Estonian Charm Offensive

It’s official, friends. Music festival season is here.

In lab terms, music festivals are now almost TNTC. (Too numerous to count.) But just to name a few, let’s start with Bonaroo! Because I don’t know about you, but once I start saying it, I can’t stop! Bonaroo, Bonaroo, Bonaroo! I wanna howl it at the Bonamoon.

It also happens to be a real word in Creole that means a really good time. Between the festival’s green initiatives like the Refill Revolution and the Vonnegut-sounding names for locations within the venue…

 What Stage

Which Stage

This Tent

That Tent

And the Other Tent

I could be totally down for a trip to Tennessee. Never thought you’d hear me say those words, did ya?

Then we’ve got Coachella… with her precious flower crowns, nipple-baring macramé, and Hollywood ingénues attempting to blend in to the crowd. (Pay no attention to the supersized sunglasses.)


Marisa Tomei, My Cousin Vinny.

Oh my, and the technical difficulties! Poor, poor Radiohead. Any artist offering their music for whatever fans can pay just does not deserve what happened to them a few weeks ago at this year’s Coachella. It’s a bit of a disgrace. And don’t forget the time Coachella cut Arcade Fire’s set short forcing Win Butler to grab a bullhorn, jump down into the crowd to finish the song, and stir up the world’s longest mambo line of fans behind him. And what about Andre 3000’s 20th anniversary show in 2014 when the power was cut to the mics, too! Is this what the parents of millenials are paying up to $900 for?

If you’re more down for a European vacay this summer you can head across the pond to Glastonbury June 21. With its wellie-clad supermodels trudging through more mud than Woodstock, and a bunch of Liam and Noel Gallagher-looking blokes fresh in from their pilgrimage to Stonehenge, it’s a bloody good time and place to ring in the Summer Solstice while checking out Katy Perry, Barry Gibb, and Radiohead sans the technical problems.


Not Actual Supermodels

Glastonbury is five days of not just music — but also, dance, comedy, theatre, cabaret, and because they’re Brits… circus?? Personally, I would go for The Healing Fields of Glastonbury alone, hold the juggling monkeys.

Then of course there’s Outside Lands, the Bay Area’s answer to the dry heat of Coachella and the humidity of Lallapolooza. Held in Golden Gate Park, imagine a foresty diorama filled with cabalistic creatures, palm readers, and freezing cold teenagers too young to know the Mark Twain quote:

The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.


This is one I’m gonna guess you’ve never heard of.

Estonia has a tradition of gigantic song festivals dating back to 1869 featuring 20,000-30,000 singers. Music is woven in the fabric and fiber of Estonian life. The Atlantic going so far as to call it, “a country created by music.”

What is known as The Singing Revolution refers to the events that occurred between 1987–1991 that helped usher in an end to decades of Soviet occupation. Music was the Estonian people’s weapon of choice in this peaceful struggle for independence.


As one of the oldest inhabited lands in the world, (going back 5,000 years – with some estimates putting it closer to 12,000 years), Estonia was on their own for a very long time. Right up until 1208 when Pope “Innocent” III decided to send a crusade to convert the pagans. After a 20-year war, the Estonians were defeated. Then from 1228-1918, they were continuously occupied by one country another (Sweden, Poland, Czarist Russia, the Soviet Union). Finally, they won their independence on February 24, 1918, which was followed by twenty years of prosperity.

But this was not to last. In 1939 Stalin came in and took over Estonia. They were terrorized by Stalin, then Hitler, and then Stalin again, and for 50 years were part of the Soviet Union. Then in 1986, Gorbachev came in promoting perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (freedom of speech), but this kind of change did not happen overnight and the old guard police were constantly having to reinterpret how to deal with the new freedoms under Gorbachev.

During the ‘white nights’ of June 1988, Estonians gathered to sing patriotic songs that were once forbidden under Soviet rule — not so much in defiance, but in a spirit of pride and joy. After many hours, the police decided that the festival had gone on long enough and tried to break it up and send people home.

But instead the people walked 3 miles to an open field and continued singing throughout the night. From there, it grew every night for 5 nights until their numbers reached 150,000 people singing in a field. How do you arrest 150,000 people? With the largest collection of folk songs in the world, they were prepared to be there for a while.

Somehow I’ve gone my whole forty-something years without ever having met an Estonian. That changed last year when I met bass player Mai Agan who was at my home recording music for the upcoming David Crosby album. I walked in the front door and found her sitting at the dining room table, one of her delicate arms inked with a large angel. I told her how my own daughter called my bluff and went ahead with several tattoos, even though I threatened to stop paying her college tuition if she did.

I asked Mai about the angel on her arm and she lovingly told the story of how each feather represents someone in her family and that whenever she looks at the angel she feels closer to them no matter how far away she may be. At this point, I felt like a big jerk for having such a reactionary feeling about my own kid and her ink — which now includes one wrapped around one side of her torso with some of Grampma Croz’s lyrics…

We have all been here before.

A few months later, said tattooed daughter and I went to Sunset Sound to hear some of the final mixes of the upcoming Crosby album, Sky Trails. (Stellar!!) Mai contributed the gorgeous track Here It’s Almost Sunset for the record and I’m sure she would have loved to be there. But it seems that she was kind of with us in spirit…

You see, we headed to Wood & Vine in Hollywood, and there we were greeted by an Estonian waitress. (The odds are a little crazy when you consider that there are about 1.3 million people in Estonia and about 4 million just in Los Angeles.) She recognized Croz who was really excited to tell her about Mai. But it was this girl who dropped the mic when she said, “Did you know that Estonians fended off the Russians by singing??”

