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.