Songs of the Seto, Estonia an the Cycle of Life

Updated on January 3, 2024 by Meg Pier

Songs of the Seto, Estonia

In the golden glow of late afternoon light, the six women filed through an aged arched wall and toward a wooded area behind the church. I followed at a distance, admiring their exotic costumes and intrigued by their purpose. They reached a grove of aspens, evergreens and birch, through which sunlight streamed down on the grave markers below.

The group was mostly elderly women, including two who walked with the help of canes. With them was a tall blonde girl who carried a heavy wicker basket, which she set down on a bench amidst the scattered headstones. The girl and one of the women leaned in closely together and lit a candle, which the woman set on a grave marked with a pot of cheery red geraniums. Next to it, she spread out a brightly-patterned cloth that was soon laden with food taken from the hamper.

Members of the Varska Leelokoor Leiko choir pay their respects to a departed friend.
Members of the Varska Leelokoor Leiko choir pay their respects to a departed friend. Photo: Meg Pier

The women saw me hovering in their orbit and with smiles motioned for me to join them in their meal. In the pine-scented air of the Orthodox cemetery we had a picnic of soir, a special kind of cheese spiced with caraway seeds; local fish of smoked bream and raabis; sandwiches made of butter and smoked vendace--another local fish--on dark rye bread; cucumbers; organic apple juice and local mineral water from the spring.

I had been invited to partake in this tradition of the Seto people of southeastern Estonia by a new friend Elina. A Finn by birth, Elina came to Estonia 16 years ago for the weekend and never left. She was introduced to the Seto community, an ethnic and linguistic minority who live along the border of Estonia and Russian, and their way of life struck a chord with her. In time, she “adopted” Veera–84 years old and the eldest of the women clustered around the grave–as her honorary grandmother and embraced many of the Seto traditions.

A tradition that is a cornerstone of Seto identity is leelo, an ancient polyphonic style of singing. The women are all members of a Seto choir called Varska Leelokoor Leiko, which means “play.” The choir now has seven members. In the past two years, two members of the choir passed away. Veera’s grandaughter Ruti, 16, is an “honorary member.” Ruti recalled with a smile that Veera sang lullabies to her when she was a child, and that if her grandmother didn’t sing her favorite songs she would pout and cry. Ruti began singing herself when she was three or four.

The Leiko choir had come to the cemetery to commune with Veera’s husband’s sister, who never married. I was struck by the women’s easy camaraderie and how natural it seemed to have a picnic among the graves under the leafy green trees. After a bit of food and some banter, at an unspoken signal, the women moved to the perimeter of the plot. A prayer was said and then Veera led the singing, with a song she improvised that began Lydica, sister of mine, I am here to greet you on your birthday, I can’t give you my hand, our fingers won’t touch each other, Let the soil be light on your grave, let your sleep be peaceful sleep.

Maimu (l) and Lidia in song.
Maimu (l) and Lidia in song. Photos: Meg Pier

There are four categories of leelo songs—those that are improvised, which are the most prized; those folk songs that all universally known among all Setos; songs in which the tunes are familiar to all but the words may vary from village to village, and vice versa–songs for which all Setos know the words but the melodies may vary in different communities.

Seto songs are also known for being epic sagas. I was told that the Leiko choir once improvised for eight hours. Each of the women take turns leading the group and creating the verse, which has to rhyme, and the others chime in together as the chorus at specific intervals, repeating the last line sung by the leader. The Leiko choir is atypical in its shared leadership—typically the post is given to one person, known as the iisutleja, who is seen as having the “power of songs.”

Lidia, age 80, has been singing for 50 years and explained that as a beginner, someone new to leelo singing becomes a student of someone who is proficient. The choir she is in became “registered” under the Soviet system–previously it was an informal group that sang strictly as a hobby. The Soviets allowed the Seto to practice their traditions and in fact organized the leelo singers and encouraged public performances.

But there were strings attached–officials often required that the singers submit the words to their songs in advance for approval. In other cases, Setos were not totally forbidden to improvise but were expected to know what not to say. The choirs might be permitted to sing praises about their village but in turn, they had to acknowledge the sovereignty of the Soviet Union and include in their repertoire a song about some favored Communist theme such as a tribute to Lenin or commemoration of a significant Russian milestone, such as May Day or October Revolution Day.

A time-honored gathering spot for Estonians, including the Seto, is the community swing. I saw these structures all over the country in my travels, huge wooden platforms that can accommodate a crowd. With Elina, Veera and the others, I made my way down the road to the center of Varska and the town’s iconic swing. Maimu, 64 and Ruti climbed up on its platform and Veera, Lidia and Anna, 82 years old, stood alongside it.

The group sang a song of thanks to the men who built the village’s swing, which gives the people such pleasure. The lyrics tell of the girls giving the builders Easter eggs, a reference to the fact that a village’s swing would be built during that season. In mid-March or April there was no agriculture work to be done, and the men’s thoughts turned to courting—the swing site is where romance blossomed among the village young people. The mothers of the young bachelors would also come here–to eye the eligible girls, check out their posture and handicrafts, and assess who was good enough for their son.

A component of the traditional folk costume for both Seto women and men is a braided belt, which is considered both an item of everyday dress with a functional purpose, as well as “jewelry.” Men’s marital status is signified by which side their wear the knot on. Village life required quite a lot of heavy lifting and the Seto girded themselves with the belts tightly, like a weightlifter, which made their strenuous movements easier—it also contributed to the upright posture for which the Seto are known.

