How about a holiday in Estonia? No? Because it’s too far away? Not really, it’s closer by plane than the hot south or a little less environmentally stressful by motorhome always along the Baltic Sea. The country with its only 1.3 million friendly people feels similar to Denmark, is a member of the EU with the Euro as its currency and has been home to an exquisite festival for thirty years – the Viljandi Folk Music Festival.
Text: Mike Kamp
Viljandi is located in the southern part of Estonia, about 160 kilometres southeast of the capital Tallinn. Certainly not a spectacular city, but a cute (old) town with many nooks, crannies and wooden houses that radiate Nordic cosiness. Fun fact on the side: the little town of 17,000 inhabitants has also been home to its own local daily newspaper since 1878.
Polonaise; Photo: Viljandi Folk Music Festival
While the land is very flat, Viljandi boasts a stately hill on which stood a castle in the Middle Ages – and amid its picturesque ruins, the Folk Music Festival now takes place on four open-air stages (plus four indoor stages for which, of course, often there is a queue). Three of the open-air stages also offer a scenic view of Lake Viljandi. In 1993, double bass player and bagpiper Ando Kiviberg started the festival with a group of enthusiasts. The clear but not exclusive focus is on European folk music with an emphasis on local traditions.
“If this is the future of folk music, there’s nothing to fear.”
In order to secure local acceptance for the festival, it may not only have been helpful that festival director Kiviberg was mayor of Viljandi for several years, but also the fact that today it has been proven that every visitor to the festival contributes around 300 euros to the local economy. Another supportive factor is that since 2008, the Estonian Traditional Music Centre has been located in the middle of the festival grounds, with beautiful event rooms, a library and a restaurant.
Festival director Ando Kiviberg; Photo: Martin Lazarev
This year, the Viljandi programme was dedicated to the festival’s thirtieth anniversary. Some of the bands had come together again exclusively for the festival, such as the Estonian folk pioneers Alle-aa around festival director Kiviberg, the quintet Vägilased, stars of the early noughties, or the folk fusion formation Paabel. Particularly interesting was the anniversary concert “Folk 30” on the second Kirsimägi stage (named after one of the parts of the remaining castle ruins): a sequence of old Viljandi festival videos followed by short performances of the (mostly aged) artists with one or two pieces, accompanied by a seven-piece band. The perfectly fitting changeover in the shortest possible time was a logistical masterpiece! These revival concerts were well attended with about five thousand people, but the absolute magnet with six thousand dancing and repeatedly forming polonaises were the Estonian stars of Trad.Attack! All of this took place within easy walking distance; once one concert was over, the next was ready to go, which kept the total of 25,000 visitors in constant motion over the four days.
“… one of the cleanest folk festivals in Europe …”
Even though it was often very crowded in front of the individual stages, the shiny technology ensured consistently good sound on the part of the site that was to be covered, and cameras and large screens next to the stages as well as at the back also ensured that everyone could visually enjoy what was happening on stage. The cameras, in turn, provided their own highlights. When Cätlin Mägi from Vägilased started a long and varied jew’s harp solo, a cameraman spotted a young gentleman in the audience who was also working the jew’s harp with inspiration. This resulted – at least visually – in a highly interesting, tongue-in-cheek jew’s harp duel.
Photo: Viljandi Folk Music Festival
International guests were, for example, Le Diable à Cinq from Québec with the familiar energy of foot percussion and call-and-response singing, Flook from England/Ireland with instrumental flute power, the Ross Daly Trio from Greece, Loten Namling, who convincingly represented the cause of the oppressed Tibetan population, or from Slovakia the stunning singer Júlia Kozáková with an incredibly precise Roma quartet as accompaniment.
One of the highlights was the final concert of the Ethno Estonia Camp 2023, also initiated by the Viljandi team (there was even a Kids Ethno 2023!). What these sixty, seventy international young people brought to the stage, visually and acoustically, in terms of joy of playing and enthusiasm, made the lower jaw drop in rows. If this is the future of folk music, there is nothing to fear. (There will be an article about Ethno Germany and the general idea of these annual international youth folk and world music camps in issue #4.23 of folker in December).
Concert of the Ethno Estonia Camp 2023_Photo: Viljandi Folk Music Festival
Speaking of the future, in general the many young people who had a blast with the music danced and were always the ones leading the polonaises through the audience. According to festival statistics, more than a quarter of the visitors were in the “young people” category. And these were either having fun or were part of the two hundred and fifty or so volunteers who, for example, with gloves and plastic bags made sure after each concert that no rubbish was left behind. Not that there was much rubbish. Drinking cups and food plates were only available against deposit, smoking was only allowed in separate areas, and alcohol abuse was almost non-existent – although good local beers, ciders and wine were offered alongside a variety of food. It must be one of the cleanest folk festivals in Europe (there is also an explicit “green festival” philosophy), and there was also very little rubbish to be found in the small town of Viljandi itself.
How about 2024? Four highly enjoyable days of music and all the trimmings would be guaranteed.
Photo: Viljandi Folk Music Festival