Creation of Folk Music in Estonia and the Nordic Countries

By Sofia Joons

Professional musicians from the Nordic Countries often comment the Estonian folk music mission as more “grass root oriented”, “a part of everyday life” and thereby more spontaneous than the Nordic one. Many Estonian musicians play at pubs and cultural events instead of concert stages/chamber situations. Estonians on the other hand find it hard to develop the folk music stage as people are used to listen to Estonian folk music in less serious contexts and as the musicians are not used to prepare for a chamber concert situation.

The aesthetics of folk music is very closely connected to phenomena such as “recognition” and “collectively kept memories” on one hand, and “being exotic” on the other. In a way, these two phenomena hint at two different aspects of what folk musicians in both Estonia and the Nordic Countries see as their mission. One part of the mission considers processes that make folk music available for a wider circle. The other is to make it just as competitive as other institutionalised music genres, and also interesting, rich of expression in an international context. The border between the two aspects is hard to determine. “Exotic/elite” (and still recognised as folk music projects) are often brought out in concert situations with big audiences. People who first meet folk music at summer camps under the slogan “everyone can play folk music”, might very well end up playing tunes in a way that not many could imitate.

In the 1970s, the green wave era, many new folk musicians broke through in the Nordic Countries and they also worked out new styles and approaches to the traditional music. Tradition keepers can be both creators of a personal style as well as good keepers of an already created style, which “untouched” preserving is seen as good. In the Nordic countries, many of the teachers at the folk music programs are famous for their personal styles and this personal style creating process seen as a whole is considered a sign that the tradition is alive.

In Estonia, the 1970s were also the era of new approaches to folk music and the creation of new folklore and folk music contexts. The movements were somewhat more collective and its hierarchy more flat and homogenous than their Nordic analogues. The movements made no top musicians. The movements/folklore groups that today have a big influence on the folk music program at Viljandi Culture College were dissident movements that can be understood as alternatives to the state organised folklore stage. This stage made stars in a Soviet folklore context. These stars and activities still exist, but the Viljandi folk music department does not find their aesthetics and ideology of folklore relevant for its own mission. This led to a situation, in which the folk music students in the early 90s searched for their repertoire in archives more than they learned by imitating music they heard in their folk music networks. As the department of folk music in Viljandi is today 11 years old, many students have graduated and some of them continue their search for Estonian folk music but now as teachers. Today, the students learn not only from the archives, but also, and mainly, from their teachers.

The folk music programs in the Nordic countries use their folk music stars from the 1970s in advertisements. Rauland (Norway) talk about “teachers, who are all active folk musicians”, Sibelius Academy (Finland) says that “the teachers … include dozens of top musicians inthe field both from Finland and elsewhere”, at the Ole Bull Academy (Norway), the students choose the tradition/musicians, whose style they want to learn (which could mean, that these musicians are known by the students), Malmö (Sweden) offers Mats Edén and “many of the greatest folk musicians in Sweden and the Nordic Countries”. The phenomenon of using top folk musicians in advertisements is nonexistent in Viljandi. The Viljandi website contains the names of the teachers, but it does not say anything about their qualities or popularity.

Nordic musicians tell about a Nordic folk music field where the folklorists/theorists and musicians are not really communicating, and they think this is good, as too much talking may lead to less music. Or, as a Swedish folk music manager told me; “Tell the Estonians to think and talk less and play more”.

In Viljandi, I have never heard someone talk about the thinking itself as good or bad, their problems are more connected with the schedule. Their program has many theoretical subjects that other programs do not have. One might say as a simplification, that Viljandi’s commitment is to give the students a wide base, and in this context it is not possible to find more time for the musical part of the program. This spring, the students at the folk music program went to the forest together and played for one week. They realised that this is what they want to do more often, but they still talk about minimising folklore and folk music theoretical blocks and not about a program without those themes.

The Viljandi program presents three goals. The student will 1) get to know 2) learn to interpret, and 3) learn to analyse the oral and written inheritance of the Estonian people. Most programs in the Nordic Countries demand a good musical level of the students, and one might say that folk musicians do not learn music at the programs, but formalise his/her knowledge and get a vocation. If the teachers who have already graduated from the Viljandi College, are successful in their teaching and promotion of folk music, maybe the program in the future will not have to help the students to get in contact with this specific genre of music, but help the student to improve his/her music.

In the Viljandi case, one can recognise a situation, which could inspire some of the graduated folk music pedagogues or/and musicians to move on towards the position of “top musicians” by increasing the quality of their musical expression. If the audience would embrace them, the folk music stage in Estonia could gain some popular musicians, and the school could later reproduce what they create.

“Cultural capital” can be seen as an ability to orient in the dominating culture and to express oneself adequately. In a school context, both the cultural capital among the teachers and students are of utmost importance. The teachers’ job is so to say to help the students enlarge their capital, so they could be recognised as professional and carry a vocational identity after graduation. As I already have mentioned, the cultural capital among the students vary a lot in the Estonian-Nordic folk music educational field. It is hard to compare the cultural capitals of different cases. One possibility is to see how the different cases themselves compare their own program with others. Swedish students talk about their problems with popular teachers. As they are “the best”, they are often on tour and it is hard to create routines for the students. In Viljandi, the cultural capital of the students is mentioned as small and the task of the program as very difficult.

Problems appear when guest musicians from abroad come with their comparatively big cultural capital and charisma, and inspire the students to play tunes from his/her repertoire — because first of all, they must concentrate on the work with the evoking process of the Estonian music. Cultural capital loans of ideas, motivation, energy and other metaphysical aspects of music reality are possible, seen as fruitful and thereby good as long as the students do not loose the contact with their Estonian base. This leads to a hard balance game, in which the foreign loan of cultural capital should be used as a tool to enlarge the capital of the Estonian folk music, not to enlarge the capital of each student, who may feel more comfortable playing foreign tunes within the aura of a top musician from a stronger folk music field.

Many of the basic program and ideology constructions are similar to the constructions that can be found in the folk movement of the 1960s, that first was mobilised in the USA, later remobilised into other contexts in the western world, the Nordic countries included. The new mobilisation of traditions of the 1990s in Sweden was largely inspired by the globalisation of the musical industry.

This tendency can be found in Estonia as well, but on idea level, I see strong influences from the folk movement of the 1960s. “The festivals were not just mass concerts; they also provided opportunities for social learning, both of the new music and of the life style and philosophy that came with it […] Everyone could play or sing folk music”. The political protest of the 1960s was coloured by romantic ideas about a true folk culture that was oral, immediate, and communal.

In this context, one might say, that the values behind the folk music program in Viljandi are somewhat more romantic and identity centred than its contemporary Nordic analogues. Folk music in the Nordic countries is both part of the local culture and show business and pop culture industry. In a Nordic context, it is normal to talk about folk music as a music genre just as any other. In Estonia, folk music is mentioned as a special music, a musical mother tongue, and folk music situations as mainly collective. Folk music programs often set as a multifunctional goal to become a good musician, a good teacher and a good promoter of the true Estonian folk music.








Om Sofia Joons 1 artikel
Sofia Joons, Estonian Institute of Humanities, Estonia