Gifts From Estonia

gifts from Estonia
When you ditch your wife and kid for a week to go off to Estonia in the middle of the winter, you better bring some cool stuff back. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to find interesting gifts from Estonia. I managed to get a variety of low-cost presents that gave them a taste of what the country is like.

And I mean “taste” literally. As you can see, I mostly brought back food. Estonian cuisine has its own distinct twist. One thing that really stands out is that the Estonians like to confuse their taste buds. That bottle on the left is Vana Tallinn, a rum-based drink mixed with various contrasting flavors to creature a sweet, syrupy drink with a taste I’ve never experienced before. That honey is mixed with pollen, the chocolate is mixed with locally gathered berries and that cheese is some of the smokiest I’ve ever had.

Two gifts were specifically for my kid. One is a book called “The Retribution of Jack Frost,” which includes two Estonian folk tales of the familiar theme of the poor stranger being refused help by a rich person and aided by a poor one. Guess who gets punished and who gets rewarded at the end! I didn’t see much of a choice in English-language titles, but he liked this one and the drawings really catch the Estonian countryside in winter.

He also wanted a cup with a castle on it, so here it is, complete with a picture of Toompea Castle and Pikk Hermann Tower in Tallinn’s medieval Old Town.

Last but not least is an odd wooden refrigerator magnet I found in a retro vinyl shop. Some weird Tom Waits-like figure dancing with crows. It isn’t actually from Estonia but rather handmade by a Lithuanian artist. Hey, you can never have enough refrigerator magnets.

Not going to Estonia? Check out what ended up in our home from Japan and Greece.

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

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

Grandma Moses’ Early Home Among Buildings Added To Virginia Landmarks Register

Grandma Moses
The Virginia Landmarks Register has just added 17 properties to its list of important sites. One of them is a home lived in by Grandma Moses and her family before she became famous as a folk artist.

The c. 1850 brick farmhouse in Mount Airy in the Shenandoah Valley was home to the painter in 1901 and 1902. While her stay was brief, it is the best preserved of any of the homes she lived in in the area. Grandma Moses only turned to painting when she was well into her 70s, yet she became world famous and her simple yet evocative folk paintings, such as the one pictured here, remain popular today.

Some of the other properties that have been added to the register include an African-American cemetery dating to the Civil War, the late 18th century Galemont farm in Fauquier County and a one-room schoolhouse in Springfield that operated right up until the 1930s.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]`

The Steep Canyon Rangers are worth a road trip

My 200-mile list is a collection of musicians for whose concerts I am willing to travel up to 200 miles (and often farther, really). Traveling for music is a great way to discover small towns, eclectic venues, and meet cool people who share your interests.

I’m not talking about stadium headliners — nothing against these concerts or musicians, but with many of these shows, you might as well be watching on television at home. You’re so much more present when you’re part of a smaller group, which is why I especially love the folk scene, hosted by all the best coffee houses in America. All members of my 200-mile list are folk musicians. Of course, “folk” covers a lot of ground.

Near the top of my list is the Steep Canyon Rangers, a young bluegrass band from North Carolina. Winners of the 2006 International Bluegrass Music Awards’ Emerging Artist of the Year title, the Rangers are up for Album of the Year and Gospel Recorded Performance of the Year at this year’s IBMA’s. Their sound is a solid mix of instrumentals, traditional and original bluegrass, and gospel, with lots of humor and fun thrown in.My favorite part of each Rangers show is a toss-up between their a capella gospel performance of Wade Mainer’s “I Can’t Sit Down” and their fan-favorite Nascar tune “Feelin’ Just a Little Like Dale.” Though I couldn’t care less about Nascar, I love how much fun the band has with this one — especially Nicky Sanders’ creative use of his fiddle to impersonate cars on the raceway and police sirens. In this song and all their others, the band has so much fun on stage, it spills into the audience and you can’t help but enjoy yourself (even if you hate Nascar).

In addition to great music, witty banter is a part of every show, and bass player Charles Humphrey will have you busting a gut. Check the Steep Canyon Rangers’ tour schedule to see if they’ll be coming within 200 miles of your hometown. If you want to say hi, you can find me at the Third Annual Mountain Song Festival, hosted by the Rangers themselves in Brevard, NC.

Below is a video of the Steep Canyon Rangers performing the title track from their latest album, Lovin’ Pretty Women.

Band on the Run: Shelter Valley Folk Festival in Grafton, Ontario

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life. Enjoy!

The Shelter Valley Folk Festival is only in its fourth year and you’d never know it. It’s one of the smoothest run festivals I have performed at in years. This was our first time there, but I walked onto the site on Friday evening and felt immediately at home.

I’m not sure if it’s the shape of the land, how it lolls uphill in Northumberland County (just south of Grafton, Ontario) and overlooks the huge sparkling body of water to the south: Lake Ontario. Maybe it’s the energy of the festival, which is geared towards community, local suppliers and artists, collective decisions, family. Or, maybe it’s all of the above combined together that draws around the event like an embrace and made my shoulders loosen up and take it in.

Whatever the reasons, it was a breath of fresh country air this Labour Day weekend.

I arrived to my band mates and friends lying in a pile in front of the stage Friday night, their faces lit up by spill of the stage lights, listening to Bill Bourne‘s set (accompanied by Michelle Josef on drums and percussion.) The pile gaped open to allow me to drop myself into it and we all huddled together staring up at the stars to the melodic lilt of Bill’s dancing guitar lines. Everyone was mesmerized and the whole audience seemed to be breathing in time to his tunes.

