380 days that shook estonia

13 January 2022, the day the monument was dismantled

I CAN ONLY vaguely recall the day when the Jaak Joala Monument was installed in Viljandi. I remember Harri Juhani, the Finnish entrepreneur, was there, and perhaps Heiki the historian (and former mayor) was as well, but Heiki might have not been there. This might be what is called a false memory, a trick of the mind. For the next 380 days, I was to live my life in the shadow of the Joala Monument. I was there at its inception and installation, and I witnessed the parades of wayfaring pilgrims that came from all over to delight and bear witness to the great singer’s likeness. Strangers arrived into town and accosted me, asking where they could see the famed Joala. On cold winter mornings, I would go out to the wood barn and hear the echoes of disco blaring. At night, the Joala Monument would glow with extraterrestrial light. Toward the end of the first month, there was something of a vigil around the monument. Neighbors were selling soup and, I think, pastries, though that might be another false memory. Coffee was also being sold, hot cups of brew steaming in the cold, for the pilgrims of Joala. Then one day, Helir-Valdor, this wiry and friendly politician with the name of a Lord of the Rings character, met me outside of the monument, and we posed together, brandishing my latest book. It was an experience, and I felt as if I had been caught up in the great political winds, as if I was with Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries riding into Havana, or alongside Napoleon declaring himself emperor. “Peace, land, bread, Joala!” Yet I was a two-faced revolutionary. To my monument supporting friends, I feigned sympathy for their interests. “Yes, it is an interesting monument. Yes, it brings people to town.” For my monument opponent friends, who had pledged in blood to not rest until it was removed from the drunks’ park at the corner of Koidu and Posti Streets, I nodded and complained of the loud music. On the second day of February, a year ago, the first part of the saga of the monument came to an Orwellian end. The monument was enclosed in a wooden box. After which, the park became known as “Box Park,” and strangers asked me if I could show them the way to the “Joala Box.” I showed them. Still they came, from Jõgeva, from Rakvere, all to see this enchanted energy column. One morning, I even saw a couple, dressed sharply, posing in front of the box with a baby in an elegant bonnet. I imagined they had just come from a Christening, and wanted to celebrate it by visiting old Joala. The day when the monument was dismantled is clearer in my mind. I know because I was there, holding out my phone to play some of the singer’s more popular songs, so that the workmen could hear Jaak Joala sing, even as they unfastened the lower part of the wooden box and crawled inside. The hands of Joala came out first, still clutching that microphone, and then the head. Such was the mournful scene around the Joala Monument when it was at last dismembered on the 13th of January. It was like the death of a king. The famed box was surrounded by reporters and photographers. A journalist asked me for my personal opinion. One photographer I knew from Tartu was there, and I asked if it had been as exciting when they took down the Lenin statue in 1991. He said that he had been there that day in Tartu when Lenin came down, and that nobody had really paid much attention, as far as he could recall. Drones buzzed in the skies. People watched and chattered. And, at some point, nothing was left except some tubing extending from the icy ground. Later that same night, I encountered Heiki the historian outside of the Courthouse. He was in a sour mood and talking about “Black Thursday,” the day the Joala Monument had come down, a day that would no doubt live forever in infamy. I expressed sympathy. I asked Heiki about what had been in the park before the Joala Monument, and he said it had once hosted a bust of a Communist named Jaan Sihver, which had been removed in 1991. Sihver’s monument had been taken away to the same warehouse where Joala was now being kept and guarded, but was later stolen, and was last rumored to be an ornament in someone’s garden in the suburbs of town. I wondered about who would want to steal the bust of a dead Communist and worried that someone might wish to do the same with the remnants of our dear revered Joala. I also wondered what other secrets were kept in the Viljandi storage facility, perhaps the remains of a UFO crash from the 1940s, or other strange items that might have turned up here and there in the course of history. None of them, though, have been as peculiar as the remnants of the once proud Joala Monument. Yesterday, I happened to walk through the park, and saw that someone had built a snowman on the site where the monument once stood. Maybe a father and daughter had built it, or a mother and son. A simple snowman from this very snowy winter, with rocks for eyes and sticks for arms. I stood there and looked at it. Life does go on, you know. It changes, and you may not like the change, but it does go on. It was a beautiful February day, with a light snowfall, falling against the sunlight. There is something I like about the way the snow falls on these days. It’s like poetry.

