between rhythmic patterns and melodic forays, and the tonal variety of non-shop-bought percussion by Sepp (who delivers an unexpected vocal on a ‘hidden’ track on the tail that could more usefully have been included in the album proper).

The Estonian Traditional Music Centre, a central contact for much of this music, is at www.folk.ee; meet the bands and hear some tracks at www.vagilased.galerii.ee, www.svjatavatra.ee and http://rootoro.mcp.pri.ee

© 2007 Andrew Cronshaw

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