Liisi Koikson: ‘Sometimes I cry alone. Secretly. I think all people cry in secret.’ (Photo: Elmo Riig)

Liisi Koikson: The People’s Favorite
By David McGee

Born April 6, 1983 in Kilingi-Nõmme, Estonia, Liisi Koikson is one of her country’s most beloved traditional folk artists, if not the most beloved. The icy cool, breathy sensuality of her voice, however, has been used in service to other styles, and so her discography shows a mixed bag of investigations into jazz and, on her 2002 English language album, The Gemini Diaries, electro-pop (her least convincing performances, by the way); unsurprisingly, then, she has performed with everything from solo guitarists to small combos to orchestras. She can sing it soft and tender, and break your heart; or she can soar and belt in a triumphant tour de force of vocal brio. An alluring presence, beautiful, self-assured and self-contained, Ms. Koikson is in her youth a woman of mystery in the classic style of the young Catherine Deneuve, minus the latter’s high society embrace (she embraced it, it embraced her—and why not?). What we do know of Ms. Koikson is that she is a straight shooting Estonian lass who disdains the night life, prefers to stay home and knit, and has a melancholy streak she nourishes with the music of Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Diana Krall.

“You must always listen to sad music, because the mood is good—the next day,” she told journalist Madis Jürgen in a 2006 interview. In that same interview she added: “Sometimes I cry alone. Secretly. I think all people cry in secret.”

On her social life: “I'm not a ööinimene. I do not go to nightclubs.

“Why can’t I go to discos in the evening? I do not understand it, klubimuusikast! I’m very rarely at those places. I'm at home, reading or doing crafts—crocheting and knitting. At school I absolutely did not like to knit. Today I crocheted curtains for the home kitchen.”

Liisi Koikson and Marko Matvere, ‘Tuulevaaksel Ööl.’ Matvere is one of Estonia’s most famous and highest paid stage and film actors, appearing in musicals and dramas both, and since 1989 has been a member of ‘Väikeste lõõtspillide ühing’ (‘Association of Little Accordions’).

She has endeared herself to her fellow Estonians by being a simple, down-home gal, and not least of all by singing winsome, heartfelt songs of love and longing, songs celebrating the beauty of her native land and exploring the ways of the heart in a variety of musical contexts, blending her native styles with Spanish-inflected arrangements, for example, or sparkling, Brill Building-style pop, or elegant, classic pop from a time and place decades before her birth, from Jazz Age cabarets and nightclubs far from her homeland, as in her evocative duet with Mart Sander on “Veel viivuks jaaa,” the duo’s tribute to Raimond Valgre, a giant of Estonian music who in his brief life—he was only 36 when he died in an accident in 1949—produced songs still cherished by his countrymen of all ages. Ms. Koikson’s devoted following has been a work in progress since she made her first TV appearance at the age of eight, followed over the years by starring roles in stage musicals such as Evita, The Sound of Music, Grease, Jesus Christ Superstar, Miss Saigon, Aida and Georg. In 2006 she was honored as Best Female Artist in the Estonian pop music contest “Kuldne Plaat.”

Liisi Koikson and Mart Sander pay tribute to the beloved Estonian musician/composer Raimond Valgre on ‘Veel viivuks jaaa’

Ms. Koikson is not alone in bringing Estonian music out of the Balkans into the larger world beyond. The country has a flourishing jazz scene—featuring a legit contender to Ms. Kloikson’s throne as the People’s Favorite in the impressive vocalist Tuuli Taul—and a globally respected jazz festival, Jazzkaar, that has been called “one of the must-see events on the European jazz calendar” by Stuart Nicholson, writing for The blog on May 20, 2008 (, following that year’s event.

Ms. Kloikson, Ms. Taul, and all their contemporaries stand for something more than their music’s ever-expanding reach. Reflecting a country with a colorful history, wacky traditions (see the wife-carry feature here) and enormous pride in the progress it has made since declaring independence from the former Soviet Union on August 20, 1991, these artists’ music, collectively, is the sound of go-go Estonia commanding a seat at the global table. Thus the greater meaning of Jazzkaar, as per Mr. Nicholson:

Any Estonian over the age of thirty has a clear memory of what life was like before their country declared independence from the former Soviet Union on August 20, 1991. “Gray,” they say with a shrug. “It was gray, lots of waiting in lines.” For many, keeping up with Western culture, including jazz, was a matter of tuning into Finnish radio and TV—the Estonian language and the Finnish language have many characteristics in common, and Finland is only a 90 minute trip across the Baltic by fast boat.

Estonia is a proud and independent country that was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, occupied by the Nazis in 1941, only to be taken over again by the Soviet Union in 1944—a period that cost them 25 percent of their population. Their history goes back to 8500 BC when a settlement that eventually became Estonia was formed immediately after the Ice Age.

But despite foreign occupation, which in earlier times included annexation by the Danes and the Swedes, this small Baltic country (population 1.3 million) has fiercely maintained its cultural traditions. Their runic folk tradition predates the Vikings and it was highly symbolic that Soviet rule was ended by the “Singing Revolution,” a mass demonstration by the Estonian population singing their national folk songs.

On August 18, 2008, more than 70,000 people gathered at the Tallinn Song Festival Ground for Öölaulupidu’ (‘Cast Off Our Shackles’), Estonia’s 90th Anniversary retrospective concert that featured 132 choirs and anyone who was anyone in Estonian music. Liisi Koikson was among the featured artists helping celebrate the most important events in the country’s history.

