I am becoming slowly more and more obsessed with Estonia. I think it’s a reasonably common thing amongst the Eurovisionistas, but to be honest I was expecting to become obsessed with Iceland and somehow ‘ma armastan eesti’ took me by surprise. There are only 1.3 million of them and yet when I listen to Estonian pop radio (oh how I long for a shout-out) I hear more variety from their domestic music industry than even 6 Music can demonstrate for the UK.
Today for you I’ve got a song and a story. The song is Jaan’kene by Trad.Attack, who are an award-winning Estonian folk group who mix samples of old Estonian folk recordings with modern rock and folk instrumentation. They do it the proper way – the original Estonian singers are credited (Anne Vabarna in this song) and the musicians are top notch. I thought that Jaan’kene was particularly groovy and I’d share it for you to enjoy.
While I was reading about Trad.Attack, I found the astonishing story that traditional Estonian bagpiping (the torupill) almost died out during the 20th century – apparently in 1968 they were down to a single practitioner, a man named Olev Roomet. The story is incredible, although there aren’t a lot of English language sources to check out. Roomet was a member of an academic choir in Soviet-occupied Estonia and as such, participated in the Laulupidu or Festival of Estonian Song, which is held every five years. When the Russians took over, it seems that they tried to remove the emphasis on Estonian identity and forced the inclusion of various Soviet songs instead. Over the course of several festivals, the people would have seen that their traditions were in danger of dying out and that shockingly, no-one was learning how to play the torupill.
Against the soaring backdrop of the Tallinn festival grounds, imagine a middle-aged, slightly subversive guy (he’s played by the Estonian equivalent of Toby Jones in my head) realising that there’s still time to save the torupill. He learns how to play from the previous master, Aleksander Maaker, and after the 1969 Laulupidu, where he is the only person capable of playing the torupill, he swears to train a whole new generation of proud Estonian bagpipers in time for the next Laulupidu.
He takes on a motley band of 25 trainee bagpipers between the ages of 14 and 70, who first have to get hold of the various bits of hardwood and animal skin in order to construct their instruments. In the film I’m making of this in my head, I imagine this is a section where my ensemble of character actors are half-inching the bagpipe materials from under the Soviets noses, and also that they have to at least try to practice in secrecy. But obviously, it’s impossible to practice any form of bagpipes in secrecy and hilarity ensues.
The rousing finale of the film is the 1970 Laulupidu where our bagpipers play the traditional songs and dances of Estonia for a crowd of tens of thousands. This moment of cultural resurgence foreshadows the 1991 Singing Revolution that would eventually result in the people of Estonia regaining their independence.
It’s Brassed Off with Soviet Russia. It’s Star Wars with traditional bagpipes. It’s the History Boys in the Baltics. It’s the inspiring Estonian folk music movie you didn’t realise you wanted to see. But now you do.
And obviously I would want Trad.Attack to do the soundtrack.