Peter G. Goral - Social Media Strategist - ArtEnvy Inc.

In conversation with Piret Noorhani, Chief Archivist at the Estonian Studies Centre/VEMU Toronto & Estonian Music Week - Festival Co-ordinator

I recently sat down with Piret Noorhani, one of the key people here in Canada that is bringing together what promises to be one the most exciting musical festivals of it's kind. The festival, which will take place in key Toronto entertainment venues throughout the entire week of May 24th to 29th is in celebration of Estonia's 100th Anniversary of Independence. Musicians and Singers from Estonia will be joining a roster of Canadian artists to bring together a magnificent collaboration of music and culture.

Peter: There's no question Piret that based on having a full time job and being the Festival Co-rdinator for The Estonian Music Week (EMW) Toronto, that you're an extremely busy person, and so let me first say how grateful I am that you took the time out of your schedule to sit and share with me your thoughts and insights. Piret could you tell me what the 100 year anniversary of the independence of Estonia means to you on a personal level?

Piret: It means a lot to me! Since I have lived in Canada for almost 9 years now, everything associated with Estonia is especially dear to me. Canada is a great and interesting country, but Estonia is my home. Estonians are people who value the spirits of place, genius loci people. We feel a very strong connection to places that are important to us. One of the most regarded thinkers on Estonianness today is the semiotics researcher Valdur Mikita, who has said that Estonians are people of place in its deepest meaning. “Our tangled landscape created by the old God himself, is like a large cradle that protects and rocks our fragile intellectual capital,” says Mikita. While living in Estonia I had a number of important places in my hometown Tartu, as well as elsewhere in Estonia. Estonia is the most unique and important place in the world to me – it's my home.

I'm delighted that our small country is able to celebrate its 100th birthday as a free nation. I am proud that we have a great deal to share with the world. It really is a miracle that despite the strategically difficult position on the world map, we have remained a country and a nationality, also as diaspora icommunities all around the world. We are a sturdy nation! I am happy to be a member of this nation.

Peter: I appreciate your very colourful answer Piret, it's always great to hear about the origins of people from around the globe. I know there are celebrations going on all over the world this year as this is a very significant milestone to make note of for Estonians globally. How did the music week come about here in Toronto?

Piret: The Museum of Estonians Abroad aka VEMU has a number of ongoing projects associated with Estonia's 100th birthday that we already began working on a few years ago. EMW is also one of the ideas that occurred. I have been captivated by the success of the local Estonian documentary film festival EstDocs. The popularity of film keeps growing – we are living in era of increasing audiovisual media. The art of film breaks all borders between countries and languages. Documentaries offer the unique opportunity to get profound insight into one's own culture as well as the cultures of others.

The language of music is even more universal than that of film. Estonians have been blessed with incredible musical talents, who more and more often are reaching the international arena. For many years Canadian-Estonians have not only worked on promoting their own music culture, but have also helped Estonian musicians introduce their music in Canada. In the last few years VEMU's cultural program has also participated in this process. In celebration of the Republic of Estonia's 100th birthday, it was possible to apply for funding from Estonia for a number of cultural events and thus, it felt like the right time to think about planning a larger music festival.

It was clear that VEMU with its small staff would not be able to do it alone. At the end of 2014 we had our first meeting with members of the Estonian community to share ideas about a music festival. The idea received positive feedback. The next step was to find professional partners in Canada and Estonia. In the summer of 2015, I met with the Estonian Jazz Union, the Viljandi Traditional Music Center, and the team at Tallinn jazz club Billy Joe. Everyone was interested in the idea, but we found our Estonian partner thanks to Derek Andrews, the esteemed Canadian music promoter, who had already kept an eye on the Estonian music scene for some time. So thanks to Derek, I became acquainted with our Estonian Artistic Director Virgo Sillamaa and met him in person in Tallinn in the fall of 2015.

In the summer of 2016, Virgo and I wrote the project application to receive Estonia 100 funding and miraculously we received funding! From then on the real work began.

Peter: What an incredible amount of work and planning, congratulations on that achievement. I personally feel music is a great platform to bring people together from all cultures and all walks of life, and I'm thinking that maybe somewhere in the grand scheme of things that this must have played a great part in the development of the EMW. Perhaps you'd share your own thoughts on that and how you see it being received by the city of Toronto?

