Why bring Tallinn Music Week to Narva?

Helen Sildna
Helen Sildna Source: Laura Nestor

Tallinn Music Week and Station Narva founder Helen Sildna writes about why it was decided to also hold Tallinn Music Week in Narva this year in light of the Ukraine war.

On February 24, when Estonia was celebrating its 102nd  birthday, Russian troops entered Ukraine. The war started.

The jumbled feelings of that day are a fresh memory – still trying to celebrate the Independence Day of Estonia, while following the news in horror. Pre-planned festivities and dinner table get-togethers blurred into a mix of hopes, fears and tears. Peace in Europe was over. What we thought would never happen started again.

Memory snapshots from that day

Waking up in the middle of the night and seeing the news. The early morning flag ceremony in Narva castle on TV – noticing my friends in Narva, raising the Estonian flag there with their small kids, overlooking Ivangorod. Looking at my mother, not surprised but deeply sad that her mistrust of our eastern neighbor proved true after all. Looking at my friend Ivan, unable to find words to express the level of hate and disgust for a regime that was choking the country that his family once called home. Looking at the faces of the young dancers performing at the Independence Day concert, struggling to hold back tears in front of the TV cameras.

I think the overall sentiment of how Estonian people collectively went forward to stand for Ukraine, quietly took shape on that very same day – February 24 – a day we will always share in history with Ukraine now. The fragility of peace became clear again.

The festival program – completely revamped

Our music program including 22 Russian, seven Ukrainian and three Belarusian artists was ready to be announced on the March 1. We announced nothing on that day, of course, except for information on how to support Ukraine. Continuing Tallinn Music Week, business as usual, felt unthinkable. But then, after analyzing our competences as a team, located both in Tallinn and Narva, we found our purpose again. We decided to take the festival to Narva as well. Together with the international music community.

The border concerns us all

"Living on the border is always a challenge. It's a place where you don't know what will happen tomorrow," said Valeria from our Narva team.

Experiencing the border in Narva is a powerful sight and an unforgettable sensation. Not scary. But paradoxically calming. It's there and it's a fact. The border is a history lesson - telling us the story of how we got here and how connected we are. And how nothing should ever be taken for granted. Somehow the conversations and the encounters you have are always a bit different in Narva, even with the same people. By traveling out there and witnessing these powerful sights, your own thought patterns change. Because there we see, notice and think of things that are easy to ignore, even in Tallinn.

Narva is Estonia's third largest city. It's a city built on a powerful history. A city between East and West. It only takes a glance at Narva Castle or Kreenholm – the former textile factory built on an island amidst rapid Narva River falls, situated between Russia and the EU – to understand that Narva, once almost the second capital of the Swedish Empire, is one of these crossroads of trade, industry, exchange and possibility.

It is also a city in search of its future in the post-industrial era. Kreenholm has received confirmation from the Estonian government for base funding to kickstart the Kreenholm Cultural Quarter project. It would be powerful to see this grand industrial site brought to life again through culture. Narva will be the next European Capital of Culture after Tartu. It will happen.

I feel it is our task in this eastern part of Europe to tell the story of our experiences to the rest of the West. And it is our task to build solidarity. "All for one and one for all" means a lot if you are a country of 1.3 million people.

Why take the festival to Narva?

To support unity in Estonia and solidarity in Europe. To make it clear and visible that Estonia will not be divided and Narva is where the EU starts. Instead of the next headline story raising the question "Will Narva be next?" we offer an alternative. We can work on a joint path to make unity visible, not division. Actions speak louder. Strengthening the EU border to me means standing together with our border communities.

And something to learn from Ukraine – if the president of a country at war finds time to give a speech at The Grammy Awards or The Venice Biennale, if Ukrainian musicians and artists have all understood that their mission is to spread the word and keep us united – then it must be clear – music and culture are a powerful medium. It is about time we stop underestimating it.

The festival week

The festival will kick off on Wednesday in Tallinn with the opening conversation "Culture will keep us from breaking" as well as the kids' festival, and we will continue on Thursday with a free opening concert by Ukrainian popstar Ivan Dorn to support Ukraine. Tartu, the European Capital of Culture, will join us too with a special program and Thursday-Friday will fill Tallinn with some 20 music evenings and 180 artists.

On Saturday we will take the morning train to Narva and spend time together on the border. Together with artists from 30 countries, as well as the international music community around the globe. Narva will fill up with Estonian music, international artists and the European music community. From the music of Arvo Pärt, the opening speech of President Alar Karis to collaborations like Uku Suviste and Alika Milova together with the Narva City Symphony Orchestra, as well as arts programs, city tours and local hospitality. We will finish the festival night dancing to Floating Points under the starry sky of Kreenholm and celebrate Mother's Day the next morning in a community garden in Narva on May 8. And plant trees. Together with our partners we will invest our time, effort and resources in people, unity, music, culture and new traditions together.

This weekend in Narva we will strengthen the bridges between us. The power of music and culture will bring us together and the time we spend with each other is our immunity booster against division and indifference. Time spent together is a powerful thing.

Any country in Europe is only as safe as any of our border cities.


You can catch the Tallinn University Podcast's Tallinn Music Week special episode with guest Helen Sildna from May 2 here.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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