Marie Turkeyphoto: Dmitri Kotyuh
The Estonian singer-songwriter released an album on a prestigious label, and immediately excelled in the world music charts.
It would be enough to write that a more beautiful album than Stories of Stonia you haven’t heard in a while and it would be Those who do not know the Estonian singer-songwriter Mari Kalkun, you would owe an explanation of how she came to it, notably with the help of Sam Lee. And that really deserves a few more words.
It’s still the extraordinary Mari with a piano, kannel zither and soulful voice. The co-production of a British singer, musician and environmental activist elevates it above previous albums with an unusually epic, mind-expanding modern sound. Despite all this, the environmental message of the album does not disappear, nor do references to the traditions of the author’s native region of Võrumaa, where the archaic võro language, said to be two thousand years old, is still spoken.
As the central theme of the album, Mari chose the not exactly ideal relationship between man and nature; more precisely, she turned it into a warning against overconsumption and plundering of resources. “We often cannot predict the consequences of our actions, but we should realize that nature will always be stronger than us. It will survive without humanity, but humanity without nature? I doubt it. It would therefore be wise to respect it,” says Mari Kalkun, who leads a very powerful yet visceral conversation with society through creation myths.
I’ve always thought of your music as a gift you received from Võrumaa County, where your family has lived for a hundred years. You’ve turned it into living art, with one foot in ancient myths and the other in the present. How important is Võrumaa to your work? I would say that it definitely forms the core of everything I do. It represents the most expensive place on earth for me. As a child, I didn’t realize how lucky I was to grow up in Võrumaa – surrounded by nature and the Võr language. Learning about my roots came much later, during the study of local customs and music. I suddenly realized the strength of the region, with all its traditions, faith and people who live here side by side with nature and with a deep relationship to the forests. I consider Võrumaa to be an oasis where I feel at home and experience the exact opposite of what I encounter in big metropolises. There is a lot of silence and darkness, I can drink clean water straight from the spring and breathe clean air. I can’t do without these simple, but for me basic things in life, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to create the music I create. Compared to many other countries, Estonia has kept its oldest traditions relatively long, and our national music and written archives are among the most comprehensive in Europe. But for me it’s not only about archives, even though I draw a lot of inspiration from them. I also like to live in the city, travel and observe the surroundings. This gives me the perspective I need in today’s world. In other words, in order to appreciate your home and all that it provides, you must first leave it.
You once said that through traditional music and culture you can convey something much bigger than just being a singer from Estonia. I think this is very important in today’s globalized world. I definitely agree. When we start looking at the world’s traditional cultures, we discover how much we have in common. While making the album Stories of Stonia it occurred to me that some old mythical stories are well known in other parts of the world, because no matter where we live and what problems we face, we are still human after all. It doesn’t matter what language you sing in, honesty is important in music. And either the music touches you, despite the language barrier, or it doesn’t. Of course, the dark side of globalization remains the loss of face, identity and what we really are. Dozens of languages disappear almost every day, depriving the world of great wealth, and universal languages take over the media, social networks and television screens of our children. Therefore, there are few role models and musical stars outside the English-speaking world. After all, the võro language is not fully recognized even by my own state, and other nations are fighting a similar struggle for the future of their dialects. For example, the Sami.
I agree with that, and that’s why I can’t imagine that your music could be made anywhere else than Võrumaa. Similar to Björk – if she wasn’t from Iceland and didn’t sing in Icelandic, she would sound completely different. Would you be able to express yourself in a language other than your mother tongue? Wouldn’t that give away a lot of secrets? Of course she came. Language and landscape have been a fixed part of it for me since I started composing my own music, and if it were created somewhere else, it would undoubtedly sound different. During my studies, I moved to Tallinn and Helsinki. It was a great time of my life. But then at some point I understood that in order to stay honest, I had to go back to my roots again. I can’t sing about something that is actually far away from me, and because I believe that one can express himself best in his mother tongue, over time I started to appreciate it more. I also speak Estonian, but võro connects me with the lowest cultural layers.
This is an abridged version, full text available in HARMONIA XI/2023.