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Leelo and UNESCO status

In 2009, the Setos’ polyphonic style of folk singing, called leelo, was added to the UNESCO list of intangible culture. Believed to be at least 1,000 years old, leelo is considered a special local variant of the Baltic-Finnic runo song tradition.

In general, Seto singing is polyphonic. But there are also solo songs, such as cradle songs, shepherd songs, laments for the dead, and incantations. The Setos sing in two or even more voices – the high upper voice is called killõ, and the lower choral voice is the torrõ.

The soloist and choir parts alternate in Seto choral song. The lead singer (sõnolinõ) sings the verse, the choir joins in for the last syllables of each line and then repeats the verse. Good lead singers are capable of improvising, creating new songs on the basis of the traditional song form, or adding something new and personal to old songs. The Setos believe that a singer’s skill is demonstrated by the ability to create new song texts and spontaneous improvisation. The fact that improvisational skills remain a fixture in the community shows the vitality of Seto leelo in general. A female singer gifted with words is called a “mother of song.” The older Seto singing tradition, which has been passed on as an oral tradition, is predominantly a female pursuit.

Seto singing is related to religious and family traditions and chores. Singing was not just for entertainment and passing the time; it was mostly a part of ritual or activity. Songs sung on special days were related to Orthodox holidays, and rituals for milestones in life (childbirth, weddings, funerals).

Although changes have taken place in Seto culture and the songs have changed somewhat, the Setos still sing their songs today and consider their old singing traditions important. Song culture remains vital. Both in the Seto region and outside, new women’s and men’s choirs have recently formed. Leelo choirs and singers are united by the Seto Leelo Council founded in 2008.

Entry on Seto leelo in the UNESCO database

A video about Seto leelo

Estonian language website for Seto leelo (includes articles along with audio samples and video clips).

Page on the Folk Culture Centre about Seto leelo and the application for UNESCO status (in Estonian).