With Tallinn Music Week (TMW) taking place on the Russian border for the first time, Access witnessed another immensely challenging edition of the international showcase music festival and conference.

On 24 February, while Estonia was celebrating its 102nd birthday, Russian troops entered Ukraine and the war began. Tallinn Music Week’s (TMW) team were four days away from announcing the event’s line-up, but the war changed everything.

The event organisers reacted swiftly by banning all 25 Russian acts due to play the event, offering housing and facilities to Ukrainian artists, and moving part of the festival to the Russian border city of Narva for performances by acts including British headliners Floating Points and Tirzah.

It may have been a bold decision to move the established festival some 131 miles from its home in the Estonia capital to Russia’s doorstep, but for a team that staged the annual event twice during the pandemic, taking risks now appears to be the norm.

“The desire for optimism, the desire for spending time together – dancing, talking, celebrating – was felt strongly, both by the Ukrainian community, present at our festival events, and our own people in Tallinn and Narva, as well as the international music community,” says TMW founder and director Helen Sildna.

“TMW in Tallinn and Narva reminded us all of the power of culture to bring people together, fill moments with meanings and create the feeling that right here and now we can be the centre of the world.”

Image credit: Maxim Dubovik

The 14th edition of the festival, held during Tallinn’s first year as a UNESCO City of Music, hosted 192 artists from 28 countries and drew an audience of 17,425 visitors; 10,735 in Tallinn and 6,904 in Narva.

The TMW conference began with opening speeches by Sildna and the Estonian minister of culture Tiit Terik at the Nordic Hotel Forum in Tallinn on Friday, and continued at the OBJEKT multimedia centre in Narva the next day.

The conference was attended by 974 music industry professionals from around the world, including Simon Raymonde, founder and owner of UK-based independent record label Bella Union; music industry PR Jane Savidge; Live Nation Estonia head promoter Eva Palm; and tour manager and Back Lounge founder Suzi Green.

Sildna says the decision to take the festival within sight of Russia was driven by a desire to make it clear Estonia would not be divided and to emphasise that Narva is where the EU starts.

“Strengthening the EU border to me means standing together with our border communities,” she says. “Any country in Europe is only as safe as any of our border cities.”

Image credit: Diana Pashkovich

Sildna was inspired by a speech by Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky, delivered at the Grammy Awards, as well as Ukrainian artists continuing to spread their message through music.

“Music and culture are a powerful medium. It is about time we stop underestimating it,” she says. Along with Russian artists, Russia-based delegates were not allowed to attend TMW, but several Russian event professionals who are no longer based in the country were at the festival.

These included Serbia-based Stefan Kazaryan, who used to run Moscow Music Week and Bol festival, as well as Berlin-based Natasha Padabed, owner of booking agency More Zvukov. Of the 911 conference delegates, two were from Ukraine, including Vladyslav Yaremchuk, booking manager of Kyiv’s Atlas Festival.

Creative hub

Tallinn’s creative district Telliskivi was once again bustling with activity on the first two nights of the festival, with an emotive concert by Ukrainian pop star Ivan Dorn kicking off the event in Telliskivi Square in front of 3,000 people.

“I really sensed that people had the need to dance together,” says Sildna. “Being tired of the pandemic but also wanting to experience something positive together, it’s very important.”

Among the festival’s many weird and wonderful venues is the hip Sveta Bar, owned by Mancunian expat Luke Teetsov-Faulkner, as well as the eccentric Club of Different Rooms, which makes attendees swap their shoes for sandals or slippers upon entry.

Image credit: Feliks Voloz

A short Bolt trip away, underground techno nightclub HALL is a strictly-no-photography zone that features break-off rooms, beds and hypnotic installations in a factory-like setting.

As well as Dorn, fellow Ukrainian artists alyona alyona, FO SHO, Gentle Ropes and Krapka;KOMA performed at the festival, with the latter three also having been granted free use of Tallinn’s studio89, mentoring and accommodation in Tallinn.

“All three artists were forced to leave their homeland,” says TMW manager of educational programming Terje Trochynskyi. “In addition to performances, they are looking for a chance to complete their unfinished works in Estonia in collaboration with our musicians, who could support them either in recording drum parts or creating new beats.

“One of the residents is planning to stay here longer and is also willing to apply his skills in the service of the studio.”

TMW head of communication and programme curator Ingrid Kohtla says the festival received 24 applications from Ukrainian artists. Two of the artists originally confirmed could not attend and there were more artists who wished to take up the residence but were not able to for reasons including having to fight on the front line.

Image credit: Aron Urb

Next stop: Station Narva

The contrast between Tallinn and Narva is stark. While Estonia’s capital is used to welcoming tourists to its quaint medieval Old Town, Narva is a city that is rough around the edges, having been largely destroyed during the Second World War. Some 95% of its population are Russian speakers and most speak little English.

Outside Narva’s Vaba Lava theatre, Estonia’s president Alar Karis addressed the herd of delegates, most of whom had just made the three-hour coach journey from Tallinn. He said, “Music cannot go silent when cannons are blaring. Musicians and event organisers around the world have given countless charity concerts in support of Ukraine.

“In addition to the millions donated within these events, these concerts have drawn the attention of millions, tens of millions, of people to this brutal war, and they have brought the world together to stand against evil.”

The walk from Station Narva’s streetside entrance to the venue – the home of five-year-old music festival Station Narva – is like no other.

Image credit: Anastassia Volkova

Attendees, some of whose mobile phones picked up Russian networks, walked across the bridge to Kreenholm Island, where they were surrounded by the Narva River that separates Russia from Estonia.

Across the bridge sits an abandoned 19th-century red-brick textile factory complex – once the largest factory in the Russian Empire that used to house around 10,000 workers. The venue’s courtyard hosted several Brits on stage including Floating Points, rapper Black Josh and singer-songwriter Tirzah, who brought TMW to an epic, albeit unusual, climax in the rain.

“Artists and creators teach the world empathy and compassion,” says Karis. “They teach us the art of being human. Let’s not forget that musicians and event organisers are among some of those who took the worst blows over the past two years because of coronavirus.

“May art and culture help us be better, more empathetic and compassionate.”