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.”

Video: kalimba player in Malawi

One thing that consistently amazes me while traveling in Africa is how the people are able to create musical instruments out of just about anything. Take the kora, for example. This West African stringed instrument is made from a gourd and fishing line.

Another popular instrument is the thumb piano, or “lamellophone” for all you musicologists out there. It’s a small wooden plate or box with strips of metal of different lengths on it. These are plucked with the thumb to make different notes. A bit of scrounging in any African town can get you the parts for a thumb piano in less than an hour. Because they’re light and easy to make, they are popular with the griots, Africa’s wandering troubadours. They’re also popular with kids because it’s easy to learn the basics.

The thumb piano is called different names by different people, like kalimba or mbira. In Ethiopia, where I saw them being played, the instrument is called a tom. I bought one for my kid when he was five and he loves it. In fact, it was the first instrument he learned how to play. Unlike the recorder, which he’s learning now in school, nobody taught him how to play the tom, he simply figured it out for himself, and that’s much more fun.

Check out this video of a kalimba player in Malawi, who’s so good a bird starts singing along with him! I’d love to know the words to his song.

Top 5 MTV music videos that inspire travel

If you’re as old as or younger than MTV, which turns 30 today, then you probably can’t recall when MTV (short for “Music Television”) played music videos and nothing but. MTV launched on August 1, 1981, with a handful of videos filmed mostly on stages or sets tricked out with some lighting and a few props. As MTV grew in popularity, more and more musicians went on location to shoot miniature films backed by pop music soundtracks. Indeed, some of these videos, shot in places such as Venice and Prague, were like postcards beckoning viewers to find out more about the locales.

I grew up in the years when MTV was at the forefront of popular culture and credit the network with fueling a number of my travel fantasies. It is in this spirit that I list the top 5 MTV videos that inspired my desire to travel. Note that all of these videos were made in 1989 or earlier.

1. Like A Virgin – Madonna. As a known Italophile, I’m often asked what my favorite film set in Italy is. This Madonna classic, which must have single-handedly inflated ticket prices for a gondola ride when it was released in 1984, is always the first thing that comes to mind. Watch the video and tell me it doesn’t make you want to go to Venice.

2. Never Tear Us Apart – INXS. The sweeping views of Prague and INXS’ somber walks through that city, in particular their stroll through the Jewish Cemetery, is one of the most beautifully filmed music videos of all time. I still haven’t made it to Prague and that fact makes me sadder than this video usually does.

3. Personal Jesus – Depeche Mode. I distinctly remember the first time I saw this video and perked up when the VJ announced it had been shot in Spain. “Personal Jesus” was filmed in the Tabernas Desert in southern Spain, the location for many Spaghetti Westerns of yore.

4. Rio – Duran Duran. There is really nothing particularly related to the city of Rio de Janeiro in this memorable video by Duran Duran, but the shots of the white sand beaches and glossy sailboats gave me an itch for Caribbean travel. Apparently this video was shot in and around Antigua.

5. Going Back to Cali – LL Cool J. Even 24 years after it was made, LL Cool J’s funky black-and-white homage to L.A. is a love letter to the City of Angels even if LL continues to insist he’s not going back there.

Top 10 travel-themed 80’s songs

Something happened to songwriters during the 80’s. Synthesizers became required instruments, hair got bigger and most importantly, songwriters were increasingly interested in the theme of travel. Why was travel suddenly such an important subject? Though there’s no one right answer, the reasons for the glut of travel-themed 80’s songs are many, including the influence of globalization, the rise of international pop stars and, of course, because the bands just wanted to seem cool and more worldly. Isn’t that always the best reason?

With so many great travel-themed 80’s pop songs out there, it was only natural for Gadling to compile a list of our top ten favorites. After hours of intensive polling, debating and arguing, we’re happy to present you with the following gems. How many do you remember? Think you know the best? Take a look below:

80’s Travel Song #10: The Bangles – Walk Like an Egyptian

How does one “walk like an Egyptian” you might ask? Well, if you were The Bangles, it involved some awkward imitations of ancient hieroglyphics. Though they never do the dance in their video, the song kicked off a wave of hieroglyphics imitators, all turned sideways in tribute. So did the band ever visit Egypt? Were they avid archaeology buffs? I’m afraid the answer is probably no. But hey, the dance makes you look pretty cool. Make sure to show it off the next time you find yourself on the streets of Cairo!

