Scintillating Cultural Days in New York

April 20, 2023

A long, dreary Toronto spring took a turn in the middle of April: we started to get 30-degree weather. We were greeted with the same pleasant weather when we arrived in The Big Apple with filmmaker Kaisa Pitsi for the 51st Estonian Cultural Days in New York, from April 14-16. Parks were full of greenery, cherries and magnolias were in full bloom, and people were enjoying outdoor cafés and patios. Yet, Estonians flocked to the Estonian House like bees to a beehive.

This established, long-standing festival shows no signs of disappearing anytime soon. How could it, with a fantastic cultural torchbearer such as Merike Barborak, chairwoman of the Foundation for Arts and Letters along with her energetic team, an audience that hungers for culture and a good get-together, and no shortage of cultural matter created by Estonians?

My first and only visit to the Estonian Cultural Days, up until now, was in 1993. Unfortunately, my memories regarding it are a little hazy, but newspapers from the time helped to refresh them. Back then, I saw, for example, the theatre piece “Valguse põik,” written by Paul-Eerik Rummo and translated by Mardi Valgemäe, performed in a freshened way by the Northern Ohio University theatre group in the Broadway area of NY. I also remember the restaurant of the Estonian House filled to the brim with Estonians that I didn’t recognise for the most part, New York felt a little daunting in its massive size.

Now, thirty years later, I’ve gotten used to the scope of North America, and know the local Estonian communities and, in general, diaspora Estonians better. During those years, a lot more has changed. The older generation that was the driving force behind the cultural days at the time, such as Mardi Valgemäe, who left us three years ago, is disappearing or has already disappeared. But new active individuals have appeared, many of whom have recently come from Estonia. The relationship between Estonia and the diaspora has also changed – both parties have learned to understand one another better. If in the early years of re-independence, much of the aid moved from the diaspora communities to Estonia, now it’s the opposite: the Estonian government supports diaspora Estonian events and initiatives, such as this year’s cultural days.

Life in diaspora communities has become increasingly bilingual because younger generations don’t have the same knowledge of the language that their parents and grandparents have. But it was nice to see that there is a continuing, strong interest in the Estonian culture – a lot of the younger generation attended, as well as individuals with a creative and artistic background. One of the greatest discoveries was young American-Estonian artist Riivo Kruuk and his exhibit, where the displayed street art pieces clearly had Estonian ethnographic elements peeking through. There was a wide variety of exhibits: we saw 25 of Estonia’s most beautiful books, Eduard Wiiralt’s works, and the bold digital art of Estookin, who had flown in to be at the cultural days. Over the course of the festival, we could also watch classic Estonian animated films.

But let’s go back to the beginning. A seminar focused on Estonian startup companies and investors occurred on the first festival morning. The undersigned didn’t really have a reason to be there, but tying business and culture together is a smart move, VEMU/Estonian Museum Canada has seen and experienced the benefits firsthand – the two support each other very well. The opening night gave us a taste of what was to come: there were short performances by Estonian musicians Stefan and Õed, we also saw the highly praised Riivo Kruuk who improvised on the theme “Mu isamaa on minu arm” along with musician Jonas Tarm. Riivo painted a beautiful portrait that was inspired by the live piano accompaniment. Very moving! There were artist tours of exhibits and the evening was drawn to a close by 2022 Estonian pop artist of the year and Eurovision participant Stefan’s acoustic concert. The charming performer with Armenian roots but Viljandi-born also told fun tales of his life and adventures.

Saturday had a busy start for the VEMU team. We screened the documentary film “Our Tartu. 50 Years of Tartu College” followed by a discussion on Estonians and their culture abroad. We secretly hoped with director Kaisa Pitsi that our story might inspire New Yorkers to collect their memories about their Estonian House.

Next, we laughed and giggled during Margus Tabor’s monodrama “Mamma lood.” We were hoping to see these Hiiumaa stories here in Toronto in 2020 as well, but the pandemic quickly pulled the brakes on that plan. We could now renew those plans to bring “Mamma” to Canada finally. In our Toronto Estonian community, there are plenty of people from Hiiumaa as well as their descendants, so we might not even have to translate the “Hiiu dialect” into standard Estonian completely. During the afternoon, a tasting session of Estonian craft gins took place, but the VEMU team was busy meeting with documentarian Helga Merits to discuss work matters.

Those who didn’t wish to attend the ball could catch the screening of the comedy “Suvitajad” — the newer version of the film “Siin me oleme” from 1978, which has now achieved cult status in Estonia, based on Juhan Smuul’s “Muhu monoloogid.”

Saturday evening was spent at the Bohemian National Hall for the Solstice Night Ball. Stepping out from the hotel, an ESTO-type feeling was already in the air: there was a sea of cabs waiting for dolled and dressed up Estonians, who had come together from all over the USA and Canada. The organiser of the ball was Karin Ashford. Providing musical entertainment was Kalevipogues, who had made a fiery comeback at last fall’s Lääst Blääst in Toronto. The venerable musicians had a contagious youthful energy about them and drew out a large crowd of dancers to the floor. A bit of everything was heard, from “Viljandi paadimees” to classic rock in English. It didn’t take long for the more zealous women to shed their high heels and show off their dance moves barefoot. There was also a competition to determine who was the best couple out on the dancefloor. The night went on with even more performances by Estonian guest musicians Stefan and the female duo Õed, comprised of Kristel Aaslaid and Tuuli Rand. Those who still had energy left migrated to the secret bar at the Estonian House, where the party had apparently gone well into the early morning hours.

The third day started with a brunch at the Estonian House, where we were introduced to the culinary heroes from Ungru restaurant in Hiiumaa, who brought the best and tastiest food to attendees during the festival. The Ungru team talked about their culinary philosophy, and the diners thanked them with a huge round of applause. Helga Merits offered food for the soul with her presentation about her latest film project, which tells the story of the largest producer of vegetables in the 1950s, Seabrook Farm. This was a place where many European war-time immigrants, including Estonians, who came to the States found a job and shelter; along with interned JapaneseAmericans, they formed the two largest cultural groups in Seabrook’s multicultural community.

Following that was a secondary screening of the film “Suvitajad.” Now that I’ve seen both the original and remake, I have to respect current filmmakers for their daringness to approach and take on classic films. The product was modernistic, but still fun as well. Whether it’ll turn out to be funnier with every rewatch, as is the case with the original, only time will tell.

In the afternoon, a workshop took place during which VEMU shared its experiences and teachings with a group of interested individuals who plan on preserving the history of the New York Estonian House. We also presented an example by doing an on-the-spot interview. When the newfound local team heartily starts working towards its goal, VEMU will support them and provide guidance.

For the evening, performers and organisers of the cultural days were invited to the home of the Permanent Representative of Estonia to the United Nations, Rein Tammsaar. Picturesque views of the Manhattan skyline at sundown, delicious appetisers and the opportunity to mingle with interesting people – what more could you wish for as a perfect ending to the vivacious cultural days?

Just as the festival program wound and cooled down, so did the weather. When we embarked on our journey back to Toronto, the weather had become cooler, and droplets of rain fell from the sky. But my mind and soul were kept warm by emotions and memories – they still are. We are very thankful to the generous and welcoming organisers of the cultural days for being great hosts and for the memories. We wish Estonians in the US continuous ardour and strength in their endeavours and in bringing Estonians together.

Piret Noorhani