don’t chase the lizard, live in viljandi

Don’t Chase the Lizard’s Lee Taul and Tomás del Real, photo by Annika Vihmann

FOR ABOUT A MONTH, Tomás del Real, a Chilean guitarist and singer songwriter, has been living in the cellar of an old barn that once belonged to the nearby palatial Viljandi Manor in Estonia, and working out tunes on his Spanish acoustic guitar. It has been a cold, snowy, and contemplative winter, and there has nearly not been a day since November without snowfall.

Here he sits, stands, and lies, in a meditative state, feeling out new songs. He has been quite successful in this endeavor, because the songs have come. He has also been waking up his musical partner, Lee Taul, a violinist and singer, perhaps best known for her work with the Estonian ethno group Black Bread Gone Mad, with ideas, sometimes at four in the morning.

Initially the two musicians, who had met several times before at various musical gatherings around Europe, just planned to duet to showcase del Real’s new songs. “Originally, Tomás asked me to take part in a couple of songs as a guest artist,” says Taul. “Soon enough it was clear our collaboration was going really well so we decided to form a new duo: Don’t Chase the Lizard.”

It came together pretty quickly. Within a span of weeks, they not only had perhaps an album’s worth of material, which can take other artists months to assemble, but felt comfortable enough with it to perform it together at the Estonian Traditional Music Center (Pärimusmuusika Ait) in its smaller hall (Väike Saal). This is an intimate performance space, enclosed in red bricks, with good lighting. Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, the room was filled for their debut performance. About 30 people came out on a night when a thaw had made sidewalks almost impassable, to hear the duo play. 

Some other musicians were supposed to join them, but positive Covid tests nixed those plans, making just it a guitar, violin, and two vocalists, and a small raised stage. 

Del Real is a sensitive, insightful composer and understated performer. His guitar parts are elegantly structured, and not once during the set list did he miss a note, as far as the audience could tell. Taul brought to the performance her own remarkable presence and flash. Listening to her play, one wonders how she manages to find the main nerve, the core of a composition, and then craft the perfect response on her instrument to del Real’s impressive guitar work. Their voices are also delicate and well matched. The bulk of the material is in Spanish, but they do have some English-language songs. For the ears of locals, being able to hear freshly crafted songs in Spanish is a treat. One must also admire the boldness of a wandering guitarist who lives in a renovated old manor house barn, or a violinist who, in the depths of the pandemic, is committed enough to a new project to help build out the songs, develop the harmonies, and put on a concert.

One cannot argue that their debut concert was not a success. Instead, it seemed to be just what people needed on a black February night: Latin flavor, enchanting songs, and alluring vocals.

Don’t Chase the Lizard’s first single, “Buscar la luz” will be released on March 11.

the black anchor

ONE NIGHT I DREAMT about a black anchor. It had been cast into the sea, in a place where the surf was calm, the water was clear, and the sand crystal white. There it stayed, at the bottom of the water, clear to the naked eye from the surface through the transparent ocean glisten, clean of all mollusks and other maritime creatures, well-forged iron, but a secret, for only I knew about it. Then once day I tried to conceal the anchor, and dove down into the waters, just a few meters, and tried to place a cinder block on top of it, and cover it up with sands. The Red Queen had arrived and sought transport to another isle, and I took her, even though I loathed the very sight of her but, as you know, I have an unfortunate weakness for arrogant, self-possessed women. We made it past the anchor and thankfully she never once looked down. At the isle, we parted ways, and I went into a cantina, where I met with Anouk and some other people I knew from the town. Anouk made some comment about me going bald and I was insulted, so I left the cantina and started to wander back down to the port along a dirt road. Ophelia came walking in the other direction and stopped me. She was in her black dress and seemed to be quite fine, girlish even. Her curly hair was loose around her shoulders. She held in her hands my journals, with the pages covered with notes about her. I was dismayed, shocked even, to see my mad ramblings held out into the light like that, and even more worried about what she would think of me if she was to read all of them. I felt bad for having written them, perhaps for having written anything at all.