What can you say? Ruja is the king of Estonian prog, the giant, the one true great prog band. It's the Estonian Yes, it's the Estonian Rolling Stones, it's the Estonian Genesis, it's the Estonian Pink Floyd. It's hard to understate the importance of Ruja in the grand scheme of things, ranging from the people's love for its music to the way Ruja touched the hearts and souls of a nation. Ruja inspired, Ruja provoked, Ruja made you laugh, Ruja made you cry. Ruja made you remember Estonia, even when its survival was not certain during the dark days of Soviet occupation.
Ruja meant so many things to people throughout Estonia, but it was not known well outside of their homeland. With the vocals being a major aspect of the music, it was easier for those outside of Estonia to get into, let's say, the instrumental Kaseke and the mostly-instrumental In Spe. To really appreciate Ruja you must understand something about Estonia, about the nation's soul and spirit. There are few other progressive rock bands anywhere in the world that played such a large role in a nation's psyche as Ruja did. But hold on, this by no means de-emphasises the music. They were awesome, to say the least.
Ruja was put together in 1971 by musicians that had two different ideas. One, was to play interesting music. Two, to sing in Estonian. Previously there were few chances to do original rock music in Estonian -- it was seriously discouraged by Soviet authorities. Ruja stared down the KGB and broke the glass ceiling and indeed performed in Estonian. This was the first step in creating Estonian rock.
Soon after the band's creation they managed to record two tracks at the Estonian Radio studio. The first song, "Need ei vaata tagasi..." featured bassist Raul Sepper on lead vocals, with gifted pianist Rein Rannap doing some Chopin-esque piano runs in the background. He later said that he thought it was a little embarrassing, but he was young at the time and was showing off. The other song recorded was the band's anthem, "Nii vaikseks kõik on jäänud" with acoustic guitarist Urmas Alender performing the emotional lines. The material also featured multi-instrumental Paul Mägi (with some brilliant trumpet work on the latter track), as well as a cool bit of fuzzy guitar by Toomas Veenre. The band was comprised of some other musicians, including the talented young drummer Andrus Vaht.
The recording and airplay of the two songs sent Ruja's stock flying for the next 17 years. The first stabilised line-up was put together in February 1972, with Alender on vocals full-time, Vaht on drums, Rannap on keyboards, Andres Põldroo on guitars (who Veenre recommended when he went to pursue his music studies), and Tiit Haagma on bass. This first five-piece line-up recorded one song, the fun "Rukkilõikus" which had some good bass work by Haagma. It was also Põldroo's last work with Ruja, as he himself was replaced by the guru of Estonian guitarists, the then-teenaged Jaanus Nõgisto. This created the first "classic" line-up of Ruja, which would record and gig for the next two years.
This line-up brought to its fans prog classics like "Õhtunägemus" and "Auruvedur" -- which featured the aggressive drumming of Andrus Vaht, the imaginative bass lines of Tiit Haagma, the classic guitar lines of Jaanus Nõgisto, the lightning-fast keyboard wizardry of Rein Rannap, and of course, most importantly, the power and emotions of Urmas Alender. Though much of the early music was written by Rannap, it was Alender's voice that brought life to the songs. The lyrics were often taken from famous poets -- living and past -- and in this era it featured the works of Juhan Viiding most prominently.
However, in a Yes-like situation Rannap grew more discontent. The group gigged constantly and recorded a few songs, and even provided material for an animation film. One of the most adventurous projects came with the concept of "Protsess" and the playing was just amazing. However, in 1975, the transition happened. Rannap was on his way out, and another young piano virtuoso, Margus Kappel, moved in. Though when Rannap left it deprived Ruja of its main songwriter, guitarist Nõgisto and new member Kappel were eager to take over that role. It was done more than successfully.
The partnership of Nõgisto and Kappel wrote some of the most adventurous progressive rock of the era, putting together the second "classic" line-up of the band. During this period they created some of the most memorable Ruja songs, like "Üle müüri" and "Läänemere lained" -- as well as the crazy "Mis saab sellest loomusevalust" in 1976. However, the line-up started to waiver as drummer Andrus Vaht left to pursue Mess, while bassist Tiit Haagma went to pursue a successful career as a champion yachtsman. Teenager Ivo Varts replaced Vaht (through Vaht did come back until 1978) and bassist Priit Kuulberg took over for Haagma. This line-up performed some of the most intricate prog of the era in countless concerts and did some concert films and videos, as well as recording classics like "Põhi, lõuna, ida, lääs" and "Avanemine" written by a young composer named Erkki-Sven Tüür. There are some great footages of the band playing from this era.
