Who knew Estonia had so many “dirty hippies”? At least that’s what my curmudgeonly punk-rocking friends would call them. From some unknown well in the mists of Estonia’s bogs spurted forth this month enough natty dreads and nose rings to fill a small city. And of all Estonian cities they chose this one, Viljandi, in which to congregate.
Well, they were invited. They were promised music — at a price — and access to alcoholic beverages. There was also food, lots of it. During the Viljandi Pärimusmuusika Festival, also known as the Viljandi Folk Music Festival, held here over the weekend, decent food was to be savored and enjoyed, and all of it a five-minute walk from my house. If only the food vendors could stay on. If only there was a an ice cream jahutus punkt (“cooling station”) operational from noon to midnight every day, right there, next to the Johan Laidoner memorial. If only.
It’s good the concertgoers left though. Despite the music, the food, the cosmic vibration, things got a bit too wild outside our window on Saturday night. I heard drunk Estonian guys trying to pick up foreign girls, their voices echoing in the cobblestone streets: “Hey prrretty girrrls! Wherrre arrre you going? You look verrry nice!”
Each morning I woke up to a heavy metal concert broadcast from someone’s massive car sound system on the lake. Estonian heavy metal is noxious: I can’t get into it, never will. The muddy growling, the repetitive trashing of electric instruments. But if you attended the Meestelaulutuba (“the mens’ singing room”) then you’d see that traditional song and Estonian metal are linked. Estonian guys have deep voices. When they sang together, some drinking beer already at 11 am, the floor of the room vibrated with the all-bass choir. A typical verse:
Läksin metsa puida tooma/Läksin metsa puida tooma. (“I went to the forest to get some wood”). The bold denotes when the chorus of voices sing together with the song leader.
As they went around the room trading verse about leaves and forests and the sea, I started to nervously formulate my own lyrics, fearing I might have to lead the room in a song. Something like:
Üleeile läksin ma Selverisse/Üleeile läksin ma Selverisse. (“The day before yesterday, I went to the supermarket”).
Fortunately, I didn’t get to try it out this time. Maybe I’ll work up a whole regilaul (“runo song”) about shopping at Selver for my next male singing experience. I left half way through because I had no idea what we were singing. I did learn some sexual metaphors though. Who knew that metsakaev (“forest well”) could be such a loaded term? Don’t bring that one up in the presence of grandma. I wonder what the Estonian ladies sing about in private.
So, Estonian folk culture is like anything else. It has its good sides and bad sides. Good sides are probably the singing and the clothes. Runo songs are ancient and interesting: it’s a literary language in its own right. One verse we sang was about the Swedish king … and the last time Estonia had a Swedish king was 300 years ago. Estonian folk costumes, at least for men, can be extremely accessible. All you need is a pair of medieval-looking workman’s clothes with a folk pattern on the neck and a skullcap and you’re set.
But what’s bad about Estonian folk culture? The dancing. Estonian folk dancing is like the final question on your tenth-grade math final. You keep looking at the equation, trying to reduce it to something less complex, but no matter how much scrap paper you use, you just can’t solve it. That was me trying to comprehend the mix of line dancing and polkas that comprised the Estonian dance taught at a festival workshop. Dancing in such conditions is dangerous. Do not polka if you have not polkad before. Someone could get hurt. Believe me, I know.
This amuses me, because I really enjoyed dancing to the Habana Son Club. They did a salsified version of “Sunny,” which was closer to the Boney M. ’76 version than Marvin Gaye’s ’66 rendition. See, I know pop trivia. I used to work in a music store. I know music, but I don’t know how to polka. And I could dance to a lawless Cuban rhythm but not an Estonian one. Or maybe there were Cuban laws, ones I understood innately as a former denizen of the Western Hemisphere? The more I thought about it, the more Estonian dancing seemed like a social activity, an clever way to get to know the opposite sex, while Cuban dancing seemed to operate on an entirely different spiritual level. There seems to be a religious quality to Latin music that is absence from the valley of the polka, or maybe I just haven’t done enough polkas yet to get to the next level.
The festival happened to coincide with a full moon, and it was an evil, yellow one at that. Lightning and thunder twirled around Viljandi Lake almost every evening. The seemingly non-stop parties lasted until 5 am. Walking around, unshaven, dressed like Kalevipoeg, I kept thinking about David Crosby, not Stephen Stills or Graham Nash or Neil Young or Roger McGuinn or Chris Hillman, but Crosby, and only Crosby. He was there in a way, counseling me about how to escape a gathering of the tribes unscathed. Of all people, Crosby would know how to survive an event known colloquially as “Folk.” Crosby’s folk days were colored with mind-altering substances and licentious women and Hells Angels and did Viljandi Folk not differ ? Mind-altering substances? Check. Licentious women? Check. Motorcycle gangs? Check. I imagined a new bumper sticker for concertgoers. Rather than, ‘What would Jesus do?’ attendees could ask themselves, ‘What would Crosby do?’
The most obvious answer is, “get high,” just like everyone else. But beyond that, I think that Crosby and other prophets of the sixties milieu would manage to extract something profound and borderline divine from the naked squalor of music festivals. In the face of 21st century e-oppression, forced to be available to all around the clock to provide any service at any time, I managed to mostly disconnect for a few precious days. In spite of the trash, in spite of the heavy metal campers, in spite of the drunk hooligans, there is something redeemingly positive about Folk, which is why it has been a successful draw for 18 years, even here in Viljandi, this country’s very own Glastonbury or Roskilde or Coachella.
Which doesn’t mean that I don’t despise drunk hooligans. Nothing like being told to Mine ära (“go away”) by some idiot who, upon observing my public use of the English language, decided to make it known that he was a supporter of a homogenous, vanilla Estonia.
“Mis asja?” (“What do you mean?”) I responded to the idiot.
“Mine ära!” he repeated.
“Kust? Viljandist või?” (“From where? Viljandi?”) I asked.
“Üldiselt,” (“In general”) he grumbled.
My wife took me by the hand as we walked away. “Those people are really dangerous,” she whispered in my ear. Were they? I wanted to ask the idiot if he was Estonia’s last Nazi. He probably wasn’t, but his presence did behoove me to get away, from him. I wondered how he felt about the Austrian yodelers and Cuban conga players and Irish fiddlers and all the others who had taken over his town, at his own people’s invitation no less. How did he feel about the Hungarians and Poles and Spaniards and Somalis who had come to conquer Viljandi’s hills and valleys. I felt encouraged by it. Moved. Empowered. Bring them all to Viljandi. Come tattoos, come nose rings, come squalor and empty beer cans and accordions and bagpipes. Come bad pickup lines and carrot smoothies. Come to Viljandi. Rescue us from the tyranny of the idiot. Infuse this provincial town with diversity, cleanse it with noise, like fluoride to teeth, soap to skin, seawater to natty dread.