Traditional does not need to be conservative | Trad Attack

ERIC MONTFORT speaks to the members of Trad Attack – an Estonian trio heading their way to our islands for a performance at this year’s edition of Ghanafest

23 May 2016, 8:30am
Trad Attack are (left to right): Tõnu Tubli, Sandra Sillamaa and Jalmar Vabarna
Trad Attack are (left to right): Tõnu Tubli, Sandra Sillamaa and Jalmar Vabarna
Estonian music has always intrigued me even before this country regained its independence and self-determination back in 1991. I had long known about the plights that this country along with fellow Baltic States, Latvia and Lithuania had passed through over hundreds over years, and in recent history, under Soviet rule.

Eventually, in 1993, I followed the late John Peel’s BBC World Service programmes from the Baltic States, fell in love with a band he championed, namely Rooval Oobik, and in the following year, I visited these countries, and to date, I still have fond memories of the people, their old and rich culture and their unique folk music styles.

In Tallinn, Estonia, I was lucky to have been right on time for the Singing Festival, an event that takes place once every five years. This was the first post-independence singing festival, and the response was overwhelming, with more than 300,000 people attending from as far away as Germany, the UK, Australia and the USA. Estonian nationality preserved itself largely through this singing festival, which endured even during Soviet rule, albeit with much wariness and restrictions. It also helped to spawn many new talents, who were ready to dig into past archives and deliver something that was old and new, borrowed and fresh, rather than blue.

Trad Attack are a case in point. This trio comprises Sandra Jalmar and Tonu, old friends who have been active for about 15 years. They are one of many bold, young talents who have been reworking folk music with a lot of surprisingly breath-taking results. Sandra, who plays the bagpipe, has been following this scene ever since she was 13. Jalmar, on the other hand is himself a product of a family steeped in tradition; his great grandmother Anne Vabarna was an eminent folk singer in Estonia. Tonu, who plays trombone and drums comes from a family rooted in jazz and these are quite evident in Trad Attack’s music. 

Such synergies worked very well on Koo’reke, an eerie yet very ear friendly song which features some insidious percussive overtones, rapturous bagpipe arrangements and a thoroughly overtly fresh approach, where folk remains the basis of songs that exude so much warmth, emotion and also wry humour.

Two years since their groundbreaking appearance in Tallinn’s Music Week, Trad Attack have won the hearts of many European and American critics. I caught up with Sandra for further insight about the band’s music style, their latest projects and how latter-day Estonian folk has evolved.

Trad Attack sound so cohesive as a trio and yet so remain so versatile... the sort of attitude adopted by various other great trios like Cream, Rush, The Police and The Jam among others. Have you always worked as a trio? How does this cohesive factor work?

Yes, we have been always a trio, because we decided to challenge ourselves. As a trio we have very different roles, and we are responsible of our own areas and at the same time finding ways how to breathe together. We like it, because it opens up our minds and creativity in totally another way and we start to feel music from another perspective.

There are songs that fuse very well traditional and modern styles, notably Jan’keene which features the great-grandmother of Jalmar. Her voice ended up sampling in this recording!

Yes, thank you. That’s one of the inspiration sources for us – old Estonian archive recordings. At first we sang these songs ourselves, but it was missing something. When we added the original recordings then the songs started to live real life and got some special mystical energy. These old singers were amazing and the songs came out of their hearts and souls. All the songs had purpose and meaning in everyday life, that’s why they have a special energy. And that’s why we decided to bring them on the stage with us and add our own world around it.

Estonia has preserved its identity through singing. I could notice the passion and the great response I saw in Tallinn back in 1994 when I attended the singing festival there.

Yes that’s true. They call Estonians ‘the singing nation’. This singing festival is still going on in every two years and it’s really popular. We are happy that Estonian traditional music is also getting more and more popular. Young people listen to it and radios play it. A good example is that we, who make very alternative and folkish music, won awards for the Band Of The Year and Album Of The Year in The Estonian Music Awards 2015.

Estonia has also managed to deliver some very good bands, who can sing very well in English too, even though you were not a UK colony. A case in point is Rooval Oobik... just love that compilation Balts Bite Back which a guy from the national broadcaster gave me back then!

Maybe because we have good education system and children start studying English at a young age. There are quite many artists who sing in English and have made it also to international scene: Kerli, Ewert and the Two Dragons, etc. We love to sing in Estonian, because its so special. I think at the end it doesn’t matter what language you sing until the energy and vibe is right and connecting to audience.

Another song of yours, Kuukene, goes very much in the mysterious, pastoral, forest chant...the Baltic States seem to place a lot of emphasis on songs inspired by forests. Do you agree?

Yes definitely. Because we have lots of forest. The forest was very important part of Estonian every day life and Estonians were spiritually attached to the forest –it fed and protected them.  They also believed that the forest had a special magic and that spirits and fairies lived there. We do refer to other aspects of nature in some our songs, notably on Kuukene, which is an old chant. It is all about turning to the moon. Centuries ago, Estonians believed that turning to the moon helped revitalise them as well as curing some of their illnesses. Some people still sing this chant nowadays.

Trad.Attack! will be performing at Għanafest on June 11. Għanafest Malta World Music Festival 2016 is organised by Arts Council Malta and supported by the Ministry for Justice, Culture and Local Government, MSV Life and TVM. The Festival will be held on June 10-12 at 7pm, at Argotti Gardens, Floriana – within walking distance from Valletta. Tickets: €3 and €7 for a three-day block ticket available at the door. Parking available at the Floriana Boy Scouts headquarters, right next to the venue. For more information, log on to: www.maltaworldmusicfestival.org