Estonia is a country at a crossroads. Scandinavia to the north, Slavic Europe to the south. There cultural pointers to the country’s time spent under Russian rule, but a Western European lifestyle and economy is in the ascendency. The Estonian language – part of the finno-ugric language group – is most closely linked to Finnish and Hungarian, though there is no Estonian land-border with either of those countries.
It is hardly surprising, then, to find that Estonia’s musical heritage draws on a huge breadth of influence. But it isn’t all about appropriation from other cultures. Storied Sounds, Estonian accordionist Tuulikki Bartosik‘s latest album, does make forays into the varied musical worlds of Scandinavian, Central and Eastern Europe, but at its heart is the artist’s love for her homeland and its own rich heritage.
It is an album profoundly involved with place, though not smotheringly so. There are polskas and slängpolksas – dance tunes deeply indebted to the Scandinavian musical tradition. But there is also a welcome modernness at play too. Opening track Daniels Polska, for example, begins with Timo Alakotila‘s melancholy, almost Satie-esque piano before Bartosik’s accordion turns it into a languid dance. Watery field recordings seep into November‘s minimal palette, and Tormilind/Seagull uses recordings of wild birds, while the tune treads a delicate line between the abstract and the descriptive. The nagging pull of Time?/Aeg? sees Bartosik explore the lower reaches of her instrument’s register while a flickering melodic line gives some free jazz-style experimentation to the tune.
Leo Slängpolksa is one of the album’s highligts. Starting slowly with a chorus of songbirds, it soon becomes a vehicle for Villu Talsi‘s fluttering mandolin, which trades crystalline passages with the accordion. Calling In Rõuge is a short but stirring wordless vocal piece, an elemental, timeless cry like a rustic incantation, while Theo the Tiger has a much more traditional melody, staying just the right side of nostalgia. The centrepiece of the record is Josefins Vaggvissa (‘vaggvissa’ means ‘lullaby’). It comes in at just under nine minutes and begins with apparently improvised piano and guitar section courtesy of Alakotila and prolific guitarist Dylan Fowler. Seven minutes in, the tune runs up against a wall of distortion, a short squally storm of sound that only goes to enhance the melodicism that circles around it.
All over this album intricate webs are built up around simple bases. On Orsa a simple piano phrase enables Bartosik’s instrument to take flight, before the piano itself becomes more tricksy, scaling heights while the accordion circles around a theme. Moon Salutation relies on more incantatory (and genuinely unsettling) vocals and spooky drones, and the album’s final track, Karins Brudpolska (a brudpolska appears to be a wedding dance of some kind) not only manages to mix gravity and jollity in equal measure, it also exemplifies the way in which good folk music can be simultaneously – thrillingly – personal and universal.
Bartosik has said, in relation to this album, ‘We transfer our traditions to each other, take our world with us wherever we go, and we take something with us from every place we visit, every person we meet.’ It is interesting that she should choose to explain tradition in terms of travel and human interaction when many people see tradition as something insular. One of the joys of this record is that it demonstrates that musical traditions are effectively pointless if they do not evolve or are never brought to new audiences. In the same way that the idea of home could not exist without the possibility of travel, tradition means nothing without evolution. Storied Sounds encapsulates this concept with breathtaking simplicity and vibrancy.
Storied Sounds is Out Now via Rootbeat Records