Paul Kadak - connecting with his heritage through music

Aale Kask-Ong 11. dets. 2014

While most Australians know Paul Kadak as a Channel 7 journalist the Estonian community knows him as an accomplished pianist and songwriter. At the Estonian Days in Melbourne a wider audience will have a chance to hear more of his songs.

Paul Kadak - connecting with his heritage through music
Paul Kadak. Photo: Aune Vetik

Has music always played an important role in your life?
Paul Kadak: It's always been there I guess. A lasting memory I have of my granny was that she was the biggest and loudest singer in the church. There has always been singing in my family. I had piano lessons when I was in primary school and played brass when I was in high school. After school I didn't take any more lessons. Music was just a hobby at home but I got into it again after joining Lőke.


What made you to join Lőke?
Paul Kadak: I got in touch with the Estonian community when we were enquiring about getting an Estonian passport. I met a few people who told me about some groups who were active. I heard about Lőke. I thought singing would be a good way to learn about Estonian culture and language. Even if I could not understand all of it I could still enjoy the music. So I have been with Lőke ever since.


So everything started with the passport?
Paul Kadak: I had only just moved to Sydney. I am from Perth originally and wasn't involved with the Estonian community there. For the first time, here in Sydney, I made contact with Estonians outside my family.


You have already written a couple of songs in Estonian. Why did you decide to write in Estonian?
Paul Kadak: I suppose it was learning more about my family heritage and wider Estonian culture and heritage general. One of the things that touched me deeply from the start was the music and singing tradition and the role it had played in recent the Singing Revolution. This tradition goes back hundreds and hundreds of years. I was interested in knowing more about it and I suppose, from there, learning more about those music traditions. It's symbol of the survival of the Estonian culture. Songs sung today have been sung by generations. It has been a way of keeping Estonian culture and language alive through fairly dark days. It's a really powerful thing for me.

Through Lőke I have become exposed to Estonian songs more directly, modern and folk songs, and regilaul. I started to do some arrangements for the songs. Through that experience I saw that I could take it to the next level and write songs from scratch. So I gave it a go. I had help from Siiri Iisimaa from Lőke to make sure that I was exploring and expressing the ideas correctly as I am not a native Estonian speaker nor very proficient. I had a go and have written a couple of songs.


Your dad is Estonian? Tell us more about your Estonian roots. 

Paul Kadak: Actually my grandparents were Estonians on dad's side and came to Australia in 1949. My earliest Estonian memories were when we visited my granny. I never met my grandfather. When she, my dad and his sisters were talking in the kitchen they spoke Estonian and as children, we thought they were speaking some secret adult's language so children couldn't understand. It was Estonian. Without realising it, that was my first exposure to the Estonian language and culture.


Did they also teach you this secret adult language?
Paul Kadak: Not really. I always remember asking my granny what different words meant and how to say hello. It's very challenging to get the accent just right.


When did you visit Estonia first time?
Paul Kadak: The first time I went to Estonia was in 2006. It would have been the first time anyone from our family had been back since my grandparents left Estonia. The first time I was there with my mum and dad. It was a great chance to connect with the country that had always been part of our family history and for so long had been so distant and now was the time to get to know the place for real.


This summer you were back again for Laulupidu (National Song Festival). What was your experience with that?
Paul Kadak: I have been lucky enough to be at the Laulupidu twice. In 2009 as member of audience which was great and this year obviously as someone taking part as a singer. It's hard to describe the feeling, it was just a fantastic experience. The feeling you got there being with 24,000 people on stage. The idea of all of us being there as part of this tradition that has been going on for150 years. It touches you deeply.

Now that I have been there twice, it's like a big family reunion. Especially at the end when everyone in the choir has but one thought. We do not want this feeling to end. We want to sing another song and we do not want this experience to end. We got the same feeling from the audience. It's such a unique experience that I will never forget it.


Can you experience something similar here in Australia?
Paul Kadak: It's different. Songs perhaps don't move us same way. There is more of a parallel between Estonian songs and traditions and the first Australians with the importance of their culture, singing and dances. They would probably say that's survival and hold it dear as it's a symbol of their culture. It tells the same story to the audience, who we are and where we are going.

Australians are fortunate to have summer weather all through the year. We are blessed with a lot of happy times. Obviously as a country we have our struggles but we are very lucky in what we have. We have internal optimism. We are decent bunch of people. When we come together often it is for sport. The closest experience to something like Laulupidu was when I was here for Sydney for the 2000 Olympics. I just remember leaving the stadium one night and people were everywhere in Sydney Olympic Park, skipping around with flags and singing the national anthem. The feeling in the air showed how happy and proud everyone was. It was a great moment for the country and everybody felt it.

Again, it comes from having great weather and sport being such a big thing in our lives. It's different from the Estonian experience. Some Estonian songs can be little dark but it's living with the weather. Songs speak so beautifully of what people have gone through. Singing tells the story in such a beautiful way.


Where does your inspiration of writing songs come from?
Paul Kadak: I suppose through the songs I have sung with Lőke and through the events held at Eesti Maja. You learn through songs what Estonians hold dear. It's a small country with forests that touch the sky, it's place by the sea, the lakes, the animals and families working on the farm. All of these things come up in various songs. I have picked those things up from songs.

In terms of the songs I have written I have been inspired by the Estonian community here in Sydney and the things the Estonian community has done, the gatherings here, the special occasions. The community has been here for many years, preserving the culture. It's all worth writing a song about.


How did your family celebrate Christmas? Did you have any Estonian traditions?
Paul Kadak: I do not remember any specific Estonian traditions from my childhood. There may have been when I visited my dad's side of family. There may have been more kurke (gherkins) on the table perhaps than somewhere else. Overall our Christmas was a very traditional Australian Christmas. There was cricket but mostly it was about the family coming together. That time of year it's always very hot in Perth. There will be always the beach, cricket and family.