The Seto <em>leelo</em> in a nutshell

Seto singers in Tartu, 1928. Sitting: Anna Teplenkov, Anastasia Vabarna, Anne Vabarna, Matrjona Suuvere, Irina Suuraid. Standing: Mihhail Suuvere, Aleksei Uibo, Ivan Vabarna, Ivan Lind. Paulopriit Voolaine. Estonian Cultural Hisory Archives.

The Seto leelo in a nutshell

Seto culture and Seto leelo

The Seto people are the descendants of ancient Finno-Ugrians residing to the south-west of Lake Pskov in Northeastern Europe. The Seto leelo is an ancient polyphonic singing tradition of the Seto people, most of whom today live in south-east Estonia. The Seto leelo is thought to be at least 2000 years old and it is still an authentic part and cornerstone of the contemporary identity of the Seto people. The bearer of the singing tradition is the Seto community, and in particular the leelo choirs. Today most of the Seto live within the borders of the Estonian republic, but their historical settlement area extended into the present-day Russian Federation. Like Estonian, the Seto language is part of the Baltic-Finnic group of the Finno-Ugric language family. Seto traditions have been defined by an agrarian village community and by the Greek Orthodox Church. Contemporary Setos carry a twofold Seto-Estonian identity. Their Seto identity becomes manifest in their use of the Seto language, their skills in and understanding of the traditional singing style, their maintenance of communal and family traditions, and the veneration of their deceased ancestors and family members. The Seto proclaimed themselves a nation in 2002.

What is Seto leelo?

The leelo is, with few exceptions, generally performed by a choir. It features a lead singer who delivers a song line followed by a choir that joins in for the final syllables and then repeats the whole line. The leelo is very lyrics-centred: the meaning and character of a song are conveyed through the words. The lyrics and the verse formulae are learned from previous well-known performers, but skill in composition of new meaningful verses is the mark of an accomplished lead singer. In leelo lyrics one can find stories, beliefs and myths that date back several thousands of years. Traditionally, singing accompanied nearly all daily activities, and there were songs for all kinds of work, rituals and parties. Some songs had specific melodies that varied a little from choir to choir, but one can distinguish, for example, wedding laments, herding songs, swinging songs or working songs merely by listening to the tune. Today, the tradition remains alive in community events as a central, vibrant and highly valued element of Seto culture. Traditional events and celebrations are always accompanied with the singing of appropriate songs, and anyone can compose new song lyrics for any kind of event or celebration.

Singing the Seto leelo

In days gone by singing was a normal part of everyday life in every village and every family. Today, singing is mainly sustained by the leelo choirs. However, at parties and village events any person or group of people can join or form a singing circle and thus take part in the singing: everyone, in fact, is welcome. In each song there is usually one lead singer whose main role is to provide the lyrics. Lead singers can vary from song to song; if one wishes to take the role of lead singer, one just has to be quick and start singing before anyone else. The Leelo is characterized by the alternation of the lead singer’s solo and the repeating choral parts. On the basis of their knowledge of traditional poetic formulae, i.e. the rules of the poetic and metric system, Seto lead singers create new lyrics for each particular occasion. They can also use lines learnt from previous performers and traditional formulae, but the ability to compose lyrics is an essential skill for an accomplished lead singer. The lead singer is not a set position: anyone, in fact, can begin a song and take the role of lead singer in it. The range of different melodies, on the other hand, is more limited and fixed, with specific tunes for particular song genres, depending on the singing occasion. As a rule, today’s Seto singers do not compose new melodies, but choose from the appropriate traditional tunes, possibly altering them a little.

Although the Seto tradition also includes some monophonic singing, the distinctive feature of the leelo lies in its performance in multiple voices with the use of a particular timbre; thus the term leelo generally refers to polyphonic singing. 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 essential component of the leelo, however, is the killõ – a higher pitched accompanying part 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 killõ part: without the killõ, the result would not be a true Seto leelo. The lead singer’s line is normally performed in a faster tempo, with speech-like modulations, whereas the choral part tends to be slower, metrically more stable, and more melodious. Traditionally, leelo songs were often sung in the open air while working in the fields, swinging, or having fun at village parties. For this reason the singers developed a loud, sharp timbre in order to cast their voices as far as possible. Men and women traditionally sang separately, and the songs for men and women were quite different. Today, however, men and women can sometimes be heard singing together, for example at parties.

