Talinn Music Week 2023, Talinn, Estonia, May 10-14, 2023 | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Saturday, May 18th, 2024  

Mart Avi

Mart Avi, Chef The Rapper, Bemz, Zahir, tAngerinecAt

Talinn Music Week 2023, Talinn, Estonia, May 10-14, 2023,

May 29, 2023 Photography by Laura Paling Web Exclusive
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Music Moving Through Europe

I think I’m right in saying that all ecosystems need water. The word - a real mot du jour - was invoked by one of the key panels at the 2023 Tallinn Music Week Conference, held on the Friday in the city’s swish Nordic Forum hotel. Named “The age of ecosystems - how to further develop a sustainable European music ecosystem in transition?”, the panel showcased the Music Moves Europe initiative (MME), which looks to answer the big questions currently bedevilling the music industry. Concerns about the wider health and regeneration of the industry triggered words we hear a lot of in such panels: resources, sustainability, practice, resilience, and AI. I expect this panel will be big news and wheeled out at major music conferences all over Europe. Now, I may sound like the slave on the chariot whispering to the generals of those engaged with this important EU initiative, but music has always moved and will always move; making ecosystems we can’t fully predict or control.

In this hybrid-digital age we now see the power of David Bowie’s pronouncement: music will be treated like running water, a resource. Music moves hourly through Europe: unseen, privately, individually, or at ground level; replenishing socio-cultural tributaries we all thought long dry. Maybe its purpose is to irrigate whatever creative impulse humans find themselves busy with.

An-Marlen (Photo by Laura Paling)
An-Marlen (Photo by Laura Paling)

On a slightly more informal stage erected to celebrate his new book, The Art of Darkness: A History of Goth, Membranes frontman John Robb stated that pop music no longer stands as the go-to artform for popular culture. He’s right. Music is a general experience now. For the vast majority of people, it serves to provide the backdrop to things like open-air food tastings, online gaming or TikTok clips. It gets mentioned, almost in passing, as a “tool” in urban regeneration plans. Pop music is a seductive and adaptable medium, and, like water, it regularly escapes through the fingers of the traditional music industry that once guaranteed the sole supply. Currently music is journeying to the world of AI, replicating popular acts through the most appropriate algorithm.

All this may leave traditional assumptions around popular music’s role and the structures that support it looking a bit threadbare. But - to quote another legacy artist, Patti Smith - it seems a guitar can still be a weapon. Anna Klimczak of ZAiKS and Creators for Ukraine reminded those at the Focus on Ukraine panel that music and culture are weapons to be used daily, by all of us, in the war against a cruel and nihilistic barbarism raging in Ukraine.

Chef the Rapper (Photo by Laura Paling)
Chef the Rapper (Photo by Laura Paling)

Music moved through Tallinn in many ways during the festival. Sticking with this article’s water-based theme, the city became a river basin with many inlets to explore. As the festival has moved its base out of the old town to Telliskivi and the wider suburbs, its “sonic palette” has incrementally widened. You could lose yourself at the Africa NOW! showcase on the Friday or get wasted and talk poetry until 3am whilst being blasted with dry ice and strange avant-garde European acts all weekend at SVETA… guilty as charged. Hosting tough uncompromising bands like legendary locals Zahir and two excellent acts involving Ukrainian artists - tAngerinecAt and havenphetamine - SVETA bar still stands as the cultural grain of sand in Telliskivi’s vaseline pot: the programming and audience being as eclectic and baffling as you could wish for. The tragically defunct Von Krahl club rose once more from the ashes to host a Latvian-Estonian showcase created by two righteous alternative music festivals, Üle Heli and Skaņu Mežs: with names such as Switzerland’s Nicolas Stocker. The louche “cosmic sauna” Uus Laine hosted two eclectic nights full of the wildest, daftest Eesti electro pop, alongside Scottish rap for good measure. Change: the only constant. It’s sad to walk past the boarded up Kauplus Aasia, scene to many a wild night, but good to know that No Pizza and other new places in Kadriorg and Kopli exist.

tAngerinecAt (Photo by Henri-Kristian Kirsip)
tAngerinecAt (Photo by Henri-Kristian Kirsip)

