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Trad.Attack! A brand, not just a band

An Estonian power trio is turning the local folk scene upside down

6 min read
© Jaanar Nikker

We meet up with Trad.Attack! – Sandra, Jalmar and Tõnu a day before their biggest concert in Tallinn yet. Trad.Attack! is a brand rather than just a band. The accolades are impressive – they have come first in several categories at three consecutive Estonian Music Awards since 2014.

Sandra Sillamaa, Jalmar Vabarna and Tõnu Tubli were all well known in the Estonian folk scene long before the band was born. In late 2013 they got together to try out some new techniques and ideas without having any big plan or strategy. The first tune released, ‘Kooreke’ (Precious Cream) immediately became a hit and they decided to apply for the Tallinn Music Week (TMW) showcase festival. They didn’t even have a name yet and only five tunes were ready, but this was just enough for a showcase set and hopefully to capture the attention of an international agent. The audience was ecstatic.

Trad Attack

Trad Attack  © Jaanar Nikker

Now, two years later, in February 2016 Trad.Attack! has sold out the huge new ‘Black Box’ theatre at Kultuurikatel, the coolest venue in town, a transformed power plant lying between  Tallinn’s Old Town and the sea shore which can accommodate 1 400 people. The audience at the late-night concert ranges from 10-year-olds to their grandparents, full of anticipation and excitement.

When Sandra, Jalmar and Tõnu finally appear, it’s like a massive pop show – disco balls, light show and high energy. Turbocharged, powerful, riotous…  They prove that it’s possible to do folk music with the same attitude as pop, the same hype and energy.

A band with great-grandma

One of the ‘invisible’ band members is Jalmar’s great-grandmother Anne Vabarna, a famous singer of the Seto people, a minority group living in South-Eastern Estonia. Jalmar says, ‘We cannot copy her as such, but it’s a great link and a justification to use her influence. The recordings are part of the band. When we discovered this technique, it was a eureka moment, as if we had caught the biggest fish.’

Tõnu, the drummer explains, ‘It’s almost like making human trials – we take an archive piece and make music together with this old singer via our own instruments. Nobody has done it before. It’s incredible to listen to the recordings.’

Sandra says Trad.Attack! all began just as an experiment, ‘The first idea was to try it out just for fun for ourselves, so we had no borders because the aim was not to make someone else like us. It was so much fun. We realized quickly that we could not copy the vocal tracks, and decided to just sample them instead.’

Trad Attack

Trad Attack  © Jaanar Nikker

A band or a brand?

What is most striking when talking to Sandra, Jalmar and Tõnu, is how equally driven and outgoing they all are. Sandra is taking care of all the marketing and promotion herself. It’s a very conscious approach, ‘I looked at how pop bands are doing it worldwide and tried to apply it here. So the social media campaigns are thought through, the website always up-to-date and so on. We have learned a lot at showcase festivals. Nowadays social media has become like a parallel world, where fans interact with us daily even if they haven’t been to a concert yet.’

Sandra studied in Stockholm, with marketing being part of the curriculum there. It’s increasingly important for a success of a band because, as Sandra puts it, ‘today everyone can make music, you don’t even need to play an instrument to do it. But even very good music needs a lot of promotion. As a band we need to interact with our listeners all the time.’

Voices from the press

The Arts Desk:The same country’s Trad.Attack! were as powerful, but riotous rather than reflective. The boisterous folk-based trio sported hard drumming bridging the gap between free jazz and metal, and multi-instrumentalist Sandra Sillamaa is equally at home on wild Jew’s harp as bagpipes.’

Dave Haslam, R2 Magazine: ‘To say that Trad.Attack!’s mix of original compositions and trad. arr. tunes has turned Estonian folk music on its head is to seriously understate the case.
Superb musicianship and an overt respect for an understanding of the tradition combined with an off–the-scale inventiveness and sparingly used cut-and-paste archive recordings, to create an album of startling originality.’

John Robb, Louder than War: ‘21st century Nordic turbo folk band who thrill. Reinventing the wheel Estonian band Trad.Attack! are a thrilling experience. With their roots in Estonian folk music or ‘’turbo Nordic folk’’ as they like to term it, they take the past, push it into the present and keep a very strong local folk tradition alive making it sound international instead of regional.’

Trad Attack

Trad Attack  © Jaanar Nikker

The master plan

The way Trad.Attack! started and is approaching its career bears a strong resemblance to the startup mindset – readiness to risk and a very clear set of goals. A joke at the first concert has become the master plan: to play in every country in the world. So far they have played in 17 countries from Europe to South-East Asia: Estonia, Latvia, Poland, the USA, Germany, Finland, Malaysia, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Norway, Denmark, Belarus, Italy, Czech Republic, Lithuania, and the Netherlands. Having spent about 100 days on the road in 2015, they are well on track with, concert dates set for China, South Korea, Canada, Portugal and Malta in the coming months. There are only 179 countries to go!

Jalmar thinks, fifty is the magic line, ‘After 50 countries everyone is going to want us. It will become a snowball after that.’

Tõnu aims even higher, ‘After that we will team up with Elon Musk and Richard Branson and shoot a video on the moon,’ he jokes.

‘For each country we try to learn some ice-breaker phrases in the local language. Our biggest hit ‘Ah’ is easy to sing along for everyone. So even in Malaysia, where we must have looked and sounded so strange for the audience at first, everyone got into it,’ Jalmar says, revealing the secret of the touring success.

‘The toughest audience was in a small town in South Germany – they didn’t understand any of our jokes,’ admits Tõnu. This might have to do with very different expectations, because to say that Trad.Attack! has turned traditional folk music on its head, would be a grave understatement.

To make all this travel easier, the band has teamed up with a travel agent in … Australia! Aerotravel, founded by the Estonian travel industry wizard Aivo Takis, is making all this complicated global logistics possible. Jalmar is adamant in giving them credit and hopes to see a Trad.Air! airline taking off one day.

Yet, as ambitious the trio is, in their musical foundation they have remained well grounded and true to their roots. As highly skilled instrumentalists and talented songwriters, the hearts of Trad.Attack! beat to the rhythm of ancient Estonian tunes.

Source: Life in Estonia

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