A voice that seems to speak to us from the heart of the Estonian forest, Mari Kalkun’s music is at once of a place and deeply personal. Rooted in ancient Estonian and Võru traditions, and played on a variety of instruments including kannel, piano and drones, her music—for those of us with ears and hearts open—resonates deep within us to touch our spirits, our souls, even when the language is strange to us. Songs and musical arrangements that are sparse and stripped down allow emotions to surface, and the song breath and reveal itself as something organic and real.
Hers is an intimate music—born of Baltic winter forests and icy landscapes— and yet there is renewal, hope and celebration to be heard. Mari Kalkun’s music has a timeless quality and unhurried sense of time and space. She has released eight albums in Estonia, Europe and Japan. The music and live performances are mostly solo, some collaborative. Mari has worked as a soloist in projects with acclaimed orchestras and choirs, written music for theatre and film. She has toured in Europe and Canada, but her second largest loyal listener base lies in Japan, where she keeps going back for concerts.
Mari started learning piano when she was five, but says for her music began the day she was born. “I’ve always had this organic, magnetic, attraction to music. The urge to make music was so strong as a way of seeing the world.” She went to school in Tartu, the second largest city in Estonia. Once her interest had shifted from classical music, she got interested in the Estonian runo songs (regilaul) and started a band at high school. “I was around 16 when I played my first show at Viljandi Folk Music Festival [the biggest in Estonia]. It was a large crowd of 1000 people and I got my first adrenalin ‘wow’ of being on stage, communicating with people and feeling what the magic of playing music live is.”
In 2007, Mari recorded her debut album Üü Tulõk (Arrival Of The Night). The desire to create music was inescapable. The first solo album released by Estonian label Õunaviks gained remarkable attention among Estonian music audience and critics. It was followed by “Vihmakõnõ” (“Dear Rain”) in 2010, that she dedicated to her grandparents. She recorded the album by herself at various locations in home environments. A year later it both of the albums were picked up by a Japanese label and she made her debut in Japan. Meanwhile, she went to study in Viljandi Culture Academy which was where Mari started to broaden her instrumentalist skills and learn accordion and kannel – the ancient Estonian zither related to the Finnish kantele. Mari continued her studies in Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre and she was an exchange student at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland, graduating with a master’s degree in traditional singing.
With barely one million speakers, Estonian is one of Europe’s smallest languages. But Mari’s native region of Võrumaa has its own language – Võro – which comes from the same Finno-Ugric language family as Estonian, but is much older. With estimated 75 000 speakers, the endangered Võro language has become more known and popular thanks to Mari’s songs. In 2015, the children’s album Upa-upa ubinakõnõ (Hop, Hop Little Apple) by Mari and her like-minded friends, Tuulikki Bartosik and Ramo Teder, was released with support from the Võru Institute. The album was given to children born at the Põlva and Võru hospitals – to become familiar with the local language and way of thinking from childhood already.
While Mari makes use of traditional texts and musical motifs from the folk tradition, her range is wider than Võrumaa and Kihnu, where her parents are from. For instance, the album Tii ilo (The Beauty of the Road) which was created by Mari together with her Finnish band Mari Kalkun & Runorun, also featured parts of Livonian and Votic folk songs. Furthermore, Mari Kalkun is the first Estonian musician whose album – this Tii ilo – has been nominated for a Finnish ethnomusic award. She is also one of few Estonian musicians to have built her identity on singing in local native language. “Languages are like nature - fragile ecosystems,” she says. It’s a central message in her music.
Although Mari is Estonian, she makes connections with listeners all over the world. In June 2018, writing in the British newspaper The Guardian said of her album Ilmamõtsan (In The Wood Of The World) that “Kalkun’s singing is at the heart of things; joyous and lamenting by turns, but always poised and melodious, her poeticism apparent even without translation.” Language is no barrier.
Also in the UK, the BBC’s Radio 3 agreed and in February 2019 asked her to create a special show for broadcast. In Music Planet: Road Trip, Mari travelled through 4000 years of Estonian music with her voice, birdsong, bagpipes and her music. At home, in 2020, Estonian Public Broadcasting named Mari Musician of the Year – she became the first musician drawing from the traditional world to receive this award.
In May 2020, she gave an extraordinary (filmed) performance in the blossoming apple orchard around her house of her ‘lockdown’ Õunaaia (Apple Orchard Album). “It’s amazing that my grandmother planted these trees and I can still taste the apples from them. It’s a magical thing. Of course, it is not only about the trees, but the whole place and the roots in the nature,” Kalkun reveals.
Born in Võrumaa, a region in southeast Estonia, she currently lives in a farmhouse built by her paternal great grandfather in 1900. Her father’s family has been living in Võrumaa for generations and there, in South of Estonia, communal lifestyle respecting traditions and ancestors is still alive. The savvusann smoke sauna culture is on the UNESCO intangible heritage list. Her mother was born on a tiny Estonian island of Kihnu which has been also called the last matriarchy of Europe. “I feel lucky that I can gain so much power from my roots and there’s a lot I have inherited from my parents,” the musician explains.
Her vision of her world is a very individual one. “I try to find answers to today’s problems also through old stories and myths,” she explains. “There are so many things which are beyond words, yet we mostly still try to solve them through words. But for me music and art is a way to expand the understanding of these issues.”
This is absolutely true of Stories of Stonia, her latest album released in July 2023 by Peter Gabriel’s label Real World Records, UK. On the album, her voice is enveloped in natural sounds and an electronic soundscape until the gentle sound of the plucked kannel slowly emerges. “The whole album is like the creation of my own mythical world, but recognising that the world we create today, is up to us and our choices,” she explains. The striking trumpet and tuba of Daniel Herskerdal on ‘When the Stones Were Still Soft’ is a creation myth involving music. Stories of Stonia was produced with the help of British musician and folklorist Sam Lee.
“The motivation for ‘Stories of Stonia’ is my own curiosity to go back to a very old layer of tradition and imagine what my ancestors would have thought and sung about the world in an era of skyscrapers, steel and metal,” Mari says. “The central topic of the album is humanity’s controversial relationship with nature and whether the old runo songs are able to speak out about over-consumption and climate change.”
Mari has been featured on international radio and TV stations such as BBC3, BBC4, BBC Scotland, J-Wave Tokyo, Osaka Radio, Scotland TV, and BBC Alba etc. On 2019 Mari Kalkun received Annual Music Award of Cultural Endowment of Estonia. On 2018 she received Tallinn Music Week Artist Award. Combining folk traditions with innovative songwriting, Mari Kalkun is one of the most forward-looking folk artists today.