Tuesday night at Scandinavia House, Mari Kalkun treated a packed auditorium to a very rare program of pensively bucolic, often hypnotic Estonian songs. But Kalkum is no ordinary folk singer: she writes her own material, often utilizing texts by both contemporary and historic Estonian poets. She sang in Estonian, Finnish and Voro a south Estonianl language that has only about seventy thousand remaining speakers, as she explained.
Her main axe is the kannel, a semi-oval-shaped stringed instrument that resembles a dulcimer but which she plucked like a harp slung around her shoulders. Since she uses traditional open tunings, the melodies didn’t move around much beyond the center,, further enhancing the dream state effect. Even when she switched to piano, she played similarly intricate, intertwining, subtly shifting upper-register voicings, anchored by an insistent, rhythmic lefthand. She did much the same on a Finnish box lute. The result was stately, often rapt and spacious: she let those starry plucks and chimes linger.
Engaging the audience at length between songs, she explained almost every one of them. Nature was a common theme, as was the ongoing population shift from rural areas to the cities;. Kalkun also sang a couple of love ballads that gave her a chance to air out a surprisingly powerufl low register, considering how airy and lilting most of the rest of the music on the bill was.
Her most energetic song was a sardonic post World War II tune about the Forest Brothers, the freedom fighters who’d managed to escape the Nazis by building underground bunkers deep in the woods – and then had to remain there to escape being captured by the next bunch of invaders, the Soviets. An impressive number of Estonian speakers in the crowd recognized the traditional numbers on the bill and sang along.
Toward the end of the show, Kalkun broke out her loop pedal and became a one-woman choir, interpolating an increasingly complex, rhythmically challenging series of layers. She sang the last of her encores a-cappella, walking through the auditorium and getting the audience to join her.
Kalkun’s next show, a duo set with Aleksandra Kremenetski, is back in her home country at the Writers House Festival in Talinn on May 25 at 9 PM. Scandinavia House, less than five blocks south of Grand Central on Park Avenue, has very diverse programming, with music, film and exhibits representing artists from across the Nordic countries. The next concert there is June 20 at 7:30 PM with Icelandic jazz bassist Sigmar Matthíasson and Arora – cover is $15