By now the band has been around for nearly a decade, but nothing released. This was partly due to policy, since no prog band had anything released. Some of the tracks filtered out in compilations, but mostly they were heard on radio and nowhere else. But it 1979 the band finally had its chance and saw a four-track self-titled EP released. This highlighted this most progressive era of Ruja; sadly, it also hinted at the band's decline in 1980. The members went their separate ways. Kappel went to play in the pop-rock band Rock Hotel, Nõgisto went with the young Erkki-Sven Tüür to In Spe, and the remaining three -- Alender, Varts and Kuulberg -- helped form the legendary punk band Propeller. Punk has arrived, long live prog.
One aside at this stage was a project organised by keyboardist Olav Ehala, an ambitious rock opera called "Johnny" with many proggers participating. Ruja was involved in many of the songs, and a few survive to this day. However, the project was banned after 3 performances by the authorities due to the open calls for freedom in the performance.
However, fate dictated the return of Ruja. By December, after the banning of Propeller, Ruja regrouped. Jaanus Nõgisto had returned from In Spe and Urmas Alender from Propeller. More significantly Tiit Haagma returned on bass, and Rein Rannap returned on keyboards. They were joined by Arvo Urb on drums for a few months before he went off to join In Spe. He was replaced by Jaan Karp, and then the "third" classic line-up of Ruja came to be. However, the band strayed very, very far from progressive rock...all the way to rockabilly! The band decided to play rock-and-roll, meshed with ballads, punk anthems and material with folk influences. Though the guitar and keyboard solos are still present, the music was pretty straightforward. Though there were some nice tracks at this point, it was a far departure from the late 1970s with the Nõgisto/Kappel writing team. Nõgisto looks back at this era with horror.
But really some of the stuff during this era is quite good, like "Tule metsa" or "Mr Lennon" which is dedicated to John Lennon (rare to have a released song in English). Much of the lyrics of this period was written by beat poet Ott Arder, who became a close friend to the group. The group released a self-titled LP in 1982, featuring some of their hits from this era -- but not its main anthem, "Eile nägin ma Eestimaad" -- due to its lyrics. The punk smash hit became the anthem of the generation, and it instilled the idea of Estonia into a new generation. "Yesterday I Saw an Estonia" is a powerful set of words, brought to life by Ruja -- setting off one of the earliest dominoes to the "Singing Revolution" of later in the decade.
But in 1981 the band did play its tenth anniversary concert at Tallinn's Linnahall, revisiting all of their past eras with guest appearances by some of the band's former members -- like guitarist Andres Põldroo and others. This marked a major moment for the band, and the invitation for them to embark on their second decade.
Much like the first, there came line-up troubles. After a fair bit of gigging, some documented in concert films, the band again hit a stone wall in 1983. Rannap left the band once more to pursue other projects, which ironically featured some other Ruja members like Urmas Alender and Priit Kuulberg. But soon enough in early 1985 the band came back together. Vocalist Urmas Alender and guitarist Jaanus Nõgisto, together with keyboardist Igor Garnek, formed the new core of Ruja. They were joined by Tiit Haagma again on bass, and Toomas Rull on drums. This was the fourth and last "classic" line-up of the band.
This line-up revisited progressive rock themes, albeit in a modern, '80s way. The songs, driven by the creative sounds and playing of Igor Garnek, brought a new sound to Ruja. Some of the pieces, like "Murtud lilled" and "Teised pool vett" became instant classics and Ruja was bigger than ever. However, there was still instability in the band. Haagma left the band once more, and eventually they settled on a young conservatory student named Slava Petchnikov -- to whom Jaanus Nõgisto gave the nickname SP Gulliver. That name has stuck since. Same problem with the drumming division, as Rull departed in late 1986, replaced for a year by Rein Joasoo and finally by former In Spe drummer Arvo Urb. This late line-up recorded some of the last great pieces for Ruja, like "Veerev kivi" and many others. In 1987 the LP Kivi veereb was released with many of these hits.
During this period Urmas Alender started writing more lyrics, eventually taking over that task almost totally. Some of his vocal lines are among the most powerful in all of Estonian music, bringing forth such emotion and power that even stuns those who don't understand Estonian. However, Alender did suffer a short bout of voice problems, and temporarily Ruja was fronted by Indrek Patte. Patte recorded a few songs with Ruja (several excellent tracks like "Meeste laul" and "Mis teha?" were among these tracks) and when Alender was okay again, stayed with the band for awhile as a backing vocalist and sometimes lead voice.
During this period the band also gigged heavily, going on wild tours outside of Estonia. It was during this era the band picked up a "manager" by the name of Yuri Altov. Altov, seeing the potential of Ruja outside of Estonia, tried to transform the band into something else -- something that can be popular in the former Soviet Union. That means singing in Russian. The idea fractured the band, as they recalled the founding principle of the band back in 1971. Eventually this led to the fracturing of the band, and tensions grew. Alender did lay down vocals to Russian versions of some of the songs from that era, and that came out later in a Russian-language LP, Pust budet vsjo. However, that was the death knell of the band.
