• mh

Magic and discovery

Updated: Nov 27, 2020

RIGA – LONG READ Summer in south-east Estonia

Editor: This is the first of our ‘long reads’ on Northeast, which will tend to be more about exploring a topic than sharing an event. In what follows you can read a travelogue by Riga-based Michael Holland as he escapes the limitations imposed by the COVID-19 crisis this summer. Journeying through northern Latvia and south-eastern Estonia, Michael chances upon some unexpected treasure, while also understanding how we can even manage without some of the things we normally assume are essential for modern life.


During the current pandemic, I lost my job, found a new place to live, managed to renovate a flat and cycled a lot – avoiding public transport completely for the first “lockdown” period in Latvia. As soon as the borders opened between the Baltic states, creating the so-called “Baltic Bubble”, I set off on a trip (15 May 2020). First stop, Valga/Valka on the border between Estonia and Latvia. Stopping there for supplies, meeting my host, and then onto the small village of Sänna in south-eastern Estonia.

All I knew was that my friend Eva said I should visit her friend Simone in this small village. I didn’t know then that this simple trip would open up a world of music for me in Estonia. I spent that first week in Estonia, chopping wood, preparing the garden and on one rainy evening we went to visit some of her friends to watch a film. There I met a couple living in an even smaller village. They were running a very small publishing house, publishing beautifully produced books (only in Estonian). These were possibly books that larger publishing houses would avoid for various reasons. Somehow this makes them all the more special and unique. 

Meeting these guys at Kaarnakivi Selts somehow gave me a little idea – it always begins like that, then you just have to keep pulling the thread till you get to the end. I’m not sure yet if I have got to the end of the Estonian thread but at least I found a few very nice knots along the way. So I proposed the idea of a radio show about their publishing house, partly because I like ‘outsiders’ and they seemed like lovely organised and friendly outsiders, but also because they were the first people on the trip that I met who were clearly quite into music, as well as beautiful books – these kinds of people usually coexist. People who value the artefact, collect the physical. You can appreciate it on their bookshelves. 

I knew I had to come back to Estonia.

The next week I returned to Riga, to get my affairs in order for a longer trip to Estonia, and this was to be the pattern throughout the summer. Mostly travelling by bicycle, longer stretches by train, and occasionally hitching a lift in a car. So my second trip began on 5 June for almost a month until 25 June. During that second trip I followed the thread back to Sänna and then on to Tallinn, where I ultimately managed to meet Ann Lisett from Duo Ruut, after having heard her euphoric pop folk music on the radio and somehow everything felt beautiful in the middle of summer, no job, but somehow not going hungry either. 

Volunteering is certainly better than staying home and feeling sorry for yourself when you have the chance to wake up to a view like this one. 

The simple life, working, eating, working, eating, sleeping – repeating day after day, with maybe one trip to town each week, was a nice change from life in Riga. Beautiful as that life is too, it’s nice to take a break and see a different perspective. As I was in Sänna for almost a month, we got a lot done, planted all the garden out, chopped more wood, all the time with one part of my brain thinking about the radio show and how it was going to come together. On the day we set off for a trip to Tallinn, I went to see Katrin from Kaarnakivi Selts to see what she had to say and what music she might recommend... I didn’t have a clue how it would pan out. 

After showing me a few songs – pretty much the material I needed for the opening of the radio show, she played Duo Ruut and I was instantly excited, able finally to put a name to something I’d only heard on the radio driving into town with Simone. I quickly made a plan to try to contact the band to see if they were in Tallinn, and if they would meet me for an interview.

I would be in Tallinn for a couple more days, and then magic happened, Ann was available to meet on my final day in Tallinn. I got a call and we met in the local record shop ... so the programme was starting to flourish; well, at that moment it was all just files on my little recorder but I knew I was starting to have something exciting. To me, meeting Ann was like meeting the magical voice I’d heard on the radio. I had no idea what she looked like or what she might be like – I was pleasantly surprised at how talkative she was and willing to explain how they’d recorded their album. 

Another interesting band I started to become aware of was Puuluup and then one of those guys has a solo project called Pastacas. I was starting from scratch here, I knew just a couple of Estonian artists, not too much, so when people started to talk about Estonian music I was listening with open ears. I wanted to know everything, even the stuff that was considered pop was interesting to my ears, as the language was so strange to me. Even older folk bands, such as Collage, it all sounded wonderfully exotic. I have been in Riga enough now that I at least understand a little Latvian, but Estonian sounded like something quite different! 

One name that kept popping up as he was VERY local, living in Sänna somewhere, is Lauri Sommer. Released on the same funny label as Pastacas called Õunaviks, Lauri releases music in a knowingly experimental folk style. What I mean is that he’s listened to a lot of music and he knows what’s good but he still makes music that is true to himself. He’s making folk music but not in a traditional way. One project is called Kago and it’s on these releases for Õunaviks that his artistic vision is fully realised. 

When I managed to return to Rīga again, after the midsummer moment, I started to pull together the parts of this ‘radio show’ into something tangible . It made my heart full of joy to listen back to the bits of chat and when combined with the music it just flowed nicely. Over a few days I worked quietly in my little studio flat in Rīga piecing together the files and combining these strangely different parts into a whole that made some sense as a kind of joyful summer documentary of Estonian music. Not all folk music but definitely with a folk pop edge running throughout. I loved how the meetings somehow forged the path for this show and it had to be just like that. Anyone else would have definitely found different songs to become enamoured with. 

This is a document of my summer, not my only summer, but part of the summer as I saw it.

Images (from top): Getting supplies, northern Latvia; Simone cycling with dogs; Morning in Sänna; Simone in Tallinn; Ann Lisett (Duo Ruut)

Michael is from the small town of Rawtenstall north of Manchester in the UK. He has been living in Riga since being part of Michael Landy's work "Open for business" as part of Riga Biennale in 2018.

You can listen to the radio show that came out of this trip by clicking this link to NTS radio:



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