The smiling Veera owns several breastplates--which can each weigh more than 13 pounds.
The smiling Veera owns several breastplates--which can each weigh more than 13 pounds. Photos: Meg Pier

When a woman married she must have many belts, as she was expected to give them as gifts to all the members of her new extended family. The ability to do handicrafts was important and a woman was considered “useless” if she didn’t know how to make belts.

Lidia remarked “The songs are very long because we have so much to say,” but I learned another reason for their extended length is that the Seto women also had a lot of work to perform, much of it monotonous, and the singing made it go by more quickly.

The Seto, Estonia, know a very long song about 11 daughters that is sung by the women when they are making the belts. The colors preferred are deep “mature” colors found in nature—blue, green and black. Red is also always incorporated into the pattern, as it is considered a holy color for the Seto. Veera said her mother taught her to make the belts when she was seven or eight years–she figures she has made more than 1,000 in her lifetime. She is the leader of the local handicraft group, and she recently brought up with her fellow crafters that they need to consider who will take over and teach others when she dies.

Dressing in the full Seto traditional costume worn for occasions such as festivals typically takes a woman about an hour. The jewelry symbolizes protection–both keeping safe the women’s spirit within, as well as preventing her negative energy from reaching others. The heavy silver necklaces women wear are embellished with decorative flourishes, including a large conical breastplate. These ornaments can weigh up to six kilos—about the maximum weight that can be comfortably worn around their neck. Many of the women own multiple pieces–Veera has several breast plates.

The jewelry pieces are considered family heirlooms and can date to the 1700s. Veera’s daughter Kersti, a dentist, joked that her mother and daughter Ruti seemed to have plenty of it but somehow she missed out. The shirts in their folk costumes are also passed down from one generation to the next–some are 100-150 years old. Veera gave Elina her Seto necklace—it is made with Finnish & Russian coins—as well as a set of the Seto costume.

The group performed a rousing “party” song, one typically sung at a gathering attended by both men and women. Periodically one of them would let loose a cry of “Ai-YAH” with a great spirit of jubilation—I was later told that the high-pitched sound is called killo and uttered by a woman when she wanted to try call attention to herself.

Veera said with a twinkle in her eye “When a Seto wife is chosen, a man looks not just for someone who is a good cook, but someone who is a good singer–it’s the family’s entertainment!”

On that note, Haime and Ruti set the swing to rocking, stationing themselves on opposite sides of the platform–Haime crouched at the front and Ruti standing tall at the back. Both expertly worked with the force of gravity to build up motion and speed and soon the giant swing was high in the air, with the duo practically parallel with the ground. The other women began to clap and Anna and Lidia’s canes were forgotten as they began to step and sway together in a little dance. The swing gained even more momentum, the clapping quickened and laughter began to bubble. Giddy with the excitement of the ever-rising swing, I laughed and laughed until my cheeks hurt…and I understood why the women’s eyes sparkled and their faces glowed.

The Varska Leelokoor Leiko sing a lullaby at the Varska swing.
The Varska Leelokoor Leiko sing a lullaby at the Varska swing. Photo: Meg Pier

Our time together concluded with a lullaby. The women sang the chorus in unison, its whimsical refrain somehow universal “Ah-ah, Choo-choo, Choo-choo, Lu-lu.” It was infectious, and even someone as tone-deaf as me felt comfortable joining in.

Elina and I began to say our good-byes and Anna impulsively took off a braided belt and handed it to me. It is a cherished gift from the generous Seto souls who shared their songs, their laughter and a powerful lesson in nurturing eternal connections and uplifting traditions.

Those timeless lessons proved serendipitous for me as I arrived home yesterday afternoon after a long journey and little sleep. As I exited the customs hall at Logan Airport, I had a call from my husband Tom. My mother was in the hospital after concerns she had a blood clot. Tom assured me she was fine but he hadn’t wanted me to try to reach mom and then be alarmed when I couldn’t.

She and I had only spoken once while I was in Estonia–the significant time difference and the cost made calling challenging. In our last conversation, she had told me that her closest friend at the assisted living facility where she resides had just died. Mom seemed accepting of her friend’s passing, saying she was glad the woman had not suffered.

I realized that my own acceptance of life’s inevitable, ever-turning cycle had evolved during my trip to Estonia. I was able to take comfort from the Seto women’s expression that love extends beyond the boundries of time and space as we know it, and to more fully embrace the wisdom that life’s simple pleasures are to be relished.

As Elina and I left the Seto ladies, I remarked how much their zest for life and quiet faith in what lies beyond it reminded me of my mother. I surprised myself with the observation–my relationship with my mother has not always been an easy one, in part because of her powerful personality. I had a sudden realization that my own sometimes over-the-top enthusiasm and ever-evolving trust in a Power greater than myself are but echoes of the experience had by other strong women over the ages.

Postscript: A little more than five years after writing this piece, the cycle of life continues to turn. My mother died about a year after my visit to Estonia; our final year together was informed by the heart insights that Veera and her fellow leelo choir members inspired in me. Veera is now 89 years old; the choir disbanded a few years ago after they celebrated fifty years of singing together. She has no sadness about that, saying “Everything has its time.” So true–and now young Ruti is coming into her own. The spirited girl has become a beautiful woman who is enjoying artistic renown across Europe.

"It’s faith in something and enthusiasm for something that makes a life worth living."

- Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1809 - 1894

Meg Pier

Meg Pier

Publisher and editor of People Are Culture (PAC). This article was created by original reporting that sourced expert commentary from local cultural standard-bearers. Those quoted provide cultural and historical context that is unique to their role in the community and to this article.


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