Puuluup Viimane Suusataja
Review and photos by Andrew Cronshaw
Two Estonians appear in dark suits and white shirts without ties. One looks like a doctor or lawyer, the other a renegade rocker. But it’s what’s in their hands that completes the picture and makes it unusual: each has a hiiu-kannel, the Estonian variant of the Baltic bowed lyre, close kin to Finland’s jouhikko and also known as talharpa, tagelharpa or in Swedish stråkharpa.
All versions have three or four strings, traditionally of twisted horsehair, activated with a small arched bow or plucked pizzicato. The melody is played on the top one or two strings, stopped in mid-air with the finger-joints of the non-bowing hand which passes through the hole in the instrument. The remaining strings provide a drone. And it’s those two hiiu-kannels, looped and processed, that provide the source of all Puuluup’s instrumentation.
The duo – Ramo Teder (hiiu-kannel, vocal, looper, effects) and Marko Veisson (hiiu-kannel, vocal, effects) – are cunningly palindromically named Puuluup; ‘puu’ is Estonian and Finnish for tree or wood, and ‘luup’ is a fortuitous re-spelling of the English loop.
This, their second album, has been doing well in the world-music charts, and it’s easy to see why, and how a track would fit well into a radio program. But really to get the full package and charm they need to be seen. When I did, at Estonia’s Viljandi festival in 2019, their sets of danceable grooves in songs with surreal lyrics, wittily presented and, among other things, featuring an entertaining synchronised bow-flourish at the end of numbers, were crowd-surfingly, enthusiastically received, and since then, despite at least one daunting travel setback (or rather, sent-back, from half-way around the world), they are becoming a successful export.
But this is a review of a CD, not a gig, so what do we get? A pack, all drawn and scratchily handwritten by Teder, that well matches their wit and quirkiness. And on the pink CD within?
"Viimane Suusataja" (excerpt)
The opener is an ominous, dark chant of multiple voices over a slow plucked looping pulse. Staying slow-pulsed, the title track, “Viimane Suusataja” (‘Last skier’), in conjunction with the gruff vocals, reminds one a little of the German band Trio’s memorable 1982 UK hit “Da Da Da.” Then it is on into faster plucking, and slithery bowing, with the hiiu-kannels looped and their octave-down harmonised plucking providing taut bass-lines.
They head onward through a kind-of-ska rhythm in “Uksindus” (‘Loneliness’) and “Kohtumispaik On Muudetud” (‘Venue changed’) with its recitative lyrics over swung reggae-ishness. All the songs are in Estonian, except for “TV On The Street” which moves between Estonian and English, the title forming a refrain. Most tracks have a rock-steady 4/4 beat and so, it has to be said, a certain similarity alongside their inventiveness and overall unusualness. But taken individually they’re all appealing.
The closer “Tsuiis Demiis” has a nice spaceyeness. (When asked about the title, Marko replied, "Well, it should definitely be a phrase but it does not have a precise meaning. It is a phrase from the language that is not spoken yet - or anymore?") But I suspect the most-played track might be the penultimate one, the swinging, distinctly Caribbean “Lambad Ei Joo” (‘Sheep don’t drink’).