See our photos from our time in Tallinn here

"Artists are the antennae of the race"

Were the words ringing round my ear at 10am on Friday morning in downtown Tallinn. The words are coming from the President of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who is quoting American poet Ezra Pound. Very much hungover and sleep deprived from last night's pre-opener to Tallinn Music Week, and wired full of breakfast coffee and champagne that was being served; red and sweating profusely from most parts of my body (why the lower back has a need to sweat to waterfall status I'll never know), with my thumbs looking thoroughly weird.

Ilves may approve of my state of being as he is often dubbed as the first "rock and roll president" we have been informed, and as the man resembling a portly Woody Allen officially opens the festival with his confident and highly relaxed speech alongside an Americanised dialect (residing in New Jersey for many years) it's clear to see why he's deserving of this moniker. He knew of Bruce Springsteen before he even released an album. He taught a class on the history of rock and roll in the late '70s. He quotes Ezra Pound in speeches for Godssakes. He's the equivalent of The West Wing's President Bartlett - instead his nerdiness showcased in niche cultural and art references instead of US Historical references.

This is the PRESIDENT of Estonia. I love him. #portlywoodyallen #tallinnmusicweek

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Charm and an earnest coolness aside, Ilves makes pertinent points on Estonia and what we are all doing here for the seventh edition of TMW. 24 years after the fall of the Iron curtain, Estonia is arguably the most progressive nation to have emerged from the old Eastern Bloc; LGBT rights in ascendency (though the irony of Tallinn's two gay bars being located on a road called Sauna Street I think was an accidental move), and an economy and culture wired around digital culture - this proves very much true while walking around anywhere in Tallinn over the few days. Wifi on tap everywhere; minibuses, cat cafes - you name it. Lightyears ahead of neighbours Russia and their backwards take on LGBT rights and unilateral worldview. I find it fascinating the two countries take on the "digital". Estonia dubbed "E-stonia" and economy built on this culture, in terms of the spread of a free and equal society. Russia using some increasingly nebulous tactics in cyber terrorism: go and read any Guardian article critiquing Russia. Any youtube video. Look at the comments. See a pattern? The DNS attacks on these articles - and on Estonia itself (the country's computers crashing en masse in 2007 with very likely Kremlin involvement) is a deeply disturbing trait also.

Our quote on artist's sensing things before the rest of wider society from Ezra Pound is a hugely prescient statement for any culture, but very much true of TMW: the festival showcasing the strong "digital" side of Estonia, forward-thinking musical concepts, and a whole host of talks on feminism and the myth of the term "Eastern" Europe (the debate being we should be one Europe) - without falling under the trap of debates consisting of purely crusty 40-something white men (Music industry festivals in the UK: do take note. You know who you are you irrepressibly dull patriarchal shits).

The festival is your classic city-based vibe that mainland Europe can do so well, shows taking place at anywhere that an oboe, dijaridoo or floor tom can be crammed into. Some case and points: the rather resplendent Kino Sõprus, Estonia's oldest movie theatre where UK act All We Are really nailed an oh-so smooth 40 minutes of tight electronic noise - made all the more enjoyable by stowing away beer in the cup holder from the safety of my cushioned cinema seat.

How about a show in someone's house? In the old town of the city I had a surreal and pleasant experience where I was welcomed into someone's home after strolling through the picturesque winding medieval streets in the old town - punters taking off their shoes in the hallway, tip-toeing through the piles of footwear and being ushered into the living room where teas, coffees and snacks were on offer. I parked myself in the armchair and was taken aback by Estonian-based Ruut performing an acoustic set featuring an accordion, melodica and an a cappella barbershop-quartet deal. Beautiful, utterly charming.

This is where the festival is at its very best - the line-up is rammed full of names you will not have heard of and with little context. Go explore, dive in - much the same approach I took to the city itself. The other side of the railway tracks is an area that resembles Hackney Wick, full of warehouses, pop-up food places (shout out to the pop-up stall called Foody Allen) and markets in a very much off the beaten track kind of feel. And of course there are a multitude of gigs on here over the few days.

Other such idiosyncratic wonders included the Classical Rave hosted at a renovated 100-year-old power plant, with an industrial interior that screamed half-Bond chase scene and half contemporary art installation. Icelandic Bedroom Community hero Valgeir Sigurðsson was doing his DJ stuff when I was present, though a heavy night previous and incredibly long queues curtailed my experience here somewhat. Think of a V&A Late and you're on the right tracks.

The star of TMW is of course Tallinn itself. Its history is inescapable - obviously the aforementioned old town is ludicrously romantic, winding castle walls and scenic views from the castle untouched in hundreds of years. Directly out of the hotel however is a 23-floor brutalist hotel built under order from Moscow in 1970 - the top floor operating as KGB offices back in the day. The tour there was most enlightening, how the KGB would spy on guests using various pieces of crockery (on show here), and how the viewing platform and windows from the top floor were closed off, so that foreign spies couldn't get a good look on all the places in Tallinn to bomb.

Much KGB

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Inevitably the highlight was a trip to Cat Café Nurri. How could it not be? I went during the "Happy Hour" and was surprised by the utter relaxation of the environment (one of the rules being "do not yell at the cats"), spacious nature, and healthy food stuffs on offer. None of this waiting for weeks a la Lady Dinah's Cat Emporium in London - here I turned-up on the fly and welcomed with open arms, and subsequently had long chats with the worker who informed me of the history of the cat cafe (you used to be able to adopt and take the cats home), and the various power struggles between the felines. Oh and the cats were seriously cute, affectionate and on FORM. Two of them having a go on the "cat wheel" there. Apparently this never happens, so I can only assume that they were putting on a show to impress me. The flirts. Other cultural points to make from my trip: Tinder not so good, Grindr better - to the point of being offered money for sex. I opted for a (solo) luxury late-night bath instead.


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In terms of music - yeah this is why I ended up in Tallinn after all - Danish ensemble Lowly were most certainly one of those acts that I took away from the festival to inform all about on my return, who dazzled at a Danish showcase on the opening night. Full of poppy fizz and exuberant layers of noise, they're classically Scandinavian in many ways yet also with their eyes firmly set to something more grandiose, ready to pierce the mainstream. Fellow Scandi-types Kate Boy on the final eve were a fantastic way to see out the festival - all out stageshow pop designed to get body parts moving. Fun fun fun. Also a special shout out is required for Onogana. Their bio reads "Explosive party with live instruments. 1 Drum set, 2 Didgeridoos and all of you." That's exactly what we got - a riotous and bizarre mash-up of genres that has to be experience live to be understood. Catch them live at bush parties and clubs all over Israel, guys. See here.

Straight-up: the purpose of my invite there was an effort to persuade you to visit Tallinn Music Week or at the very least Tallinn itself. To plant that seed. For you to tell your friends maybe. I'd like to be belligerent and not fall into this trap, but I can't. Tallinn is a compelling place to visit. It's old Europe, it's progressive Europe. It's Scandinavian in tone, yet it's not. The shackles of the iron curtain have been discarded, fully embracing the modern yet with the rich history of the place unavoidable. The festival itself mirrors the city in many ways: exciting, multifarious and somewhat mysterious, full of those undiscovered gems. I'm going to go back to our old friend Ezra Pound to see us out:

"If a patron buys from an artist who needs money, the patron then makes himself equal to the artist; he is building art into the world; he creates."

Basically go visit Tallinn Music Week yes? Also: yes the beer is cheap. Very cheap.