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3 Times When Estonia Has Made a “Cameo” in English Language Media

Hearing things about Estonia in English language films, TV shows, music, and books is an infrequent thing. Have you ever noticed those subtle verbal mentions or characters attributed with Estonian nationality?

Detail from The Adventures of Tintin comic book, "The Red Sea Sharks"

Often, it’s used arbitrarily as the butt of a joke, with seemingly little knowledge of the country or the language. Much like how Canada is referred to in US media, in fact. But then, there are also earnest, intricate connections to be found. Regardless, here are three examples of Estonia or an Estonian being featured in English language media.

1) “Cause” by Rodriguez: The story of American folk musician Sixto Rodriguez is itself like a detective’s case. As unveiled in Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary Searching for Sugar Man, the singer-songwriter started his career in Detroit, Michigan in 1967, releasing two albums: Cold Fact in 1970, and Coming from Reality in 1971. Due to the limited sales of his albums, he was dropped from his record label, ended his musical profession, and became a construction worker. While his notoriety was limited in the United States, the popularity of his music exploded abroad, most notably in South Africa. Information about Rodriguez was limited, but in the late 90s, South African fans tried to search for and reconnect with him, leading to a big tour there.

The Estonian connection comes from his second album, where he sings about how “My Estonian Archangel came and got me wasted” after Rodriguez lost his job two weeks before Christmas. An extensive ERR report looked into the fascinating origins of Rodriguez’s friendship with his Estonian friend. This “Archangel” was a man by the name of Heikki Kansa, a väliseestlane who was born in Viljandi in 1943 and who was brought to the US after the Second World War when his parents fled Estonia. Based on information provided by Kansa’s family and friends, he was known to be a spontaneous spirit. He obtained a PhD in math and taught at the university level, then grew his hair long and left it all to ride motorcycles and live the Hippie life, before finally working as a logger in his later years. It’s surmised that Kansa met Rodriguez through the latter’s performances in Detroit or through their mutual friends in the Hippie community. The value of this friendship was also injected into another song of Rodriguez’s, called “Heikki’s Suburbia Bus Tour.” The song is based on a true story, where folks from outside of Detroit would take bus tours downtown to gawk at people living in financial hardship and also Hippies. When one visitor made fun of Kansa, Rodriguez came up with the idea to charter a bus with Heikki and their friends, drink copious amounts of wine, and take a tour of the suburbs as a humorous retaliation.

Heikki passed away in 2010 after a battle with cancer, but his life and friendship lives on in these songs as an unexpected Estonian presence.

2) Crowded House’s music video for “Don’t Dream It’s Over”: Neil Flynn, the vocalist and lyricist of this Australian band, is known to make songs that are partially veiled and partially accessible for interpretation. The same goes for the video, with several oblique references to home addresses and momentous years of his life. Flynn walks through doors of living rooms and kitchens where band members are situated, and there is eager use of 80s-era video layering special effects. In the first room he walks into at the video’s 54 second mark, by a rotating movie projector there is a short, three-legged metal lamp with an emblem of a figure holding a tall flag and the word “Tallinn” on one side.

The figure on the side is Vana Toomas (“Old Thomas”), a legendary guardian of the city of Tallinn from the 1500s. Toomas was a boy who was skilled at archery and won a competition, but because he was a peasant, he couldn’t win the real prize and was given the role of guarding the town for the rest of his life. Indeed, he went on to serve his town to the very end, and the copper weather vane on Tallinn’s town hall was named after Toomas due to its resemblance to him, as In Your Pocket Guides’ information on Tallinn claims.

Closer investigation reveals that these lamps were designed in 1965 by artist Bruno Vesterberg and were manufactured for many years at the Estoplast factory in the Kitseküla subdistrict of Tallinn. No members of Crowded House appear to have family connections to Estonia, though. The song and music video are from 1986, which means the band, or video director Alex Proyas, must have obtained the lamp from someone who visited Estonia or who left after the 60s and prior to the regaining of independence. Even after all those miles and years, it was deemed useful for the video.

3) The Adventures of Tintin — The Red Sea Sharks (1958): As a kid reading this comic by Belgian cartoonist Hergé, I was puzzled by the appearance of an Estonian mercenary pilot by the name of Piotr Skut. It’s not the most accurately crafted character, as the surname “Skut” is likely to be found in Poland instead. It’s possible that Piotr is an Estonian of Russian background with a Polish father. But the name is mostly a set-up for a joke where Captain Haddock, one of the main characters, thinks he’s being rudely told to “scoot” over. In this comic, he’s an adversary at first, attempting to get rid of Tintin and Captain Haddock. Yet, when they shoot his plane down and then rescue him from the wild sea waves, he becomes their sidekick.

While I’m not sure if I should cheer, get excited, or laugh nervously, these little blips in an artistic production always catch my attention. I wonder if it’s a smaller population that makes a country susceptible to these kind of “cameos.” In the end, it’s a perplexing phenomenon that must indicate these writers’ desire to showcase their wit and knowledge of a less-frequented corner of Europe.

This article was written by Vincent Teetsov as part of the Local Journalism Initiative.

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