Estonian Art And Literature: Big Ideas In A Small Country


For a country with only 1.3 million people, Estonia has a hell of an art scene. There are several good museums and galleries and a lively round of readings and exhibition openings.

One of the biggest names in the Estonian art scene is Raoul Kurvitz. He’s been big for a few decades now, producing a steady output of installation pieces, experimental films and paintings. Right now KUMU, the Art Museum of Estonia, has dedicated an entire floor to his work.

While I’m a hard sell with contemporary art (see my ambivalent response to Damien Hirst) I found Kurvitz’s work consistently challenging and innovative. He ranges from accessible videos like this cover of Jesse Colin Young’s “Darkness Darkness to weird art happenings that leave the viewers scratching their heads and feeling slightly disturbed.

This is an artist that takes risks for his art. In the 1989 experimental film “When Lord Zarathustra was Young and Polite,” he gets flogged by two female assistants and then washed into a Finnish river by an opening sluice gate. In another video he’s surrounded by fire. And I have to wonder what that blue paint tasted like when it came out of the fish’s belly.

KUMU is an ultramodern building chock full of Estonian art of all periods. What’s interesting is how they followed all the great Western traditions such as Impressionism, Cubism and the rest but put their own twist on it. And then there are the mavericks like Edvard Wiiralt who veered off into their own high strangeness.

The literature scene is doing well too. I was lucky enough to meet Piret Raud and Kätlin Kaldmaa, two Estonian authors who gave me the lowdown on writing in a language that only a little more than 900,000 of their countrymen speak. The rest of Estonia’s population are native Russian speakers and tend to look eastward for their reading material.

%Gallery-179740%Given such a small readership, you’d think publishing would be all but dead in Estonia, but nothing could be further from the truth. The fall of Communism led to an explosion of publishing houses. Where once there had only been a couple of official state-run publishers, now there’s more than a hundred indies. Many are micropresses with only one or two titles, while others are major houses with long lists.

That breath of freedom must have been a relief after decades of Soviet occupation. During those times many Western books and magazines were banned and sailors made a good side income smuggling them in. One of their best sellers, I’m told, was Playboy magazine. Pornography was banned in the Soviet Union. They saw it as Western decadence, I suppose. So admiring the Playmate of the Month became an act of political defiance. The world is a weird place.

Besides reading illegal imports, some Estonian writers bucked the system by participating in the Samizdat movement, writing subversive books and distributing them through a postal network to like-minded individuals. Since the Soviets didn’t exactly dole out printing presses with the ration cards, most of these books weren’t bound. They’d be typed out with a couple of carbon copies or simply handwritten. Kaldmaa told me some books were even photographed page by page and you’d get a stack of photos in the mail.

I would have loved to meet one of these writers. I write what I feel and all I have to risk is some anonymous coward giving me shit in the comments section. Say what you felt in the Soviet Union and you could end up in a KGB torture chamber. Writers back then had balls.

On my last night in the capital Tallinn I was invited to a poetry reading at Kinokohvik Sinilind, a rambling cafe/bar/arthouse cinema in Old Town. Several poets and a band took turns on the weirdly lit stage doing their stuff while a large crowd listened and chatted. The poetry was all in Estonian, of course, so I listened to the cadence of the words rather than their meaning. An odd experience but a rewarding one.

There were a lot of prominent writers there. Kaldmaa introduced me to a poet who specialized in translating poems from Japanese, Chinese and Korean into Estonian. He spoke French and English too. Scary. I met a whirlwind of others too, at the table or at the bar. Everyone seemed to have their latest book tucked under their arm, all cleverly designed by local talent.

I’m jealous of poets; they always get nicer covers.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: Eating and Drinking in Estonia!

VIDEO: Children In Paraguay Create Music Out Of Trash


Life in Cateura, Paraguay, is tough. The neighborhood is built on a landfill and the people there make their living rummaging through the garbage for things to sell or reuse.

Now they’re using their skills to turn trash into beauty. They’ve started the Recycled Orchestra, in which local children play instruments made from trash. As this video shows, it’s not just a cute pastime. The instruments sounds like proper ones and the kids show real musical talent.

Now their efforts have caught the eye of some independent filmmakers who are working on a documentary about them called Landfill Harmonic. Check out their Facebook page and Twitter feed, for more information.

These kids are growing up in the depths of poverty and yet have made something out of their bleak surroundings. One of the girls in this video says she’d have nothing without her music. As their teacher says, “People realize that we shouldn’t throw away trash carelessly. Well, we shouldn’t throw away people either.”

A Music Video Exploring The Culture And Community Of Mumbai: ‘This City’

Made popular by the cinematic hit “Slumdog Millionaire,” there’s a certain romanticism with the Indian city Mumbai. We’re drawn in by the color, culture and music.

With over 12 million inhabitants, Mumbai is the most populous city in India. The slums of the city are a backdrop to the hectic daily life that’s indicative of a large Indian city. With its infrastructure and inhabitants, it’s the perfect place to think about urban planning, which is why for 2013 the BMW Guggenheim Lab has set up shop in the city’s vibrant streets. The mobile think tank for improving urban life around the world, commissioned a song by the Indian folk-rock band Swarathma.

With snippets of daily life – complete with a group doing dance lessons – “Is Sharar” is an excellent look into the many aspects of the city. The title translates to “This City,” and the music video is not only a look into what living in Mumbai is like, but it’s also an ode to togetherness and unity.

A selection of the lyrics:

Is shahar ki saansein hum (we are the breath of the city)
Is shahar ki aankhein hum (we are the sight of the city)
Is shahar ke honto pe (on the lips of the city)
Khilkhilaati baatein hum (we are the happy conversations)

You can find the full lyrics and translation here.

Photo Of The Day: Korean Daejeon Style

Photo of the day - Korean lights

Recently the Korean pop music hit video for “Gangnam Style” has hit a world record for the most “likes” on YouTube, beating out even Justin Bieber, and has spawned countless parodies, wannabes, and flash mobs. Today’s Photo of the Day is a slightly more subdued Korea, taken by Flickr user AdamJamesWilson in South Korea‘s Daejeon, about an hour by high-speed train from Seoul (and Gangnam, of course). The photographer notes that the lights are part of an art installation, partly to disguise the entrance of a parking lot. The lights and the couple in silhouette give the photo a romantic and dreamy quality, though you know just after the photo was taken they broke into a pony dance.

Send us your favorite travel moments, especially if they involve cool dance moves. Add them to the Gadling Flickr pool for a future Photo of the Day.

Video: Violinist In The Mountains Of Iran


I love hearing different music when I travel, and often it’s the music I remember the most. One of my clearest memories of Bulgaria, for example, is an elderly woman on the streets of Sofia singing a folk song. Even though I didn’t know the words, the song stuck with me.

Here’s a video of another chance encounter with traditional music, this time in Iran. Youtube poster bornainspain was hiking in the mountains outside Iran’s capital Tehran and came across this old gentleman playing a catchy tune on a bright red violin. The caption says it’s a very old Persian melody. It sounds familiar, though, and I don’t think I heard it when I went to Iran back in 1994. Can anyone tell me the name of this tune?

Whatever it is, he plays it well and this video points out one of the best things about travel – the chance encounters that make lasting memories. Do you have any fond musical memories from your travels? Tell us about them in the comments section!