For the majority of Seto people, education and literacy remained unavailable until the 1920s. All knowledge was passed on orally, mainly in the home and in the community. The world was “smaller” than today – people moved around less and everyday life was more limited to one’s village – so that some people may not have travelled more than a few kilometres from their home in their entire lives. All the information exchange and most of the entertainment was oral – the life strategies and knowledge of the ancestors were important for survival. Traditions and songs played a central role as a communal memory and identity. As Jakob Hurt (1839-1907, a notable Estonian folklorist, theologian, and linguist) said in the foreword to his edition of “Setukeste laulud” (Songs of the Seto), the songs are a bible and a history book for the Seto people. Songs and stories were a natural part of everyday life. The boundary between singing and speaking was vague; sometimes people thought and spoke in poetic language, using singing formulae in everyday life. When Setomaa was merged with the Republic of Estonia, primary school education became compulsory, literacy began to spread, and the heritage of the Seto no longer depended on oral tradition alone. Today, besides the oral tradition, writings and recordings have become increasingly important for the Seto people as they offer the opportunity for them to remain in contact with their ancestors and with their heritage.
The older Seto singing tradition, passed down from generation to generation, predominantly concerns women’s songs. Women spent most of their time at home; societal changes came to their world only very slowly and school education remained out of their reach for a long time. While men had more opportunities to move around, women spent their lives in the home, in their village, and within a circle of close relatives. The leelo tradition was kept alive by women while they were working together or spending time in all kinds of festive events. Great changes have taken place in Seto culture over the last century, including integration into Estonian culture, emigration from the motherland, etc. Despite this and despite changes in the singing culture, the Setos continue to sing their songs today and still consider their song tradition very important. The traditional choir culture is vibrant, and new women’s and men’s choirs are emerging both in Setomaa and elsewhere.
For the Setos, singing was a natural part of everyday life. Singing was not just entertainment or a way of passing the time: the songs affirmed, valued, gave meaning to and brightened their lives. There were songs for each activity – for herding, for work, for swings and parties, etc. At weddings there were certain songs for every ritual and activity, and there were also laments for sending the deceased on their journey. The year was divided into singing and non-singing periods; during Lent, for example, singing was not allowed and there were no parties at all. It was only in the 20th century that the tradition according to which each song had its own time and place began to disappear as the leelo was taken out of its traditional situations and moved onto the performance stage. The songs were often related to Orthodox holidays (maslenitsa songs, Easter swing songs, St. John’s and St. Peter’s fire songs, etc.), while many of the merry singing games were also often linked to holidays (talsipühi ilo’, urbõpäävä tsõõtaminõ, etc). Important milestones in a person’s life such as their engagement, wedding or funeral were also accompanied by songs.
The type of performance depended on both the place and the time. In the open air and in a larger group, the songs sounded different from when working indoors. Certain songs had to be heard far away (swinging songs, men’s party songs etc.) and were thus sung louder and more intensively. Intense, loud timbres were considered beautiful, especially in men’s singing. The content of the singing could also depend on the context: for example, songs sung in a group of women differed from those sung in a mixed group. Leelo singing consists of a lead singer’s solo and repeating choral parts. The choir repeats the lead singer’s lines in two or three voices. The choir consists of two parts – the torrõ and the killõ. Most of the singers in the choir, including the lead singer, perform the torrõ part, varying the melody according to certain established rules. The killõ – a higher pitched accompanying part – is an essential component of the leelo. The killõ is performed by only one singer with a strong, shrill timbre. Even when there are only two singers performing, one of them must be the lead singer and the other must sing the upper voice killõ.
The Seto culture has been called a mourning culture because lamenting played a central ritual role at both funerals and weddings. There were also laments for sending soldiers to war and for everyday life. Lamenting enabled the expression of things and feelings that could not be expressed in normal communication. Lamenting at funerals and weddings was a ritual cry with a specific purpose. Lamenting for the dead was like communication with the other side, while the bridal lament gave the young girl the opportunity to express her despair and thoughts when entering a new stage of life. The bride “died” as a young girl and was reborn as a woman during the wedding (Mõrsjaikk). Traditionally, only the women have lamented in Setomaa. In the Seto heritage, there are also songs that differ from the runo song (leelo) in terms of their verse length. Pre-runo musical genres include, for example, spells and incantations, calls and signals, readings of various kinds, the imitation of natural sounds, some of the songs found in fairy tales, and some children’s songs. The newer singing style (with the repetition of the end rhyme) reached Setomaa at around the beginning of the 20th century. This style is largely borrowed, a fact often indicated by the mixed-language or Estonian words in the song texts. The Seto community in Siberia has created their own singing style by mixing the traditions of both their old and new homelands. Some of the newer songs are related to instrumental music and dances borrowed from neighbouring peoples, and can be sung with or without an instrument to accompany dancing. Rhymes or chastushki are still a living and beloved part of the tradition in the community, which provides an opportunity simply to comment on current topics.
Thanks to the foundation of a monastery in Pechory in 1473, the Setos have been in contact with Orthodox church music for centuries. In the 20th century Seto church choirs consisted mainly of Seto singers, and many members of Seto leelo choirs also sang in the church choirs. For this reason, it would see reasonable to assume that these singing styles have influenced each other to some extent.