The next day, I kept running into my fellow artists who I knew weren’t programmed to play that weekend. I had read the schedule but their names weren’t on the performer’s lists. I found out shortly that many artists combine forces and volunteer at this event. It might have something to do with the founder, Aengus Finnan, an artist himself who was the visionary for this festival. And, while it may have been his vision to start with, many artists now share that same vision and lend their energy to prove it; they were doing things like MC’ing the stages, taking tickets, clearing plates in the dining tent, stage managing. That’s testimony right there to the magic in this event. It’s very rare to see musicians volunteering to work events that don’t include their music.

That’s belief in an event’s power.

That’s powerful.

We performed a total of seven times this weekend. Usually, I’d grumble a bit at being programmed so much at a festival. There was only one full concert on Saturday night, but we were playing in several workshops that included two or three songs round-robin style. (If you’re reading this from Australia, this is the “song swap” style of performance.)

What I found instead of pure exhaustion from these additional performances (which has been the case at other festivals at different times in my festival touring career) was an injection of energy from each workshop. We were collaborating with several other artists whose work all aligned beautifully with ours, like complimentary colours of a continuous musical spectrum. We did workshops whose themes were road stories, songwriting, community and collaborations, to name a few. I looked forward to each one and they all delivered that same post-performance grin.

A distinguishing feature of this festival compared to many others is the arts and wellness areas. In the artists’ booths, there were local artists from all different media whose only stipulation for being part of the festival was to provide demonstrations of their work to festival goers. There were people glass-making, painting, carving and paper-making for all to witness and learn from. Those booths were humming all day with onlookers and questions flying. I found it fascinating.

I was peering at the paper-making demonstration when there were suddenly horns blowing, shakers shaking and drums drumming coming down the path. Everyone’s head lifted and turned to see the kids’ parade walking towards us having already walked the circumference of the site and through the backstage as well. Kids were dressed and painted and smiling. Parents were filming. The young ones held onto a rope like the kind they have for preschoolers on walking trips through the city. It created this colourful spine around which the older kids and adult supervisors danced and jumped like the legs of an enormous caterpillar as it snaked its way around the remainder of the festival site.

This plastered a smile on my face as I took in the wellness area just beyond the artists’ booths. The area included talks and demonstrations of various body work. You could attend a shiatsu seminar and follow that up with a talk about sustainable organic gardening, for example, before catching a late afternoon musical workshop and then heading to the food stalls for organic and locally grown food.

All in all, this festival is educational, entertaining and healthy. The backstage area had full recycling drop points including composting and the use of re-usable plates, cutlery and glassware. It was healthy towards all things living, most importantly the Earth which we all can’t live without.

My friend Darlene (performer and volunteer at this festival) makes hula hoops as a side project to her amazing music and she graciously gave me one as a present this weekend. I think the gift may have been inspired by my long hula hoop session with a few eight-year-old girls in the open space to the east of the main stage on Sunday afternoon. I couldn’t stop playing with those hoops and I had to be tugged away when it came time for all of the performers to take to the stage for the finale songs.

Now I have a bright red hula hoop as a memory of this event.

And hopes to return some future year.

Shelter Valley Folk Festival is worth your attendance.


A Canadian in Beijing: Sing for Beijing

I was told that a gig that goes right, technically, is a rare occurrence in China. In fact, when my show was over tonight, people said: “you handled that well!” rather than “great show!” or “great songs!”

The situation they’re referring to is the fact that the guitar I borrowed had some pick-up problems that I wasn’t aware of until the gig began and it buzzed and squealed intermittently throughout the set. The only thing that would relieve it was yanking out the cord and plugging it back in. I got quite good at pausing, muting, yanking, plugging, un-muting all in time with the music and without stopping the lyrics, but I have to say that I was extremely distracted! I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. In the end, I just had to use a microphone on the guitar (below) which forced me to stand very still!

Isn’t there a saying about a craftsman only being as good as his tools? (or “her” tools, in this case!) But I won’t blame my tools as per the other expression (“a poor craftsman blames [her] tools”) but I’ll simply say that I was challenged but persevered. And, I did sing rather well despite the cigarette smoke.
My set was followed by Hanggai, an amazing Mongolian folk band with throat singing and traditional instruments. I was able to leave all of my gig frustrations on the stage and instantly become an audience member and I thoroughly enjoyed their music. Sometimes haunting and angular and sometimes sweet and rich. It was beautiful.

The first shot shows me in the last song when I was loaned a guitar by the headlining artist, Ramona Cordova. I had to sit because it was a strapless guitar (!) but I was really appreciative nonetheless. Ramona’s music is gentle and sweet and his voice has amazing range. I sat back and took in his ethereal high notes and relaxed stage vibe.

I met some nice people, had some laughs, drank my free beer and returned back to Wudaokou with humility. Here is a picture of my two Australian friends, Sarah and Jenny, who were there cheering me on.

I’m now able to say that I played some songs on stage in China. Before I leave at the end of this three-month stay, I’m sure there will actually be an Ember Swift show. I still have lots of time and this experience of building a brand new music community is teaching me so much already. For instance, the next time I have a gig here with a working guitar, I will definitely not take that clear signal for granted! Maybe that’s a clear signal to me to simply appreciate what does work more often. A good attitude? My voice? My ability to make friends? My ears? All were in fine working order at Yugong Yishan last night.

No complaints.

Photos of me performing by: Sarah Keenan