Station Narva 2023, Narva, Estonia, September 7-10, 2023 | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Monday, May 27th, 2024  

Ivan Dorn

James Lavelle, Ivan Dorn, Tovarish Astronom, Ajukaja

Station Narva 2023, Narva, Estonia, September 7-10, 2023,

Sep 17, 2023 Photography by Anastassia Volkova (lead photo) Web Exclusive
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The serotinal edition of Station Narva celebrates music, Indian summer and generosity.

On Friday afternoon the train heading from Estonian capital Tallinn to Narva is chock-a-block. The fact that it runs twice a day doesn’t fully explain the sold-out state: 85% of the passengers get off at the final stop where a two-day music and arts event is about to begin.

Once in Narva, the quirky sense of liminality prevails. It’s not only the view from the central square Peetri plats to the iron gate of the Estonian-Russian border that sets this train of thought. The openness and, sometimes, eccentricity of the locals eliminate the boundary between sobering reality and a dreamy realm that conjures up the mystical scenery of Tarkovsky’s films. In the late evening, the opposite bank of the Narva River marking the borderline between the two states is coated in mist barely showing outlines of fishermen and trees. Still, the stretch of land is only about 100 metres away.

Tovarish Astronom (Photo by Maxim Dubovik)
Tovarish Astronom (Photo by Maxim Dubovik)

One pegging Narva often deals with comical situations. In a local cafe, a young man, allegedly an owner of the place, pays for a customer’s meal hoping they will vote for him during the next municipal election. After finding out they are just visiting, he still shows a cheerful disposition saying “Well, just wish me luck or mention my name in your prayers then”. While on a bus for festival goers, everyone hears a tipsy Narva resident reciting verses by Russian lyric poet Sergei Yesenin.

Although it is imbued with and defined by Russian spirit and culture, the place craves international attention. Everything foreign triggers curiosity and grabs the attention of the locals. International visitors respond with affection as Narva gradually transforms from a hidden gem to an arts and culture hub. Earlier this year art space Narva Arts Residency got funding from the British Council to run the Narva Venice Embassy, a project reimagining the purpose of local boat garages transforming them into art workshops. Tours around Narva Venice (a system of canals and boathouses) are organised during the festival.

Art residence (Photo by Anna Markova)
Narva Venice (Photo by Anna Markova)

Despite attracting visitors from afar, boutique Station Narva is first and foremost a celebration for the local community. The programme is split between two main venues – performing arts space Vaba Lava and club Ro-Ro. The former hosted shows of the Asian Dub Foundation, Gus Gus and Hatari at the festival’s previous editions. This time, the names on the headliners’ bill are UNKLE’s James Lavelle, Ivan Dorn and Acid Arab, from the UK, Ukraine and France respectively. The series of shows at Vaba Lava kicks off with two sets by Estonian artists displaying different facets of the country’s pop music. Tallinn-based Manna indulges in gloomy self-reflection placed in a minimalist trip-hop context, while IVI, a glamorous songwriter from Narva, sounds upbeat and looks as sparkling as if she was performing at the Eurovision contest. The attendees of different ages wear outfits, in their fanciness, matching the glittery costume of the performer.

IVI (Photo by Maxim Dubovik)
IVI (Photo by Maxim Dubovik)

In Narva, connection with culture is essential. The festival is organised by Shiftworks, a parent company running one of the biggest showcase festivals in Scandinavia and the Baltics – Tallinn Music Week. Unlike the latter, displaying different facets of Estonian music, Station Narva zooms in on the predominantly Russian-speaking community with their needs and interests. The headliner of Friday evening, indie-pop performer Ivan Dorn has devotees aplenty both in Narva and the rest of the country. The Russian-born Ukrainian singer, who currently resides in France, uses different languages accordingly to communicate with his audience. His multilingual monologues and spoken word bits between the songs are accompanied by waves of applause and cheer. Bouncy beats and wacky keyboards match the stream-of-consciousness lyrics both raising eyebrows and causing uproar of laughter. Meanwhile, his songs quickly spark singalong among the fans. The bond between the singer and the audience is strong. One of the visitors, Marina, a visual artist from St. Petersburg, who moved to Estonia three years ago, tells Under The Radar that she has been listening to Dorn since she was a student in Russia. “His wildness resonates with me. I like him being so humanly droll”.

Ivan Dorn (Photo by Maxim Dubovik)
Ivan Dorn (Photo by Maxim Dubovik)

The same evening, the collective Tovarish Astronom (translates from Russian as Comrade Astronomer) plays at the dim hut-looking interior of the riverside art club Ro-Ro. Although their lyrics and melancholy-tinged vocals allude to Soviet counterculture songwriter Viktor Tsoi, the general sound balancing between post-punk murkiness and rattling psychedelia conjures up New Zealand’s indie The Clean and The Chills. Were Kino (Tsoi’s band) signed to Flying Nun Records, that would be the sound.

Tovarish Astronom (Photo by Maxim Dubovik)
Tovarish Astronom (Photo by Maxim Dubovik)

Within two days at Vaba Lava, visitors are presented with strikingly different acts. The Saturday programme sees artists that add avant-garde tones to the upbeat sonic palette. Estonian producers Raul Saaremets (aka Ajukaja) and Mart Avi are a longstanding duo blending house and glam aesthetics. Accordingly, there is a perfect balance of stillness and motion. While Raul, behind the decks, weaves a cobweb of captivating beats and subterranean bass, Mart imbues this seemingly underwater sound with the sensuality of his vocals and movements. His sequined vintage shirt adds to the sparkling, intense and life-affirming presence. The facade conceals much more just as the visuals behind the artists. The footage of the 1940s nuclear weapon testing suggests the alternative (and soothing) scenario: the light of the explosion transforms into an alien vehicle and takes off in the direction of space.

Ajukaja & Mart Avi (Photo by Anna Pärt)
Ajukaja & Mart Avi (Photo by Anna Pärt)

Finnish multi-instrumentalist Jimi Tenor continues the sci-fi trajectory, occasionally talking about the transcendental and using the magic of the Moog synthesiser. While the beginning is pretty much along the lines of Peter Kember and Noah Lennox aka Sonic Boom and Panda Bear, it gets more kaleidoscopic at a later point. There are elements of free jazz (part of the artist’s moniker is due to him playing tenor saxophone) as well as Balearic beat. The audience doesn’t seem to mind such eclecticism simply enjoying the balmy evening and music.

Jimi Tenor (Photo by Anna Pärt)
Jimi Tenor (Photo by Anna Pärt)

At Station Narva, it quickly becomes clear that contrast is what defines the image of Narva and makes it a unique and unforgettable place. Liminal if you wish, but ensuring the transformation is possible.


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