Since independence, stories of what a beautiful country this was began to circulate as the effects of cheap air travel began to be felt. Up until then, I had a picture in my mind’s eye of, well, a country with blizzards swirling down from the north, “gray” concrete apartment blocks and its citizenry wrapped up in trench coats, huddled around braziers for warmth, much like Napoleon’s troops during the retreat from Moscow in 1812.

Such fanciful preconceptions are quickly dashed when you arrive at Tallinn airport. Estonia is one of the world’s fastest growing economies, and signs of prosperity are everywhere. A member of the European Union and NATO since 2004, Estonia quickly adapted to the new technologies and its new economic freedom has seen living standards skyrocket.

Tallinn is home of the Jazzkaar Festival, one of the must-see events on the European jazz calendar, held annually in the brilliant spring sunshine. It began nineteen years ago under Russian occupation, a remarkable feat that’s down to its indefatigable director Anne Erm, who has steered the event into one of the most important cultural events in Estonia and the biggest jazz festival in the Baltic States.

Concluding his report on the festival, Mr. Nicholson nailed the salient point about all the wondrous music and celebration he had witnessed over the Festival’s 12-day duration:

Democracy and freedom have been grasped with both hands by Estonia. In 1992, people stood in lines for hours to buy food. Bread and milk products were rationed. Yet with shrewd financial management Estonia has become the first former communist country to rise to the status of a "free" economy in the annual Index of Economic Freedom, published by The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal.

This remarkable success story is echoed by Jazzkaar, which has played a significant role in raising the profile of Estonian art and culture across Europe. In the West it is easy to overlook the ways in which jazz has become synonymous with freedom in countries beyond our borders. But talking to young audiences at the Jazzkaar festival left one in no doubt about what the music means to them and how it is still a potent musical force in the world.

Which brings us back to the compelling Liisi Koikson, who poetically evoked the tensions of a country coming of age by metaphorically articulating them in the lyrics of a lovely, gentle shuffle of introspective musing titled “Sinu hääl” (“Your Voice”), one of her most popular songs:

We welcome you -
I wish you -

Do you hear me?
do you hear me?

There are morning
Is there morning

or in the evening the winds?
Or night-winds?

How is the weather - hot?
How is the weather - hot?

Here in the rain.
It is raining here.

Here in the apples ripen.
Apples are mellowing.

I wish You good sense.
I wish you well in my constituency.

Another left a few lines.
Still there are some lines left.

If only I could walk along the water.
I could walk in the middle of water.

Why is it so hard you have to say that ...
Why is it so hard to tell you that ...

We welcome you -
I wish you -

Do you hear me?
do you hear me?

There are mornings?
Is there morning?

or in the evening the winds

Liisi Koikson, ‘Sinu hääl’ (‘Your Voice’), metaphorically articulating the tensions of a country coming of age

Liisi Koikson’s discography includes:
The Gemini Diaries (2002)
Liisi Koikson (2003)
Maailma Kaunimad Jõululaulud (The World’s Most Beautiful Christmas Songs) (2003)
Väike Järv (Small Lake) (2005)
Väikeste Asjade Võlu (The Magic of Little Things) (2007)
She also appears on Crosshatched with Manfred Bruendi’s Silent Bass (2008)

Domestically, The Gemini Diaries and Crosshatched are available at


In Wife-Carrying, Estonia Is A Dynasty
(Beer Here!)

A relic of 19th Century Finland, where it was common practice to steal women from neighboring villages, the “sport” of wife carrying has been perfected to the nth degree by Estonians, who rule the annual competitions much as the Yankees of the ‘50s ruled baseball, or as Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls or Bill Russell’s Celtics once ruled the NBA, as Otto Graham’s Cleveland Browns ruled the old American Football Conference. Yes, you have to dig into history for the proper comparisons to Estonian dominance in wife carrying, in which the participants have to cross a pool and numerous  hurdles. Estonian Margo Uusorg is the Jordan of his time, having won five world championships, retiring after 2006, then unretiring to compete again with a “rather heavily built Julia Galvin from Ireland” on his back (this according to Sky News HD’s account, published on July 8, 2007), but finishing far back in the pack, in 29th place. A published report of his 2000 win had experts ascribing his success in hauling Birgit Ulrich to glory as the product of “technique—carrying her upside down, leaving both hands free—and her light weight of only 33.2 kilos.” Margo’s only serious challenge in that 2000 contest came from South Korean sumo wrestler Hwang Sunmi, who attempted a daring hands-free technique to carry partner Kwang Duk through the 250 meter course. Sunmi’s strength, however, “was no match for the combination of technique and speed employed by the Estonians, whose teams came in first and second.” Competitors from eight countries participated in the competition at Sonkajarvi in central Finland.

In 2007 Margo’s brother Madis emerged victorious as Estonia took gold and silver in the 12th world wife-carrying championships, with 44 couples from 12 countries defying rain, hurdles and near-total exhaustion in negotiating the daunting 250 meters. Sky News HD reported Madis’s first place time as being 61.7 seconds, despite having Inga Klauson on his back upside-down with her legs around his neck.”

And what exactly do the winners receive for their triumph? Well, you can’t make this up: the champ wins his partner’s weight in beer. Yes, beer. Oh, Madis also received a plasma TV in recognition of his 2007 conquest.

The Sky News HD report cited above also made note of the participation of a Helsinki-based Briton named John Keerie. Seems Mr. Keerie came dressed as a convict, and lugged his wife Aino Telaranta-Keerie to a 19th place finish.

“I drowned in that pool,” Keerie told a reporter, “but at least my wig is still in place.

“Now for beer!”

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