Hearing a song with the phrase “Ää-ää-ää-äh” in it, many of us might ask: is this the comeback of Trio, the avant-garde group with a flair for deconstruction, who climbed to the top of the charts with its “Da Da Da” at the peak of the New German Wave? No, it was Trad.Attack!, playing at the jazz club Tonne on Friday evening. They were performing an Estonian lullaby, wishing sweet dreams and a good night’s sleep to a child with the repetitive “Ää-ää-ää-äh”.
Trad.Attack! is a group of three friends-musicians: Sandra Vabarna, Jalmar Vabarna and Tõnu Tubli, who have quickly risen to the top ranks of the Estonian folk music scene. It might be easier to do in a small country, but nothing ever comes without effort. The lullaby was not a typical Trad.Attack! song. They usually sound like a combination of the early punk band The Pogues fronted by Shane McGowan and a hot-tempered choir from the Balkans, with a sprinkle of sound bites lifted from old archive recordings of traditional songs.
The group gives us the chance to hear Jalmar Vabarna’s great-grandmother Anne Vabarna, who was one of the most famous Estonian folk singers. The whole Vabarna family belongs to the small ethnic group of Setos. The Seto people settled down in the southern part of Estonia and are known for their culture, a part of which (at least in the Baltic countries) is a style of singing utilising traditional vocal polyphony (leelo). When Sandra Vabarna takes the microphone again, she uses sound technology to deliberately alter her voice. At times, it is pure magic. If a director should ever need a soundtrack for the scene of Walpurgis Night in Goethe’s Faust, Trad.Attack! tracks would be a good place to look.
The group’s instruments include a twelve-string guitar, bagpipes, a glockenspiel, a Jew’s harp, a small zither, a flute and a drum kit, which Tubli plays energetically and ingeniously. One of the songs lasts ten minutes (!), because the musicians believe that they should give a song as much time as it needs, the band’s frontwoman Sandra Vabarna tells the audience. The song is about snakes, and many Estonian folk songs speak about animals. Again and again they bring up wolves, and the sentiment is clear – wolves have never been liked in the Baltic countries either.
The conclusion? Trad.Attack! certainly draws on traditional folk music, but this trio absolutely goes outside the usual box of the genre. Modern arrangements with catchy pulsating rhythms, which carry old tunes, were convincing in every sense of the word. If other bands are as refreshing, then Estonian folklore will be safe in the future as well.