TALLINN AS A BIRD
TWO LETTERS FROM VINCENT VAN GOGH TO HIS BROTHER
TO SING TILL DIE
PERFORMATIVITY OF GARDENING
CROSS-OVER ARCHITECTURE AND THE THIRD GENERATION CITY
HARRY PYE'S POSTCARD FROM SAO PAULO
To Sing till I Die
Our choice of sound is nowadays more abundant than ever, and hopefully it remains thus. When I say that Estonian folksongs contain more than a musician or a local person can glean from anywhere else, I am simply stating a fact. This is because I have had many powerful experiences with singing. When you sing alone, you get closer to yourself. When you sing in a group, it creates a strong transcendent field that remains even hours later. It is a natural high. The intensest experience for me was wailing for my Grandmother and Grandfather at their funeral – sending their souls away with song. On the one hand, it seems that leelo is a primitive way of self-expression, on the other hand, it gets more mysterious the more you practice. It takes time to understand it, like with many things that have ripened for hundreds of years. Actually, it takes a whole lifetime, singing time. Because every age has their own songs. The melodies and lyrics naturally merge with understanding and experience.
Any progress that relies on vocal effects and wants to get ahead faster, to record and perform faster – is an illusion. In the fast flow of changing times, some songs are indeed more edible than others, but their power is also less. The magic of those that have remained unchanged – with simple tunes that can instantly be sang by any young mother, like Kihnu Lullaby from Marta Vambola and her predecessors – starts from the first syllable. Naturally, there is stuff from the old days that is outdated and less exciting, and the singers talents vary as much as today. And surely, many beautiful songs were lost in wars, famine and savagery. Yet there are countless melodies behind the border of our awareness that can be found and sung again.
What lies at the bottom of the song world is hard to grasp even in my tenth leelo-year. There is the simple beauty and unrendered sense of our countryside. The songs were in the rhythm of people’s lives and doings (rowing, grinding flour, spinning yarn, farm work, carriage rides). They helped people get their work better done, they gave power to rituals and special moments, put a spin on the parties, shaped feelings, and alleviated difficulties; songs drove away the boredom of dark evenings. Long singing tales were teachings, fun, and the virtual reality of ancient times, which remain unsurpassed even now for they were human-centred – the story became alive in every person.
Songs were the wide-spread high-poetry of our people before they learned to write and thereafter started to slowly forget and discontinue their rendering. And then, like in the lives of all indigenous people, came the need to move away from the settlements, to relocate and change activities – urbanization, fashion and easier living. The reality of urban people became more colourful, but also more fragmented. So did their taste in music. The monotonous length of ancient songs started to get on the developing consumers’ nerves. The stories and values had lost their importance. Fast-forward or change the tape. People did not want to sing the same songs every year anymore, new melodies were more varied, more sensual and often quicker. Language changed, and the old runic verses were no longer understood. The customary circumstances for singing disappeared. And those old farm songs seemed too rural and barn-smelling, too allusive of poverty, embarrassing limitations and slavery, to be reminded of in finer company.
Urbanized farm-folk adopted new rhythms and tunes like the permit of modern times. They went to sing in choirs and superstar shows; they went to dance at the culture houses and raves. This process seems to entail a certain passiveness. People do not sing when they come together anymore. Usually they play a CD or a music-list from their computer. Small flashbacks of traditional music and folk-tourism cannot change it. Everybody can choose what they like. Many Estonians regard the strange and distant as something stimulating and the home-made kind of dull, grey and boring. Our relationship to music is mainly entertaining and consumeristic. This has brought about various middle forms, where old songs are dressed up with rock, reggae or classical music. It seems to be an inevitable sound buffer, the value of which is determined by the listener, and who knows, perhaps it does show a way for new-comers to authentic material as well.
Today, old songs speak to a small number of people. These darn folksongs do give you joy, but they need some dirty work too, don’t they! It is far easier to download some exotic mp3-s to your iPod and act like an ethno-man. But if you try to learn creatively from the dedication to the folksongs (the indigenous Toorama and Malicorne, later Kudmien, Pekko Käppi, etc.), something would have gained. Not to mention that old Estonian recordings on tapes and wax-rolls can cause a shift in your awareness, when listened through the headphones.