She lit up as she told us the Reader’s Digest version of the story. I couldn’t help but be bombarded with Les Miserables imagery of these people singing for their liberation. It got me thinking: If a tiny country like Estonia can pull off a peaceful revolution to win their independence from Russia, think of what else is possible when done in this spirit. An editorial in an Estonian newspaper said it best:

A nation who makes its revolution by singing and smiling is a sublime example to the world.


With a husband on the road from time to time, I become a groupie once in a while and follow him around on tour, which is always an adventure. Last week I went to Portland to hang out with him on his day off, see the show there, and meet up with my Pops and his wife who just moved to Oregon.

Riding on the tour bus with the band to the venue, James’s little brother Django Crosby spotted a piano store across from the Aladdin Theatre. Then another one. And another. It was a virtual piano row. How serendipitous for my piano playing husband and the other new member of the band, Michelle Willis, who plays keys and sings like a whole chorus of angels.

We poured out of the bus to rush this storefront only to find it all locked up. We knocked on doors and peeked through windows, hoping to find someone inside. Around back was a workshop with a couple of Portlanders working on piano hammers with their resident Jack Russell Terrier, contentedly sitting on the sidewalk in the rain. These guys pointed us in the right direction finally where we were greeted by the lovely Peggie Zackery, manager of Classic Pianos of Portland.

With her cherubic smile, Peggie surmised pretty quickly that she had a couple heavyweights on her hands in James and Michelle. Yup, this was one third of the band playing the Aladdin that night. She didn’t have to offer twice before James and Michelle got down to business. There were rooms upon rooms upon rooms packed tightly with pianos. It turns out, Classic Pianos is one big giant store comprised of many buildings. Once Peggie got a little sampling of James and Michelle’s playing, she led us to the most special room of all — the space that housed the Yamaha C9 — the nine foot concert grand piano that both James and Michelle got to lay hands on. The resonance, the brightness, and the richness of this sound was like nothing I’d ever heard before. So that’s what a $130,000 piano sounds like!

As Croz, Peggie, and I were being treated to an impromptu concert of double pianos playing the fat chords of The Doobie Brothers Minute by Minute, I was already streaming tears of joy when I looked around and my gaze landed on a ESTONIA piano. Really?!?! Where the heck was Mai? (She told me later she was napping on the bus. Smart girl.)

But I mean, shit! I’d been putting a lot of pressure on myself to finish this piece so that I could publish it before I left on this trip. Then I find out that the reason I couldn’t was that there was more to discover. I believe this is what is meant by a story taking on a life of its own. Revelations need time to unfold.

As Peggie started telling me about these extraordinary ESTONIA pianos, I asked if she’d ever heard of The Singing Revolution. Since she hadn’t, I shared with her what I was writing about and she was just as moved by it as I have been.

Then she tells me that their resident piano finisher, Arno Arrak, is Estonian as well. He is a master who brings his artistry to repairing and refinishing pianos — including one that fell off a truck and when Arno was finished with it, it was better than new. Peggie suggested that I talk to Arno to find out how he feels about his country’s incredible legacy of music preserving their culture and The Singing Revolution. I can’t begin to describe the sensation that came over me. Why is coincidence even a word?


Michelle Willis, Classic Pianos, Portland.

Back in Los Angeles, I reached out to Arno and learned about his own involvement with the movement. He told me that in 1987, he risked imprisonment when he printed postcards with the Estonian flag on them, which was forbidden at the time. In 1989, in resistance to the Soviet occupation, Arno emigrated to Sweden to become an artist and printmaker.


Arno Arrak — Painter,printmaker, piano refinishing miracle worker.

“While I paint I often listen to music. Vibration and rhythm directly influences the sensitive watercolor medium. I wish that in my painting I can create the window of inner peace and healing.”                                                                                             – Arno Arrak

Arno travels back to Estonia often to exhibit his paintings and be a part of the rich culture and art scene. His work is represented in numerous galleries and is a part of both public and private collections around the world.

And back to that badass, Mai — who just completed her thesis for Stockholm University via David Crosby’s tour bus somewhere between Boulder and Dallas…

“I was about 4 or 5 years old when I started going to the song festivals with my parents, at first just to listen and later on as I started school – as a singer – many, many times. What an incredible feeling to be on stage and sing national songs for our country and for the freedom of our spirit with 20,000-30,000 other singers, and around 100,000 people in the audience. These festivals connect our people to a depth that is hard to describe. In 1870, Estonian folklorist and linguist Jakob Hurt said that if we, Estonians, cannot be great in population, we have to become great in spirit! Perhaps that is something that has been carrying us through the darkest days. Even though I was too little to take part in the Singing Revolution or the Baltic chain (2 million people holding hands and creating a human chain from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for around 420 miles), I have so many musician friends who wrote the patriotic songs that were sung during the Revolution. Songs that we still love to sing! I believe that love is the greatest weapon in the world, not because I’m naive, but because I’ve tried everything else. In that case, the love that we had for our country, won over the Soviet regime. My roots are extremely important to me and I am really proud to be an Estonian, and furthermore, an Islander.”

To learn more, watch the documentary The Singing Revolution.