Portsmouth Festivities: Estonian folk artist Mari Kalkun brings thousands of years of tradition to life

There will be a rare chance to catch a concert drawing on thousands of years of folk tradition from the Baltic region as part of the Portsmouth Festvities.

Friday, 7th June 2019, 6:04 pm
Updated Thursday, 13th June 2019, 11:53 pm
Estonian folk singer-songwriter Mari Kilkun is appearing at Portsmouth Festivities. Picture by Ruudu Rahumaru

Mari Kalkun is one of Estonia’s most acclaimed folk singer-songwriters – her most recent album Ilmamõtsan featured on several album-of-the-year lists, including The Guardian and The Arts Desk.

Although this will be her first visit to Portsmouth, she has toured widely, mostly around Europe, but has also completed five Japanese tours, and she made her New York debut earlier this year.

Mari sings in Estonian and the Võro language which, as she tells The Guide, ‘is a minority, old language from my home region in south Estonia’ .

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She adds: ‘Like most world musicians I sing in my own language, but music is, in a way, a very universal language, so I guess what’s even more important than the lyrics is the atmosphere and the sounds of the instruments and the emotions. And of course I tell a lot of stories about the songs and the background of how the songs have been born.’

Her songs are influenced by her surroundings and draw on the natural landscape and rural life, and she draws on her country’s rich musical heritage.

‘We have a long tradition here – that’s one of my greatest influences on my music. Although most of the music I play is original material, I am very much influenced by the traditional forms and I’m always adapting them to my music.

‘In fact the runo-song tradition, which has influenced my music a lot dates back almost 4,000 years, so one can say it’s an ancient tradition.

‘And of course, the instrument I play, the kannel,’ from the zither family of stringed instruments, ‘that’s been around for about 2,000 years – that’s native to Estonia and gets played around the Baltics and Finland.’

These days Mari has her own home studio in the village where her nearest neighbour is seveal hundred metres away.

‘That’s the great privilege to be able to work amongst nature and to have a studio where I can record pretty much any time and look out at nature.

‘We have a lot of forests and wild nature here in Estonia, and I consider it very important for my music.

‘Wherever I go I am very happy to travel and discover new cities and metropolises, but when I return home I always have to admit that’s the place that’s close to paradise.’

While much of her work draws on nature, that’s not to say she ignores the human world. One of Ilmamõtsan's tracks is Mõtsavele mäng – The Forest Brother Game. The Forest Brothers were partisans who waged a guerrilla war against Soviet rule during the Soviet invasion and occupation after the Second World War.

Estonia regained its independence in 1991.

‘When Estonia got independence I was just five years old, so I don’t really remember much of Soviet times, but from the stories of my parents and my relatives, I know quite a lot about it – it was quite a dark chapter in Estonian history, so I think it’s also important to remember these different layers of history and appreciate the freedom we have these days and to be able to realise again that freedom is a really big privilege.

‘When I wrote the song about the Forest Brothers, I was inspired by the stories I heard from the village.’

Ironically, it is Estonia’s position as one of the world’s most digitally advanced nations – they were the first to have online elections – that allows Mari to work so closely with nature.

‘Technology helps, but also I think we are drawn to nature, so finding the bond and balance between those two things, so technology doesn’t take over is important, particularly for the younger generation – and my own generation. But Estonia is a lovely place to be. It is my home and I have learned to appreciate it a lot.’

MARI KALKUN

St George’s Church, Portsea

Saturday, June 15