Estonian music is accused of many things: it's formulaic and generic, people say; the scene is dominated by a few super-producers and uber-managers, others say. At the 2015 Estonian Music Awards, we saw the counter-argument to this, in the form of a band of polite, shy young people from Viljandi, who play simple, hopeful folk songs.
Curly Strings, whose rise has been steady and deserved, took home four awards, for best album, debut album, group and song, a clean sweep of that for which they had been nominated. The quartet from Viljandi always look happy on stage, and seem to have communicated a bit of that positivity across to both the public and Estonian music scene's decision-makers.
There were various theories as to how and why such an unreconstructed folk group could have taken the hearts of so many music fans. This reporter's favorite pet theory is that music fans, unless they spend all day in a lab listening to Aphex Twin, love nothing more than music that absorbs and communicates its own influences, speaking to the listener in ways he or she used to enjoy when younger.
For music to be both retro and enjoyable, it needs to hark back to an era before the current one. So the theory goes, Curly Strings' music can be enjoyed both by the older generation of people who love the traditional folk, but also by young people looking back to an earlier era.
Folk in Estonia is going in many directions; while Curly Strings enjoyably look back, there were awards for another group, Trad.Attack!, who are trying to shove the musical form into a new century. Their looped, electronic-infused traditional reels hit home with the voters, awarding Trad.Attack! for best music video and best ethno/folk album award. Vocalist and wind-instrument player Sandra Sillamaa, wearing monochrome futuristic Estonian designs from Crystal Rabbit designer Kristel Jänes, leapt into the air when the group's name was first called, showing that the awards may have been decided some time previously, but the reactions were not scripted.
Pop did not miss out completely. The polished, styled and coiffed Karl-Erik Taukar won in best male artist and best pop album category. His performance rocked like One Direction might, and altogether it left the impression of a talented singer who could do so much more if paired with a risk-taking songwriter or producer. Taukar is a nice guy, but his music seems conservative next to Trad.Attack! and the sometimes frighteningly intense rap music of Tommy Cash.
Estonian rap favorite Genka, who won best hip-hop/rap album for his album with tenor Paul Oja, teamed up with Oja for a performance that won the hearts of even the (as usual) overly-quiet crowd at the Nordea Concert Hall. One has to wonder if the huge auditorium is just too sweeping and luxurious to foster the pressure-cooker atmosphere needed at major events, or if the lack of noise from the crowd is more of a cultural trait.
From this viewpoint, Genka was competing with the pairing of Getter Jaani and Põhja-Tallinn's Risto Vürst for the best performance of the night. Jaani's voice has moved on to a different dimension to that of the girl who took part in Eurovision 2011, now resonating like never before. Vürst narrated a heart-rending tale of a soldier away from his children, Jaani taking the chorus to the clouds, while behind, a crowd of men (I assumed soldiers) were themselves reunited with their children. It had hard-bitten journalists in buckets of tears, and was either desperately schmaltzy or well-judged depending on the individual.
There were two awards for New York-domiciled Maria Minerva, who won best female artist and best electronic album, and had a strong message about the unacceptably-large male-female pay gap in Estonia. Rockers Elephants from Neptune brought the house down with fantastic live playing, having won best rock album. Ewert & the Two Dragons also showed their suitability to any size of arena, their professionalism shining through.
There were a few shocking omissions from nomination, notably Helen Adamson, whose excellent debut album surely deserved recognition, having topped the Estonian iTunes chart after its release. The limited pool from which nominees seemed to have been selected is something that should change in future.
Curly Strings, Trad.Attack! and many of the other groups who made their names in 2014 were part of the crowded and endlessly thrilling schedule of Tallinn Music Week, which takes place again at the end of March. It's the place where everyone can discover and hear 2015's innovators, some of whom might be acknowledged at the 2016 Estonian Music Awards.
Editor: S. Tambur