Estonia’s exciting music festivals show us the nation’s deep-rooted connection to music
The first thing to spring to mind when you think about Estonia may be Tallinn’s beautiful Old Town with its fairy tale spires and picture-perfect medieval streets, but Estonia offers so much more than just stunning scenery.
You may not know it, but this Baltic state has a rich musical history. Music is in its very soul, in fact, as in 1991 Estonia gained independence as a result of the ‘Singing Revolution’. This was a non-violent movement from 1988-1991, where independence supporters rallied together under the guise of gathering to sing.
The Estonians use music beautifully; to unify, to celebrate their past and to uphold their national identity. Today’s evidence of this lies in the country’s irresistible range of music festivals. Read on to discover our pick of the best.
The Estonian Song and Dance Festival: a colorful gathering for all ages
There is no greater celebration of Estonian music than the Estonian Song and Dance Festival, which around 80,000 spectators gather to enjoy. Estonia’s largest cultural celebration, it brings together over 30,000 singers in over 1000 choirs plus orchestras at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds.
Established in 1869, this world-renowned event is celebrated between the end of June and the beginning of July, during years ending in 4 or 9 (twice in every decade). In the 2nd and 7th years of each decade, a youth version of the festival is also held.
The Estonian Song and Dance Festival celebrates Estonian music, and a nation who have been singing for generations. It honors well-loved Estonian songs that are known by toddlers and grandparents alike. Its warm, welcoming atmosphere connects tourists with locals, and sets the tone for a vacation of fascinating cultural discovery in Estonia.
Planning a visit? Here are a few handy facts about the festival:
The festival opening is a real highlight
The festival begins with an exciting procession through Tallinn towards the festival grounds. Traffic is halted as the performers march together in a proud and perfect chain. Around a month before the festival a torch is lit in Tartu, the birthplace of the celebration, and it travels through the country before arriving at the festival site. Once it arrives, the celebrations can truly begin. Don’t miss this unforgettable part of the festival.
Spectators can join in
You’ll notice that the locals aren’t afraid to sing along during the festival! Most of the performers and many of the spectators wear Estonian national costume throughout the celebrations too, so it’s easy to become truly immersed in the culture. Then, there’s the dancing. As if being one of the largest amateur choral events in the world wasn’t enough, the festival also showcases traditional Estonian dance. First included during the 1934 festival, Estonian folk dances are far from flamboyant, and are instead quite slow and rhythmic. Get involved and give it a try!
Tourists are welcome
Of course, while this Tallinn music festival is primarily designed for Estonians to come together and celebrate their Estonian pride, tourists are also welcome, and the experience is said to be moving, emotional and memorable. It’s a 3-day party filled with fun, food and a real family atmosphere, and the perfect place for a day out during your Tallinn vacation.
The next festival is going to be huge
We can expect big things from the next festival, as it will mark the Song Festival's 150-year anniversary. It will take place in 2019 – so plan ahead and don’t miss your chance to be a part of this huge cultural phenomenon.
Traditional Estonian music
For another opportunity to immerse yourself in traditional Estonian music, there is the Viljandi Folk Music Festival. The largest annual music festival in Estonia and one of the biggest folk festivals in Europe, it takes over the sleepy town of Viljandi in Southern Estonia every July.
Viljandi is also home to the Estonian Traditional Music Center, whose mission is to promote and teach traditional music. Around 25,000 fans attend the festival each year, and while it was originally launched to showcase traditional Estonian folk music, over the years the line-up has evolved to include artists from all over the world.
An eclectic mix of musical genres
You won’t just find traditional music festivals in Estonia – there is a delightfully diverse range of music genres to choose from. Here are 2 favorites:
For jazz fans, there’s Jazzkaar, a festival held in Tallinn each spring with a focus on the new directions of European jazz and Estonian musicians’ new projects. Although a modern festival – it goes pretty far back: “[The] Tallinn jazz festival began in 1949,” says Jazzkaar’s Eva Saar. “From 1959, musicians from the Soviet Union performed at the festival, and in 1966 and 1967 we also had the first international artists.”
Today, alongside music from big names, the festival also includes free concerts, games, and other activities at the Telliskivi Creative City, an artistic hub in Tallinn city center. “We aim to give our audience the most interesting program and great vibes in the festival center every year,” explains Saar.
Of course, attending such a festival is also a great way to learn more about Estonian culture – whether you’re into jazz or not. “If you’re looking for something really special, the festival opening cross-genre performance “Saja lugu” (“Story of a Hundred”) [offers] a great insight [to] Estonia,” says Saar. “The act [portrays] our country through a hundred Estonians’ eyes from all around the land.
“The music and performance will be a poetical generalization of Estonians here and today, and all our hundred participants will be seen on stage and in live video.”
For lovers of guitar music, the capital city also plays host to the Tallinn Guitar festival. It has taken place every summer since 2006, and includes a huge range of musical styles.
Directed by one of the best guitarists in Estonia, Tiit Peterson, the Tallinn Guitar festival boasts a programme of skilled and intriguing performers. Shows are held in venues across the city, from the popular to the low-key. What better way to discover Tallinn and explore buildings you may not have otherwise noticed?
The future of Estonian music festivals: from ambient to electronic
One of Estonia’s newer music festivals is the Kukemuru Ambient festival. Established in 2013 by ambient musician Kaido Kirikmäe and designer Sander Meentalo, this festival’s main idea is “More sound, less music”.
Set in a forest in the scenic village of Samliku, the event highlights the link between music, nature and modern culture — a very different approach from the more traditional festivals that focus on the nation’s social and political history.
In 2015, Weekend Festival Baltic debuted at Pärnu beach. The Estonian edition of the Scandinavian Weekend Festival, it’s headlined by international DJs and mainly features electronic dance music.
This summer festival has a real beach party feel, with big beats and spectacular audiovisual effects. It’s really helping to put Estonia on the map as a dance music destination.
A nation built on music
Not only is music an incredibly important part of Estonia’s past, it’s an unwavering feature in their present. This fact is evident from the many ways Estonians choose to celebrate sound, and from the variety of exciting music festivals taking place year after year across the country.
From its traditional roots to multi-sensory experiences, Estonia is a nation built on music, and the perfect destination for music fans. Plan a trip to Tallinn, and prepare for a truly unique Baltic break.