Piret: Well, as I said, music connects people. We Estonians know this very well thanks to our 150-year-old tradition of song festivals, which was included in the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003. These huge celebrations of music bring together not only Estonians from all over the world, but also, for example, singers from the USA and China, who don't have a drop of Estonian blood in them. The sense of unity that comes from singing together is special. It has been said that Estonians sang themselves to becoming a nation, they sang themselves to freedom. This happened during the period of national awakening in the 19th century, as well as during the Singing Revolution at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s.

The music scene in Estonia is lively and diverse. The Viljandi Folk Music Festival has grown out of being a small town festival into a grand international event. Jazzkaar and Tallinn Music Week have similar success stories. Otherwise fairly reserved Estonians appear to become passionate not only when creating music, but when enjoying it and promoting it.

We would now like to share our passion for music with Canadians through EMW. One important aspect of the festival's story of creation is that VEMU joined the Bloor St. Culture Corridor in 2014. This active network of culture workers with our bright leader Heather Kelly at the forefront made it possible for us to dream and showed us opportunities on how to introduce the activities of the Estonian community to the wider cultural scene in Toronto. Thanks to BCC we were able to build relationships with contacts at the RCM, which has led to one of our concerts, Vox Clamantis feat. Maarja Nuut & HH, becoming part of their 21C Festival program.

We hope that through our Canadian partners, we will be able to bring Estonian music even to those who likely don't know where this small country is located. To capture the attention of the Canadian audience, we have added local musicians to our program, including both those with Estonian roots and those without. However, this hasn't been only a marketing tactic. We hope that these musical connections will grow into future collaborations between musicians in Canada and Estonia.

Peter: That sounds absolutely incredible Piret and what a great line up of artists. I would imagine the fact that you are bringing artists from Estonia as well as securing acts and venues here in Toronto for this spectacular festival that there was a great deal of work involved in organizing such and event. What kinds of things can you share with us so that we can get a feel of what goes into assembling such an event?

Piret: Organizing such a large event means a lot of longtime planning, as well as quick everyday problem solving over a long period of time. You have to do everything. My previous experience with planning large conferences and all kinds of cultural events both here in Canada and in Estonia, has been very useful. However, I have never oranized a music festival, and for this reason I rely on my team members who are more involved in the music world for some of the decisions. With such a large undertaking trustworthy team members who are experts in their fields are key.

Selecting the Estonian musicians for our program wasn't too complicated. Virgo Sillamaa and I made the first choices; luckily, we have fairly similar ideas in this department. Toomas Treumuth has been a great help with the Canadian content as the Canadian Artistic Director. Our graphic designer Jaan Kittask also shared his ideas with us, as he has also had experience in playing music himself. Our Estonian community team members have helped us with a number of different questions, as they all have various backgrounds and experience. As a result of these contacts, we have created a team made up of both Estonians and non-Estonians. Roles and tasks are divided amongst us and we work together.

In some ways organizing a festival of this size has required some daredevil bravery. It isn't the only job we all have. However, it is great to see how enthusiastic the team is to work together. I am really very grateful to all who have joined me in making this crazy idea come to life. We are currently looking for volunteers, who would be willing to help at the concert venues during the festival.

This large scale event (6 days and close to 10 different events) is also a financial challenge. We are grateful to the Republic of Estonia (EV100 office) and the Estonian Studies Centre, our lead sponsors, but also grateful to the Estonian Foundation of Canada, the Estonian Credit Union, and the Toronto Arts Council for their support. If anyone wishes to support our event, please feel free to contact me. We will be thanking all of our supporters in the EMW program booklet.

Peter: I've reviewed some of the artists from Estonia that are scheduled to appear here and I must say that I am extremely impressed with the quality of talent that will be showcased here in Toronto, in some cases for the first time. Can you highlight some of the music and cultural values that exist in Estonia and if you can, offer us some insight as to what to expect at some of these concerts?