Dialect words and the meaning of texts are obscure and jazz-musicians complain that nothing happens in the harmony of these tunes. Proper composition might help. But the original thought of folk music was connected to participation and acknowledgement of belonging somewhere, to a tradition that has changed in time and that you do not comprehend completely, but that has some deep inner recognition in its core.
People cannot find their songs any longer, since the tradition is mostly broken and it has been awhile. The song is somewhere, perfectly for you, but it is so hard to reach, even if you spend hours digging in the collection of folksongs in the Estonian Literary Museum. This kind of work is not for everyone, and many give up after their folk-minded friends have disappeared into the traffic of everyday life. Many persisting folk-ensembles are club-like entities, with only a rare authentic flash among them. The essence has unnotedly shifted away from songs. On occasion, you may come across some noteworthy enthusiasts who bring the old melodies and words back into circulation from the archives and yellow-rimmed songbooks. Sometimes even making the songs as they go along and seizing young unfixed minds with their lively performances.
Certainly, there are also the folklorists, village patriots and finger swingers, whose attitude is: “My oh my, what a decadence! You should sing this song in this particular pitch and on this day and in that place.” It is a fruitless naggle, because change is inevitable. What they know is nothing more than bits and pieces of the last couple of hundred years, and to reconstruct the ancient life cycle in full is impossible even in our heads. Singing is a way of being and its useless setting limits to life. Melodies and lyrics have always changed and transformed. Although they are right about one thing – harmony and fittingness are important, there must be freedom of interpretation, and our inner seasons and places and rituals might not be the same as others. Since the community who would say what is appropriate has disintegrated and things have become ever more relative, we can have harmony only with ourselves – following the fledgling inner voice that can set order into the outer world from within.
One must get closer in order to fruitfully interpret things. It is natural to make folk sound, to set our throats and breathing into the old songlines, but today we must even strive toward naturalness. We should think about the meaning of words and their pronunciation, and find songs which go together with personal perception. It is a bit pity that there is a limited number of “folk hits” circling among those, who learned them from written word in a song book, or who always sang them in drunkenness, loud and fast and always with the same words, thinking that thus they are patriotic. It seems to be a timeless borderline – a footprint of retrospective romantic a) academism and b) rock-culture – that nobody wants to leave behind for some reason.
The signs of life make songs so charming: little differences in performances, lots of variety in quality, sensation, sounds and lyrics. If somebody hears a song at a party or remembers it foggily from a recording and the desire to sing is so big that the lost words are reinvented, then this song has both a connection to like-minded ancestors and a personal input. You should find the triple-CD of The Anthology of Estonian Folkmusic or any other collection of our national songs and see, what catches your attention. It takes years to tap into the right rhythm for chanting and regional tones (Kihnu, Seto, Kuusalu), but folksongs are mostly democratic and many of them can be hummed along in the forest, at the seaside or even sitting high in the skyscraper. You can instantly recognize what melody and lyrics fit with your current mood.
The songs contain something of each person who has ever sung them and something of the spirit of our people that is unspeakable. Some songs could grow only here – in the cold forested country, on the islands, by the sea. Earth, water, woods, wind, birds and animals, villages and later towns were all part of their creation. In villages, singing began at an early age as children went to heard and could sing leelos and improvise much on their own. They learned, because singing was a necessary tool. If a Seto bride could not wail everybody at the wedding, then she was a poor bride. And long before we had MC battles, the parties always involved singers contest, who scolded and scored each other to the bottom of the earth, using whatever arguments their fantasy provided.
By the way, the backyard cypher (rap-singers) circles, the word weavers world today, might well be the cradle of our new oral tradition. There is a collective quality in them, as well as an appeal to improvise and tell stories, and partially, their texts move along recitation lines. Perhaps in a few hundred years, when the tradition fully localises and contextual borders expand, our fluent and well-worded rap-musicians will be our new songfathers. They could create quite a special blend if they learned some folklore and its ways. A little more liveliness and less routine is needed among the folkmusicians. Until our mouths are not full of dirt, we can always carry a tune. It is a matter of recognition and self-realization.
is a musician and writer. Lives in Tartu and Räestu, Estonia. See also his essays „Richard Gary Brautigan. Bogus America’s Warped Mirror”, „Fleeting, Familiar” and www.ounaviks.ee/kago