It’s faith in something and enthusiasm for something
that makes a life worth living.
~Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1809 – 1894
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.
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.
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.