Piret: As I have said, choosing the Estonian performers was easy. Perhaps the only difficulty was that there were too many talented musicians we wanted to include in the festival. Estonia is a country with highly talented professional choirs. I am delighted that Vox Clamantis, the ensemble-sized collective led by Jaan Eik Tulve who perform Gregorian chants and contemporary Estonian classical music, including Arvo Pärt's works, will finally make it to Canada.

The popularity of ethnomusic in Estonia is a phenomenon unto its own. A whole new generation of young musicians have grown out of the Viljandi Folk Music Festival and Viljandi Culture Academy who use our two thousand-year-old “Regi” song tradition and more recent traditional music to create contemporary new music. The fact that ethnomusic is cool can seem odd to Canadians, but in Estonia it is. In the homeland the extremely popular band Trad.Attack!, who we won't see at EMW because they have already performed in Canada a number of times, is currently touring the world. Another successful Estonian ethnomusic export, Maarja Nuut, will be coming to EMW to captivate audiences with her loop station, violin, singing and storytelling talents and transport them to an exotic Northern wonderland. She will be accompanied by the electronic musician Hendrik Kaljujärv. They will be joining Vox Clamantis at Koerner Hall.

Kristjan Randalu has proved himself internationally as a jazz pianist. Two years ago he performed with Peedu Kass' project within the VEMU cultural program at Tartu College. We hope to offer him a better venue and a larger audience this time. The Kristjan Randalu Trio will be performing at Mazzoleni Hall.

Estonian Voices has a unique take on vocal jazz. The ensemble's original compositions inspired by folk, pop and classical jazz themes always bring the audience along for the ride, as their collaborative creations are based on their lively improvisations and charming stage presence. One of the brightest stars of this festival will definitely be Kadri Voorand, the exceptional vocalist who has been awarded with numerous prizes in Estonia, and who will be performing with her own jazz quartet and Avarus Ensemble in addition to Estonian Voices.

The opening night with Avarus will offer more treats. Alongside the experimental musical ensemble, the bassoon virtuoso with Estonian roots, but now based in the USA, Martin Kuuskmann, and our own Kara Lis Coverdale, a rising star among Canadian experimental electronic music, will be performing on opening night. It is also a delight that Kara Lis has found a path to the stages in Estonia.

There is plenty more youthful spirits at the festival, such as Erki Pärnoja and ensemble Pia Fraus who represent different sides of the Indie music. Furthermore, Estonian singer from Toronto Kaili Kinnon and DJ Sander Mölder from Estonia will be joining Erki and Pia Fraus in heating up the Estos Rock party at Lee's Palace.

As you see, the program is rich. I'm sure that Toomas Treumuth will introduce the Canadian musicians in more detail.

Peter: Piret, I'm positive that this event will be a great success as you have pulled together not only some great talent in the artists but you've also leveraged the skill set of a group of people like yourselves that are experienced in management and music itself. What do you anticipate to be the result of your efforts and can you see perhaps facilitating something similar in the future?

Piret: They say that Estonians are optimistic pessimists. As I said before, we hope for the best. We also hope that all of the venues will be packed full of people; that Estonians and their friends will come together and bring out those who haven't known much about Estonia until now. We also hope that the week will be enveloped in a cloud of celebratory vibes since EMW is one of the largest Estonia 100 events taking place in Canada.

Finally, we hope that after the festival the team will feel that it shouldn't end here. At the start of it all we discussed shaping the event into a tradition. The festival may not occur every year, as it is quite a large and expensive undertaking, but perhaps every 2-3 years a festival could take place. In the meantime, we can use the brand logo for singular concerts to keep EMW in our minds. Another long-term goal of EMW is to create the opportunity to establish more Estonian partnerships in order to organize other music events in Canada. We wish to achieve more permanence from the current lucky and fortuitous affair. When so much energy and so many resources have been put into one project, one would hope that the benefits would reach as far into the future as possible. It also fits so well into VEMU's mandate: to introduce Estonia and Estonian culture (including that of Canadian-Estonians), and to build bridges between the homeland and Canada, to ensure that culture can move freely on a two-way road.

Peter: Piret, you have been most generous with your time. The detail you shared with us is absolutely incredible, and I'm positive that our readers will be very much, as I am now, really excited to see many, if not all of these concerts.

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