The lyrics of Seto leelo

The Lyrics of the Seto leelo are strictly characterised by:

  • Alliteration. Repetition of initial sounds of words within one verse: katõl käel kannõtigi (held with two hands), ori otsõ or´apuida (slave seeks stuff).
  • Parallelism or repetitive thoughts. Usually the lyrics are performed in paired song lines – the same idea or statement is reiterated in the line(s) that immediately follow. Sometimes the perspective of the idea is broadened in these parallel lines, or some new information is added. The structure of the parallel lines remains identical: imel olli ütsi tütär / kandjal ütsi kanakõnõ (mother had one daughter / [child]bearer [had] one chick) or hüä om laulda’ õdagulla / vilutsõlla veerätellä (it is good to sing in the evening / in the cool [time] twiddle the tunes).
  • Metre. 8-syllable metre is the basis of any runo-song, and this also applies to the Seto leelo, as for example in: luk-ku, lui-ga-tsir-gu-kõ-sõ’ (form the line, little swans). In the Estonian language the stress always falls on on the first syllable of a word; the distinctive rhythm of the leelo is caused by the fact that the lexical stress sometimes differs from the metric stress, so that the metrically stressed syllable can appear in the middle of the word: vii-di vii-e-le sõr--lõ (carried with five fingers). In longer melodies, the classic 8-syllable line is prolonged with additional extra syllables or repetitions: Hällü jo kulla, hällü jo kulla hällü-jo-kene; Vello, vellokõsõ vai noorõ-, noorõkoo (Swing, dear swing; Brothers, oh young brothers).
  • Old words, old formulae and distinctive poetic phrases and expressions. Some of the words used in leelo songs are remnants of the ancient language and have long disappeared from the contemporary spoken language.

The melodies of the Seto leelo

Seto leelo melodies are not strictly bound to certain lyrics – the same melodies can be sung with very different or modified lyrics. However, certain activities or rituals are accompanied by the same type of tunes that form a distinctive group of songs. For example the hällü ääl or swinging song is the type of melody that is sung while swinging during the spring or summertime. The melodies can be slightly modified by singers, but completely new melodies are very rare. Fortunately, the variety of different melodies is very large, and each singer can choose from the rich leelo heritage the one that best suits the particular occasion for which it is sung. However, it is essential to know the cultural background and traditions so as to be able to choose the right melody for the each occasion. The sound of Seto melodies can be unfamiliar or strange, especially in the case of the older tunes. The more recent, well-known leelo tunes are simpler, and it is not difficult to join in and sing along at once. The newer melodies are easier because the scales of these melodies are familiar to us and common in western music – for example E-F-G-A-B-C or D-E-F#-G-A-B-C. In the older tunes, on the other hand, we find a very specific older scale type that is unique in the world. It is called the one-three-semitone scale (sometimes also called simply “the old scale”). The name of this scale refers to the interval between the notes, which varies regularly between one semitone and three semitones – D-Eb-F#-G-A#-B, for example, where D-Eb equals one semitone, Eb-F# three semitones, F#-G one semitone, etc. The one-three-semitone scale sounds strange to modern ears, and singing songs in this ancient scale can prove a considerable challenge. However, with careful listening and plenty of practice it is not impossible to master, and it undoubtedly offers a completely different singing experience.

The traditional sound of the Seto leelo is formed by the heterophonic variation of the melodies, with each singer in the choir using a slightly altered version – or even versions – of the same melody. When the killõ is added, a three-note harmonic complex can occur. The chords thus formed do not come about by chance. Both the killõ and the torrõ follow a certain harmonic rule. According to this leelo harmonic rule, there are two sets of “chords” (harmonic complexes) in the choir part of each melody, and only the notes of one “chord” can sound together. In most cases, a “chord” is formed with every second note – i.e. in thirds; in familiar scales, for example, the chords might be E-G-B and F-A-C or E-G-B and D-F#-A-C. In the one-three-semitone scale, on the other hand, the chords consist of two major thirds: D-F#-A# and Eb-G-B. The leelo harmonic rule is strictly followed in the one-three-semitone scale; in other scales (anhemitonic-diatonic and the newer diatonic scales), however, the lower note can sometimes appear in both harmonic complexes (e.g. E-G-B and E-A-(C) and D-F#-A-C and D-G-B).

In 2009 the Seto leelo was added to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Thanks to folklore collectors and scholars, the Seto leelo has been widely recorded and stored in archives over a long period of time. Old recordings and old texts are the best possible study material for those who would like to learn the leelo tradition. The rich archive of leelo songs is a treasure trove that enables the safeguarding and preservation of the traditional polyphony and poetry of the Seto people.