Early Estonian music was mostly made of a kind of folk music called runic songs. These songs, utilizing the poetic nature of Baltic-Finnic people, were also common across the region. It included work songs, ballads, and epic poems. By the time the 18th century rolled around, these poetic runic songs transitioned to more of a rhythmic folksong. The runic song pretty faded to obscurity starting in the 20th century, except in isolated areas of Estonia.
At one time, traditional wind instruments were primarily only used by shepherds. However, instruments such as the fiddle, accordion, concertina, and zither were generally used in folk dance music, such as polka. The kannel is a type of Estonian zither that has a variety of traditional tunings. The kannel has made a resurgence in popularity, but more so in the Estonian diaspora. Kannel musicians such as Igor Tõnurist and Tuule Kann have helped with its comeback.
Estonia has produced a number of classical composers starting in the late 19th century and into the 20th century. While under Soviet occupation, folk art and folk music were highly encouraged. Estonian classical music, from what I’ve gathered by sampling some music on Spotify, loves choral music, and especially the men’s chorus. Classical composers that are fairly popular are Veljo Tormis, Ester Mägi, Kirile Loo, and René Eespere.
Modern pop and indie rock music are either sung in Estonian or in English. One indie rock band I found is Ewert and the Two Dragons. I really like them, and they sing in English. I’ve been listening to the album Good Man Down, and it kind of fits in the genre that The Lumineers, Mumford and Sons, or maybe even Bon Iver would be in. iTunes has this album for $9.99 and an earlier album for $8.91.
There’s an all-girl group called Vanilla Ninja that’s pretty good. I like them in a 1980s glam rock sort of way. Also singing in English, their style is a little reminiscent of the gothic metal, but less hard, kind of like if the band Evanescence mixed with Yngwie Malmsteen. I do admire the use of strings though.
Another English-language pop-rock artist I listened to is Kerli. Quite popular, her songs are somewhat catchy. It would be easy to image her songs being used in TV shows and commercials.
One band I found was called Vaiko Eplik Ja Eliit. Their style borders on psychedelic and indie rock. Singing in Estonian, at times I thought there may even be a few folksong motifs noted in their melody lines even though it’s deeply mixed with modern instrumentation.
And of course, there’s a somewhat strange genre of the folk-metal music of bands such as Metsatöll. The first track is a nice guitar-laden folk melody followed by typical hard metal songs sung in Estonian. Except they still make use of the men’s chorus (or something close to it). My problem with most metal music is that the instrumental performance is usually tight, but the main vocals are what kills it. Screaming is unnecessary and is really bad for your vocal cords. There tends to be less technique of any sort used. This is sort of 50/50, only because of the men’s chorus. It’s so atypical when I listen with American ears. But there’s something that I like about it nonetheless.
Every five years, Tallinn hosts the Estonian Song and Dance Festivals. The Song Festival has been going on for 140 years, and the Dance Festival for 75 years. They will actually be happening again in a couple weeks (July 4-6, 2014). What I wouldn’t give to attend! It’s known for having thousands of people gathering together to sing traditional folksongs and patriotic songs as well. Some of the songs have had a political hue to them, and this festival was instrumental in gathering momentum for gaining Estonian independence from Soviet occupation. During the Dance Festival, hundreds of dancers would dress in colorful costumes and perform traditional dances.
Actually, Estonians do not have a long history of their own folk dances. Prior to the 1800s, English and German-Austrian dances were popular in the courts and elsewhere. However, during the 1800s, people would gather at people’s homes on the weekends to sing and of course dancing naturally followed. Working in the fields left little time to dance otherwise. During the mid-1800s, there was a national awakening and renewal of Estonian spirit and patriotism. Even at that, choirs and orchestras popped up all over the country, but dance was somehow left out and forgotten. People only remembered a few of the dances, mainly the Kaera-Jaan. During the 1930s, the push for finding purely Estonian folk dances combed the corners of the lands. However, most Estonian dances, such as the labajalavalss and the tuljak, were offshoots of other European dances. Typically speaking, Estonian dance doesn’t involve any major leaps, acrobats, or quick steps – it’s a series of simple repeated patterns, with the occasional variation, full of precise dignity.
Up next: the food