TALLINN - "I walked into a room, and it was empty except for a man playing a contra-bass," says an Estonian violinist, her face alive with the memory of the moment. "I just pulled out my violin and started playing with him. In under an hour, the room was full of instruments 's accordions, guitars, flutes 's and we all jammed together. It was like that for a whole week."
And so it goes in Viljandi, the tiny Estonian town that once a year becomes a musical mecca. The town sits quietly in central Estonia, peacefully contemplating its lakeside existence. Each July the silence is broken by two weeks of unstoppable noise as the Viljandi Folk Festival breaks loose in the town.
Estonia might be over-run by festivals each summer, but none is more widely anticipated than Viljandi. For months the music-loving community has awaited its launch, trading stories of past events, recalling moments shared and songs heard.
It has been that way for over 10 years now, since a group of art students launched the event on the back of their own inspiration and sweat.
"We started it in 1993, and it was really small," says Ando Kiviberg, the man who founded the event. He was just a music student at the Viljandi Culture Academy when he organized the first bash.
"It was only for one day, at the song festival grounds of Viljandi. There were several artists from Estonia, and just one musician from abroad, and even he was an Estonian born overseas. It was not a remarkable event at all."
Things changed in 1995. "We started a three-day event, and we had several venues. I think the reason it became so popular was because it was the only folk festival in Estonia. Now we have a couple more. We were lucky to find the good spirit of the town, and its very friendly atmosphere."
Concerts are held in venues throughout the town 's in the halls, theaters and parks. Participants stroll about, taking in the atmosphere of the town on their way from one gig to another.
This open-air approach has spawned two entirely different breeds of Viljandi-goers 's those with tickets, and those without. Those without are mostly student-types or bohemian drifters. They travel to Viljandi not for the organized music, but for the spontaneous unplanned sideshows that erupt in the streets and the campgrounds.
"I've never bought a ticket," says one Viljandi regular. "There is enough going on in the camp and parks that you don't need to."
As much as they would like people to pay and support the event, the organizers seem to have recognized that the low-budget approach to Viljandi isn't going away. They have scheduled several free events to allow everyone to participate, including a free stage where street performers can put on their shows.
"It is possible for everyone to go and enjoy the festival, but we would appreciate people buying tickets," Kiviberg says. Still, Kiviberg, who plays traditional Estonian bagpipes, admits that the spontaneous jam sessions are the best part of the festival.
"I really like it when the official concerts are over for the day, and the musicians come together in the festival park, and they play music and learn tunes from each other while improvising. That's what I like to do also," he says.
In the week leading up to the folk festival, a hoard of young musicians gather in the town for a music camp known as ETNO, which is even more vibrant than the festival itself.
For a week, the young artists learn from each other and from teachers who travel from around the world to impart their skills.
"They are the best teachers we can find for folk music. The students learn tunes, and then they arrange them and during the festival they perform them as a band."
This year, the theme for Viljandi is accordion music. Accordions come in all forms 's piano, push-button, diatonic, concertina, and karmoshka, all of which will be featured in concerts and workshops across the four days of the official festival schedule.
In all, more than 300 performers will play during Viljandi, a quarter of them from outside the country.
For those traveling from Tallinn, the atmosphere will start as soon as they set foot on the Folk Festival Train, which will run express to Viljandi on July 20, and return on July 23. A train full of enthusiasm on the forward journey, loaded with stories and memories back.
More information: www.folk.ee/2006