80’s Travel Song #9: Murray Head – One Night in Bangkok

So what exactly is going on here? 80’s one-hit wonders Murray Head sing this ode to Bangkok, originally composed by the former members of ABBA, as part of the soundtrack for the hit musical Chess, and the music video doesn’t stray too far from the theme. A guy plays chess, people are dancing with Asian masks in a dark scary room and there’s lots of smoke. I haven’t yet been to Bangkok, but based on this video, I think I have a pretty good sense of what to expect. If nothing else, it’s got quite a hummable chorus, no?

80’s Travel Song #8: U2 – I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

In 1986, U2 began work on a new album called The Joshua Tree. The record was meant to describe all that they loved about American musical traditions, including Blues, Gospel and Folk. The result of their efforts was their most popular album to date, including hit singles like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” The song’s themes of wandering, discovery and open road remain just as resonant today as when the song was first released back in 1987. Make sure to watch the official video (we couldn’t embed it, sorry) to see the band as they wander around Las Vegas.

80’s Travel Song #7: Go-Go’s – Vacation

Not only is “Vacation” the name of a hit song by 80’s all-girl group The Go-Go’s, it’s also the name of their 1982 album. Propelled by bouncy melodies and catchy guitar hooks, “Vacation” might seem to be the perfect carefree soundtrack to that next trip down to the Bahamas. But if you listen closely, you’ll notice the lyrics to “Vacation” really have nothing to do with travel, beaches or road trips: it’s actually about a relationship. That said, don’t let the lyrical content spoil the fun – “Vacation” remains an 80’s travel song favorite.

80’s Travel Song #6: B-52’s – Roam

They might not have known it at the time, but this quintessential ode to wandering by 80’s super-group The B-52’s was destined to be included on every travel-themed iPod playlist. It has all the right ingredients – the references to dusty trails, a sugary melody and plenty of killer choruses. Anytime you stuck at home or at the office and dreaming of that next big trip, throw on “Roam” and you’re guaranteed to be transported back out on the open road, if only in your mind.

80’s Travel Song #5: Billy Ocean – Caribbean Queen

Remember the first time you heard Billy Ocean’s Caribbean Queen? Was it in a dentist office waiting room? Streaming from the “Lite Rock” station at a coworker’s cubicle? It’s likely you don’t have fond memories of it, and frankly, that’s a shame. The ultimate “King of Smooth,” Mr. Billy Ocean, brings us this easy listening staple, a must-have on any self-respecting 80’s travel song list. The easygoing rhythms paired with the luxurious string section give this song a carefree, island vibe that’s hard to describe. You either want to break out in spontaneous dance or go cry in the corner – it’s hard to decide which feels more appropriate.

80’s Travel Song #4: Men at Work – Land Down Under

This one is just too easy. Men at Work’s Land Down Under music video has just about every 80’s and Australian cliche known to mankind. That includes the unnecessary man sitting in a tree playing a flute solo, a stuffed koala, band members wearing leather pants in the desert, and plenty of gratuitous Foster’s product shots. If you want to (mis)understand what the 80’s were all about, just watch this video. It’s amazing.

80’s Travel Song #3: Duran Duran – Rio

Like so many other epic pop singles, Duran Duran’s Rio is a tribute to that “special someone.” In this case though, the place and the person are used interchangeably. They call it “Rio,” an earthly paradise of beaches, twinkling stars and sensuous “curves.” Are they talking about Rio de Janeiro? Some other “river” of fantasies? A fair-skinned beauty? The answer is up to the listener to decide. Make sure to watch the sailboat-themed video (which we weren’t able to embed in this post).

80’s Travel Song #2: Toto – Africa

Africa has long been a source of mystery and intrigue for travelers, a fact one-hit wonders Toto play off in this tribute to the famously “exotic” continent. The action in the video inexplicably kicks off in a library (in Africa, I guess?) where the band is searching for answers. Sadly, despite pulling a number of dusty tomes off the shelf, including one appropriately titled “Africa,” they don’t seem to find anything of use. Soon an errant spear is thrown into the bookcase and chaos ensues. If you’re looking to find every possible stereotype about Africa embodied in a catchy pop song, Toto’s Africa is it.

80’s Travel Song #1: Big Country – In a Big Country

Big Country might not have achieved the same degree of 80’s-hit stardom as Duran Duran or Men at Work, but their grand opus, “In a Big Country,” is among the most epic travel songs of all time. Much like Rio, “In a Big Country” mixes subjects between special places and people, singing of the inspiring places around us and the people that inhabit them. The soaring lyrics and catchy chorus never fail to get your body moving and your mind dreaming off distant lands. Plus, in the music video, the band seems to be having plenty of fun along the way, tooling around on 3-wheelers in search of adventure.