It’s an Estonian Weekend Here in Austin
“That’s nice. What country are those in?”
“Um, those are countries.” I might have added both are members of NATO and the European Union.
I can’t fault that credit card clerk for not knowing those two countries. Thirty years ago, Estonia and Latvia were both occupied nations forced into the Soviet Union. Economists speculated these “Breakaway Baltics” had the best chance of transitioning smoothly to capitalism. Now these countries are such a part of normal political relations that it went mostly unnoticed that President Obama met with Baltic leaders at the White House after his August 30 remarks on the necessity of intervening in Syria.
These days many Americans visit the picture-postcard capitol of Tallinn, Estonia on cruise ships. When they call home, some use the Skype calling technology developed in Estonia then purchased by Microsoft. Some glass bottles for currently boycotted “Stoli” vodka are made in Estonia. People all over the world listen to Estonian composer Arvo Part.
These days Tallinn feels as western as Helsinki, Finland, and you’ll have to squint to find visible traces of Soviet times. Yet Estonia still feels very far away from Austin, Texas. My one American friend living in Estonia says I’m the only American visitor he gets who isn’t a blood relation!
So I was surprised to find that Austin will be having a fairly Estonian weekend.
History books explain Estonia escaped from the Soviet Union–and maybe ended the Cold War– via the “Singing Revolution.” It’s where the Estonian people banded together in song and refused to back down.
Thus it seems fitting that the first Estonian event I’ve invited Austin friends to is a show by the Estonian indie-folk group, Ewert and the Two Dragons. The Dragons– as my friends call the band– are the biggest thing going in Estonian pop music. They sound a bit like an Estonian version of Mumford and Sons or The Lumineers (Full disclosure, I learned about the group from their onetime Latvian label “I Love You Records.” The Dragons are now signed to Warner Brothers Records.)
In the summer of 2012, it was impossible to walk around Tallinn’s medieval old town without hearing the mellow tunes of The Dragons pouring out of the open doorways of nearly every shop.
I’ve seen The Dragons play a show for thousands of people singing along with every word at the Positivus Music Festival, which is a Baltic take on the Austin City Limits Music Festival. In contrast, their first visit to Austin has them playing the intimate inside room at Stubb’s.
I’ve been following the band’s American adventures on the Internet and I’m curious what they now think of America. I suspect The Dragons are disappointed in our lack of Wifi compared to the nearly endless connectivity in Estonia. In the middle of their nationwide tour, they may be daunted by our geographic scale, as Estonia is smaller than New Hampshire and Vermont combined!
When they get to Austin, the band may feel outnumbered, as the population of Estonia is just over 1.2 million, while our Central Texas population is about 1.9 million. The Dragons may also be longing for the language of home, as Estonian is a complex Finno-Ugric language similar to Finnish and Hungarian. (Most Estonian business people and younger folk also speak English.)
In addition to the show by The Dragons, I was surprised to find that this weekend the horror and sci-fi film festival Fantastic Fest will be showing the Estonian animated short “Breakfast on the Grass.” At Fantastic Fest in 2009, I met Estonian film director Rasmus Merivoo director of “Buratino: Son of Pinocchio” the only other Estonian I’ve ever laid eyes on in Austin.
While Estonia looks glam on the outside, the country has had some growing pains. President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves lashed out at Nobel Prize winning American Economist Paul Krugman following Krugman’s remarks on the alleged success of Estonia’s austerity approach to the global recession in 2008. (He later backhanded me on on Twitter after I told a friend on the social media site that I didn’t think that the Estonian President wrote all his own Tweets.) The exchange between Krugman and Ilves was turned into an opera this spring.
Somehow I doubt that the Stubb’s show by Ewert and the Two Dragons or “Breakfast on the Grass,” will make any references to Soviet times, austerity or the Estonian GDP.
Thirty years ago, who would have thought a weekend with such Estonian entertainment in Austin would be possible?
Things sure have changed since the Cold War.
Ewert and the Two Dragons play inside at Stubb’s at 9 p.m. on Friday, September 20
“Breakfast on the Grass” screens as part of Fantastic Fest, September 19-26