An Estonian Saga: The Long Road to Eesti Laul 2022!

In a typical Eurovision year, hype builds throughout November, in anticipation of the National Finals season kicking off in December in Albania – but not this year! Estonia has pipped Albania at the post for the honour of starting Eurovision 2022’s season! With this in mind, we thought it might be appropriate to look back at Estonia’s road to Eurovision and how they became the first former Soviet country to win the whole thing!

To be blunt – it was a rocky start for Estonia in Eurovision. Estonia entered, as did many other countries, in the early 1990s, as the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe allowed for a growing number of countries to join the Contest for the first time.

This influx proved too much for the European Broadcasting Union, so in 1993 the EBU created a preselection show to take place in Ljubljana with a catchy title – Kvalifikacija za Millstreet. Estonia was one of seven countries to take part, vying for one of three available spots at Eurovision 1993 in Millstreet, Ireland.

Janika Sillamaa was internally selected as the artist for Estonia’s debut. The programme Eurolaul was created to showcase eight of her songs, with a jury and telephone vote deciding which song to send to Ljubljana for the preselection show.

A slow ballad was declared Eurolaul’s winner, Muretut meelt ja südametuld (Worry-Free Mind and Heartflames). It was performed beautifully on the night in Ljubljana, but unfortunately it just wasn’t enough to impress the international judges. Estonia came up just shy of qualifying by only four points and would sit out Eurovision in 1993.

With the changing political map of Europe, Eurovision too had to adapt. The EBU decided that for the 1994 Contest in Dublin, the seven countries with the fewest points from 1993 would have to sit out the following year to make room for the new countries. This meant that Estonia was guaranteed a spot in the Grand Final. It also meant that Eurolaul was back, and bigger than ever!

Alright, it was only in its second year, but Eurolaul had expanded to include ten different artists, each singing their own song, of course. Silvi Vrait with her song Nagu merelaine (Like a Seawave) won the 1994 edition and had the honour of being Estonia’s first ever participant in a Eurovision Grand Final. Again, unfortunately it was a result Estonia might rather forget, only garnering two points (from Greece), and finishing in 24th place out of 25 countries in the Final.

Ivo Linna made his Eurolaul debut in 1994, finishing in third place with Elavad Pildid (Live Pictures). He would however go on to win Eurolaul two years later and represent Estonia in Oslo along with Maarja-Liis Ilus, which finished in 5th place with 106 points! (Maarja-Luis went back to Eurovision the next year and finished in a respectable eighth place.)

Yet in a strange way, Ivo also lost Eurolaul in 1996. He entered a second song (Lihtne viis [Simple melody]) with Kadi-Signe Selde which came in last place. Ivo went on to perform in the Estonian final four more times, most recently in 2021. His classical sounding song Ma olen siin (I am here) ended up in 11th place in the final.

The great result in 1996 meant that Estonia qualified automatically for the Grand Final in Dublin the following year. Between 1997 and 2002, Estonia finished in the Top 10 five times in that six-year span. It was precisely during this period that Estonia became the first former Soviet country to win the Contest with the upbeat Everybody by Tanel Padar, Dave Benton and 2XL. Estonia followed up on this success on home soil in 2002 when a young Sahlene achieved a third-place finish on home soil in Tallinn with the pop song Runaway.

The next six years would not be so kind to Estonia. From 2003 to 2008, only one Eurolaul winner made it to the Eurovision stage. After finishing in 21st place in Riga in 2003, Estonia sent a song in the Võro language – the first (and only) time that has been heard at Eurovision. Tii (Road) by Neiokõsõ overwhelmingly won Eurolaul’s televote in 2004 but did not qualify from Eurovision’s first ever semi-final in Istanbul that year.

The following year, Eurolaul chose a girl group. Suntribe finished 20th in the semi-final in Kyiv, but this result isn’t memorable for its non-qualification! That Contest marked the first time that Laura Põldvere stepped on the Eurovision stage. Fans of the more recent contest will likely remember her catchy pop song Verona with Koit Toome. They even released the song in Italian, and it’s quite good!

Both her appearances occurred at Eurovisions in Kyiv. Both saw her miss out on a ticket to the final… Ouch. But that hasn’t stopped her from continuing to try and get back to Eurovision. Laura has competed in the Estonian finals a total of seven times and in 2021 she participated in Finland’s UMK! Enjoy Let’s Get Loud from 2005 while trying to figure out which member of the group is Laura!

Things changed in 2008. Juhan Paadam, who had overseen the Estonian Eurovision effort since 1997 handed over responsibility to Heidy Purga, a music industry expert and jury member on Eesti otsib superstaari, Estonia’s version of Pop Idol. She delivered on a promise she made upon being hired – changing the selection process. Eurolaul was deal and Eesti Laul was born! At the time, Heidy said,

“Because our purpose is to change the nature of that competition, we had to change name as well. We expect and hope that musicians will send us songs that associate with themselves and suit Estonian musical taste. Musicians must not lose their personality because it is an international competition and become some kind of euro-product.”

Whereas Eurolaul was specifically meant to choose a representative for Eurovision, Eesti Laul was created to promote and celebrate Estonian music, in a format that could continue should Estonia ever withdraw from Eurovision. The inaugural Eesti Laul in 2009 selected a song in Estonian as its winner. Rändajad (Nomads) by the band Urban Symphony secured Estonia’s best result since 2002 with 129 points and a sixth-place finish in the Grand Final in Moscow. Since many of you have probably seen Rändajad on the Eurovision stage, here it is at the first-ever final of Eesti Laul.

Under the banner of Eesti Laul, the 2010s proved much kinder to Estonia with six of ten winners making it to Grand Finals at Eurovision. One man has had a huge impact on that success is Stig Rästa. He first entered a song in Eurolaul back in 2003 as part of the rock band Slobodan River. Since then, he has taken part in Estonia’s national final another nine times, making it to Eurovision on more than one occasion. Along with Elina Born in 2015, they placed seventh with Goodbye To Yesterday. Stig returned in 2016 as a writer of Play, and again in 2019 as a writer and backing vocalist for Storm. Here he is singing Home in 2018, his first solo effort in Eesti Laul.

Eesti Laul has come a long way from its humble beginnings. This year, it’s bigger than ever, starting with quarterfinals on the 20th and 27th of November, and the 4th and 11th of December 2021. After a break for the holidays, Eesti Laul will be back with Semi-finals on the 3rd and 5th of February 2022, and the Final will take place on 12th February 2022.

Whie Eesti Rahvusringhääling (ERR) have teased us with only the first batch of artists and song titles that will compete in the first quarterfinal this weekend, some returning artists this year include: Evelin Samuel (Eurovision 1999 for Estonia, last competed in Eurolaul in 2000!), Maian Kärmas (last competed in Eurolaul in 2001), Stig Rästa (of course), and the group Traffic, who last competed in Eesti Laul just last year when Stig Rästa was part of the group!

What are your expectations for Eesti Laul 2022? Which artist are you most excited to see? Is Estonia due for a place back in the Eurovision Final in Turin? Let us know in the comments below!

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