The person most unhappy with that decision is Jaanus Nõgisto. And the band was generally unhappy during its long exhaustive tour around the former USSR, to places like Tajikistan and Siberia. By then the drinking took over as a cure-all for personal woes, and that compounded to the problem. Eventually the choice was forced -- Nõgisto or Altov, and sadly Nõgisto left the Siberian town they played that night on a train back to Estonia. Ruja as we know it was no more.
The band finished its touring with Nevil Blumberg, the former Synopsis partner of Igor Garnek. However, Blumberg hijacked the Ruja sound, turning it into a backing band for his Yngwie Malmsteen-like solos. In a historic concert at the 1998 Tartu Rock Festival, Urmas Alender was incredibly drunk and obviously unhappy with the band's music at that stage. Soon Blumberg was out, and the band tried one last time in 1998 with guitarist Raul Jaanson. This final formation recorded one song, "Ih-ih-hii ja ah-ah-haa" but that was it. Ruja was no more.
Estonia's most celebrated rock band was no more. The angry Jaanus Nõgisto put together his solo project and later released a solo cassette called "Selges Eesti keeles" -- meaning "in clear Estonian" as a parting shot. Garnek enjoyed playing in Data, and SP Gulliver began making film scores and several solo recordings. Urmas Alender also did solo recordings and helped on Data and other projects, but in 1989 -- after persistent hounding by the KGB -- decided to emigrate to Sweden. Estonia's heart and soul was now outside, alongside many other musicians similarly hounded by the KGB.
Sadly, Ruja did reunite one last time on stage in 1994 -- for the saddest of all reasons. On the stormy night of 28 September 1994, the ferry "Estonia" sank en route between Stockholm and Tallinn. Of the 851 individuals who perished on that boat, one of them was Urmas Alender. The catastrophe shocked the country of 1.5 million people, and losing one of their most beloved singers was just an insult to injury. The country was in shock, as were his former bandmates.
A reunion concert was held on 14 October 1994 -- less than three weeks after the tragedy --to raise money for Yoko Alender, the 14-year-old daughter of Urmas Alender. The band -- comprised of Igor Garnek, Jaanus Nõgisto, Toomas Rull, Priit Kuulberg, and Indrek Patte did the most difficult by playing a set of Ruja material most connected to Urmas Alender -- emotional pieces like "Sügispäev" and "Õhtunägemus" among others. Bassist Tiit Haagma joined them on stage for the last number, as did Yoko Alender herself. She, alongside Alender friend Valdo Randpere, opened the show with some emotional Alender ballads. The amount of courage in Yoko Alender to do that show is just amazing. Jaanus Nõgisto told the crowd it would be the first and last time Ruja would ever play without Urmas Alender. Long live Ruja.
At the same time a compilation CD Must lind was released for the same reasons. However, it was the first digital recordings of Ruja to be released, and it was picked up in a hurry by the hundreds of thousands of Ruja fans in Estonia. Some of the best Ruja songs were on the CD, albeit few of the old longer prog pieces. This was all fans of Ruja could live on until a surprise in 1998, when a project started to release the entire Ruja archive.
The project culminated with the release of Estonia's first boxed set, a 5-CD set Need ei vaata tagasi... in late 1999. Over six hours of material, combed from the studio and concert archives, made it to the final box. The book was written by some of the band's main members like Rein Rannap and Jaanus Nõgisto, and it included many photos of the band and its members from ages ago. Finally, thanks to Ruja expert Artur Siim, a detailed family tree of Ruja and Estonian prog -- much like those in the King Crimson and Yes boxed sets -- was also included. An amazing release, limited at 2000 -- though the CDs itself were available beyond the limited sets. There was also an accompanying video compilation "Rujavisioon" that featured many of Ruja's best works. It is also an intriguing study into the music video genre of the period, with some fascinating videos like "Dokumentideta võõras linnas" and others.
Though there are a few notable omissions in the boxed set (like "Lumi sädeles" and the studio version of the title track), there are tons of material here that would make any Ruja fan drool. Amazing, the best set of stuff out there. A great legacy of the band, it's blazing a new trail 12 years after its last real concert, exposing the band's history to a new generation of fans in and out of Estonia.
Since then, there has been little projects by former members that linked up to the legacy of Ruja. One notably was the "Rujaleidja" project in the summer of 2001, bringing a new arrangement to Ruja music played by an orchestra. Though it had some major problems, the huge audience shows that Ruja music is very much alive and part of Estonia's psyche.