One of the great strengths of Tallinn Music Week over the years has been to find partners and initiatives to leaven out any notion that the festival is *just* about putting Estonia on the socio-cultural map. Those wanting Nordic-Baltic mystery courtesy of the region’s music could dive in and get suitably animist, courtesy of the Intsikurmu festival showcase or the redoubtable, regular Fenno-Ugria night. But Tallinn Music Week has always been generous to international creative partners; I note that long standing initiatives with scenes in Canada seem to be taking root. And I personally hope the Scottish rap scene, repped at Uus Laine by two of its brightest stars; Bemz and Chef The Rapper, will be something Tallinn sees more of. The two gigs gave a contrast in styles: Chef The Rapper’s soulful swagger could charm the birds from the trees; two brilliant numbers done without any backing track were the highlight. A contrast was found in Bemz’s fizzing wordplay: a restless, magnetic presence, Bemz gave the feeling that there was an awful lot going on in his head that he needed to tell us about, there and then. At times, it felt that his eloquence and emotional openness were openly wrestling for the mastery control of his soul. All superbly backed by female Czech MC, Naty. A triumph.

BEMZ (Photo by Patrik Tamm)
BEMZ (Photo by Patrik Tamm)

It would be churlish not to dive into some gigs given by contemporary Estonian acts. Uus Laine was a great place to catch some of the latest developments. An-Marlen’s soul pop is the music currently soundtracking the desires projected at digital, or bedroom mirrors. Possessing a velvety mid-range voice that nevertheless showed considerable staying power, An-Marlen sang of love and loss. When needed, her sound displayed an inbuilt melancholy; one that suggests she’s able to employ a well-developed emotional hinterland to good artistic effect. Add to this gracious, empathetic hand movements and a winning smile and you had an audience melting for her. The kids bopped, gently. Torch music for the TikTokkers. By contrast SAN HANI’s glossy hyperpop spun out into what could be described as a Nordic gabber set; his frantic, bearcage-like moves backed by some full on music. Well-informed sources told me his lyrics were existential… Regardless of the provenance of that information, SAN HANI’s show was like an animated Max Beckmann painting: maybe of the circus; maybe one of his tryptiches - all blazing colour and moving flesh harshly broken up by thick oleaginous black lines that dictate the action. It was unhinged, maybe even a charade to trick us, but a glorious spectacle nonetheless.

Tuulikki Bartosik and Sander Mölder aren’t exactly new names, but what they do is refreshing and challenging. Their brilliant new record, Songlines, where Bartosik’s free-bass accordion and Estonian zither provide a counter narrative to a set of found sounds and electronic soundscapes produced by Mölder, got a proper airing. Played live, this set of sonic postcards brought colour and softness to the well-appointed if somewhat corporate Fotografiska stage; the duo blending all parts with an assurance and easy wit. Not content with picking her way through time via the wonderful dream spaces, Bartosik’s rocker spirit eventually got a space to gambol through one or two uptempo tracks. This was a set of fleeting moments made into timeless music; true “head” stuff.

Tuulikki Bartosik featuring Sander Mölder (Photo by Feliks Volož)
Tuulikki Bartosik featuring Sander Mölder (Photo by Feliks Volož)

More digi-physical hybridity was served up with producer-songwriter Mart Avi’s glorious set during the wonderful Porridge Bullet label night at Uus Laine. Buoyed by a much richer and rounded backing sound than I’ve previously heard, and in as trans as mission as you would want him to be, Avi brought down the tablet from pop’s mountain with some aplomb. A shiny, cod-smoking jacket and Eastern open-necked leisure shirt gave a suitably lounge-noir touch. Leaving nothing to chance from the off, Avi kicked, punched and pirouetted through his set. All to be expected, but his ring lore seems to have gone up a notch: no parrying unexpected punches from a venue’s atmosphere or crowd this time. I have previously compared his stage presence to that of teenage werewolf Gabriel Ernest from Saki’s unsettling tale and I will do so again, the mix of feral intent and charm running as ichor through the music. The set was mainly drawn from his last and best record, Blade, which mixes some beautifully down-tempo space pop and submarine funk. We got his latest single, “Village Affairs”, the hip shaking rabble rouser, “Lost Weekend” and as a closer, the gloriously bittersweet “Tides”; all sounding like a construction manual for an alien spaceship. Avi disappeared under the deejay table at the end to the sound of a train crash: the perfect end.

I leave with a regret at too many missed things: Maarja Nuut’s deejay set, new pop wonder maria kallastu (a clever name, an intriguing sound), and Elizabete Balčus’s theatrical deconstruction of pop music. But as ever and maybe most: the sound of the snapping of a tiny part of me, every time I leave this fascinating city.


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