an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

(-: SMILERS :-) Kalamaja Cowboy

 

Not only does Kalamaja already have at least one book, an oral history, two coloring books, a legend, and much more already written about it, this little neighborhood even has its own rock anthem: Kalamaja Cowboy. Written and performed by Estonian rock legends [the] Smilers, the song features on their best-selling 2001 album Jalgpall on parem kui seks (Football/Soccer is Better than Sex). For the record, this anthem appeared long before any of the aforementioned musings as Smilers’ front-man and founder Hendrik Sal-Saller wrote the song back when the neighborhood was still a rather iffy and edgy place. You can feel that strange vibe in his quirky lyrics and fun music which is another reason why I love the song. And so, I decided to share it with you.

Sadly, I can’t point you to an official video of the song as it doesn’t exist. However, you can at least listen to it on YouTube. And if you want to follow along as Sal-Saller sings (there is nothing to see on the video other than one still photo), then you can use the rough English-language translation below – posted with the band’s permission – as your guide:

 

Kalamaja Cowboy

I’m not bad – I’m good to the bone.

My heart beats in the right place.

I’ve never told anyone “no.”

I wouldn’t even hurt a fly.

 

You can’t even think about me without

Feeling a small tickle of excitement,

I shine outwards and I’ve got a lot within –

Next to me the Marlboro Man is a little boy.

 

[Refrain:]

I’m nothing other than just a grinning mouth –
You probably didn’t know before
That I’m better than everyone.

Ah, Ah, Ah, I’m a doctor of feelings –
Ah, Ah, Ah, I’m the best thing since sliced bread –
Ah, Ah, Ah, I can do more, I’m a –
Ah, Ah, Ah, Kalamaja Cowboy.

 

My eyes will still shine when I’m old,

As we’ve got our own deal with God,

I’m there where the talk and wine flows,

And I’m floating like Koshchei the Deathless.

 

So straight in the saddle I’ll ride,

Galloping off into your sunset.

I am Jesus, I’m a bronze icon,

and your favorite animal every night.

 

[Repeat Full Refrain]

[Repeat Refrain’s Second Half Four Times]

 

Some notes on the translation: As I worked on translating Sal-Saller’s song into English “with a little help from my friends,” I realized that rock lyrics are impossible to translate. They are as slippery as fish. Take the title of John Lennon’s Beatles song “Strawberry Fields Forever.” What does it really mean – other than what you think it means – or what your feel that it means – when you hear the words being sung? Yes, “Strawberry Fields” is the name of a Salvation Army garden in Liverpool where John once played as a child. And, yes, the “forever” is probably an attempt to capture that childhood memory-moment and keep it alive for eternity. Or, you could look at the Wikipedia entry for “Strawberry Fields Forever” which goes on for pages and pages and includes over 200 references to explore all the possible permutations in the song’s meaning ….

In the same way, the very title of “Kalamaja Cowboy” raises questions with its use of the American word “cowboy.” For me, it is a clear reference to “Leningrad Cowboys” – a tongue-in-cheek Finnish rock band which began as a joke back in 1986 but then became somewhat more serious as they were featured in various films including the wonderful 1989 cult classic “Leningrad Cowboys Go America.” Just look up Leningrad Cowboys in Wikipedia and you’ll see. What the Wikipedia entry doesn’t tell you, however, is that “Leningrad Cowboys” is an older slang term which was used to refer to those male Finns who once visited Soviet Leningrad (and Tallinn) for the express purpose of getting drunk and misbehaving – or “shooting up the town” – in ways that they couldn’t back in Finland. As Hendrik Sal-Saller and his Smilers first tried to make it in Finland in the mid-1990s before coming back home to Estonia, this ironic title reference seems clear to me and colors the whole song. Or does it? And, why name-check Kalamaja – other than the fact that it goes well with the word “cowboy?” Well, perhaps he chose Kalamaja because it was once the gathering place for Tallinn’s hardcore drunks – not all of whom have moved on ….

Now some of Sal-Saller’s lines were relatively easy to translate such as the cocky rhyming couplet sa vist ei teadnud varem/et olen koigest parem (you probably didn’t know before/that I’m better than everyone). However, there are other lines in the song which I still don’t really understand – and neither do my Estonian friends – such as the elusive su loojangule vastu kappama (galloping off into your sunset?). Which, of course, raises the whole question as to whether the song’s lyrics should be translated literally – or should the goal be to try and capture their intended meaning – whatever that might be? Depending on the situation, I tried going with whichever one felt right as very rarely could I do both.

For example, the line ma pole muud kui ainult naeratav suu (I’m nothing other than just a grinning mouth) feels to me like a reference to Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat. My hope is that you will just get the “grinning mouth” reference from my translation rather than my having to refer you to the long Wikipedia entry on the Cheshire Cat. But then again, I could be wrong. It could be just an ironic self-reference back to the name of the band itself – Smilers – who according to one legend got their name from the Rod Stewart’s album Smiler (1974). But the Cheshire Cat still feels right to me – especially given the later reference to the famous Russian fairy-tale character Koshchei the Deathless in the song.

And then we come to my absolute favorite line in the song – the quirky “olen rosinasai” which means, literally, “I’m raisin bread” which I almost let stand as is. But since a raisin or currant (rosin) makes sweet bread (sai) even sweeter, then raisin bread (rosinasai) is Estonian slang for “the best.” Then, rather than translate this line simply as “I’m great,” I thought I would reference a similar English expression using bread – as in “the best thing since sliced bread” – and hope it works. But maybe it doesn’t. That’s the whole thing with rock lyrics – they can mean just about anything you want them to mean – especially since half the time we hear what we want to hear rather than what was actually being sung. Ultimately, the task of providing meaning is normally left entirely up to you. But since I’ve served as the song’s translator in this case, you’ll just have to go along with my hunches with the understanding that any translation will only ever represent an approximation of the original.

Anyways, if there are any Smilers fans – or Estonian linguists – out there who can help my friends and me improve our translation, then please go ahead and Gmail me at kwerke.kalamaja – you have my thanks in advance!

 

As Smiler’s 2001 best-selling album Jalgpall on parem kui seks (Football/Soccer is Better than Sex) has sadly gone out of print, you can find Kalamaja Cowboy on other albums including their compilation SmilersXX: 20 aastat meteoriitide sajus (SmilersXX: 20 years of meteorite showers).

Image: A Soviet horseshoe painted Soviet red and found in an abandoned Soviet Border Guard Base on north-west Saaremaa back in 1993 and now hanging on my basement wall (blacksmith unknown).

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