Leuʹdd- The Skolt Sámi music tradition

Leuʹdding is a Skolt Sámi singing tradition and form of melodic storytelling. It is typically the relating of stories and memories about people, in a special singing technique and a special leuʹdd language. In the old days, almost all sang leuʹdds, most commonly whilst performing everyday work, such as crafts or reindeer herding, in the process of clearing fishnets, while riding the reindeer, or in connection with the sitting of an evening.

Written by Anna Lumikivi

The singing tradition and storytelling

Leuʹdding is a Skolt Sámi singing tradition and melodic storytelling. It is typically the relating of stories and memories about people, in a special singing technique and a special leuʹdd language, which deviates from the usual Skolt Sámi spoken language. Typically, a particular person is described by relating events about their life, such as engagements, marriage, or other significant events. (Jouste; Lumikivi 2019 – Skolt Sámi musical culture, Sámi Museum Siidan Sääʹmjieʹllem website, 2019). However, leuʹdds can also relate stories about animals or places that are important for the Skolt Sámi community.

In the Petsamo region leuʹdds belonged to all

Back in the olden days, when the Skolt Sámi people still lived in the Petsamo region, the leuʹdds, like all music belonged to everyone. Almost everyone sang leuʹdds, most commonly during everyday work such as crafts or reindeer herding, in the process of clearing fishnets or riding reindeer, or in connection with the sitting of an evening. The emphasis was not on good singers, but rather everyone sang leuʹdds in their own voice. The leuʹdd is in essence more of a storytelling nature than “singing” and has a similar format. Everyone performs the leuʹdd in their own way, in the same way that everyone relates stories from memory in their own style. The words can differ from performance to performance even with the same singer, as relating a familiar story from memory exactly word for word would be unnatural. In the same way, the melody also can differ each time. Back in the day therefore, there was a strong element of improvisation attached to the singing of leuʹdds. Ilpo Saastamoinen describes the topic in the Son vuäinn publication as follows:


“In short, they are impossible to sing from memory. Both the sung lyrics and the melody are formed during the performance, so each performance is unique and one of a kind. There are recorded attempts to sing leudds in pairs, but the only sensible strategy here is to sing in turns, as a common tone is lost within seconds.” (Saastamoinen 2008, 5–11)

The structure of the symphony

The structure of the leuʹdd, in its complexity corresponds to the structure of a symphony, and the leuʹdd always contains the risk of rhythmic ambiguity. There is also ambiguity in defining the melody and the notation of leuʹdds, for example, in determining the musical scale. There are melodies in leuʹdds in which major and minor thirds vary, as well as minor scales in which the final note of each tune is a semitone lower, than what we expect to be the base note of the scale as defined by Western theory music. Thus Saastamoinen advises his readers: “Do not imagine knowing how the Eastern Sámi should perceive their own music, so never give instructions on this, and do not argue that pentatonic scales or harmonic series have anything to do with this context.”

Lyrics carry the greater and more important role in leuʹdd singing

As a result, even as a Skolt Sámi myself, I do not wish to particularly analyse the melodies or rhythm of traditional leuʹdds. However, concerning the melodies of the leuʹdds, I can say that the vast majority of them lean toward an atmosphere in minor key. In addition, all leuʹdds are not equally complex in melody and rhythm; and the melodies of several modern leuʹdds resemble Western (for example, Russian, Finnish or Norwegian) songs, quite possibly such melodies have indeed been adopted. In leuʹdds, words have a greater and more important role than melody and rhythm.

The linguistically challenging leu ́dd

Leuʹdds are also linguistically challenging, since the language used in the leuʹdds differs from that of spoken Skolt Sámi. The leuʹdds use words that are not in spoken use, one such example is “njeeǯǯ(a)žam(â)”, which in the leuʹdds is used to refer to the mother of the subject of the leuʹdd. In the spoken language, mother is “jeäʹnn”, and the word used in the leuʹdds refers more to the word “njeʹǯǯ”, meaning breast (“njeeǯǯaž” = diminutive form ‘little breast’, and “njeeǯǯžam” = my little breast). Skolt Sámi words normally end in consonants, so leuʹdd form has additional vowels added to the end and also to the middle of the words, making them easier to sing. Additional syllables used in-between words, or at the end of or in the middle of words are also typical changes. These syllables include for example, ǥo, veʹt, -a, -i, -ju, or a repetition of the syllables of the word (for example, “niõđâž” –> “niõđâžažam”). The leuʹdd language is quite cryptic, and the meaning may not reveal itself even when the language is understood. They relate real life events, but the events are seldom described directly, but rather in a suggestive manner. A person lacking background information on the life of the person and the community may not understand what the leuʹdd is really about. For example, mentions of reindeer in leuʹdds usually refer to the Sámi people. “To marry (or to go) over reindeer horns” means “to go to reluctantly to a man”. (Saastamoinen 2008, 12). Whilst if you say “you have drunk me”, it means that the subject of the leuʹdd is promised as a wife to someone. Sometimes, even the Skolt Sámi community itself does not understand the true significance of the words in leuʹdds, and a variety of divergent interpretations can exist.

Variations are both permitted and encouraged

Compared to other Sámi traditional music, leuʹdds lean toward a minor key, and in most cases they have many more words than for example yoiks or livđes. Leuʹdds can also be epic in length, up to 15 minutes. On the other hand, some leuʹdds can be particularly short, and this is also dependent on the leuʹdd singer. As with storytelling, some relate in more detail, whilst others focus more on a overall theme. Another that separates leuʹdds from yoiks and livđes, is that in leuʹdds melodies are absolutely permitted to, if not even encouraged to be personalised to suit the singer, or for the moment and mood. Though I cannot say with certainty that such a characteristic does not exist elsewhere in Sámi music traditions, but so far at least I have not come across another such. Leuʹdds are also “sung” mainly with words, and the use of auxiliary syllables (cf. yoik syllables) in melodies are not very common, although sometimes heard. However, their use is considerably less prevalent than in other Sámi music traditions.

Rhythms for everyday life

Today, the leuʹdd is unfortunately no longer as natural and a significant part of the life of Skolt Sámi, as it was historically, and therefore not all Skolt Sámi in the present day practice leuʹdding, or necessarily even know what is leuʹdding. The leuʹdd can be a rather challenging species for today’s Skolt Sámi people in all its complexity, in fact, modern versions leuʹdds have survived the ravages of time better than more traditional and improvised examples. However, the leuʹdd still survives, and fortunately it is still performed by many Sámi. In addition, there are several (usually older) Skolt Sámi, who do indeed sing leuʹdds, although they do not perform it publicly. This is very natural, since leuʹdds were not originally intended as public performances, but rather to rhythm to everyday life. The leuʹdd has historically perhaps been more of the art form of older members of the community. It was not actually taught to younger generations, but rather is blossomed into life in each individual as they reached maturity. The vast majority of the recorded leuʹdds from both the pre-evacuation period and after, were performed by an older person. Also in light of literary sources, it would appear that the leuʹdding was mostly practiced by the older population. This theory is also supported by the fact that my grandmother began singing leuʹdds only a year before her death, when she was already well over 85 years old.



Skolt Sámi Music Culture – Sámi Museum Siidan Sääʹmjieʹllem website, Marko Jouste; Anna Lumikivi (2019)

Ilpo Saastamoinen – Son vuäinn – He sees – the leudds of the Skolt Sámi from Kola region (2008)

Saamelaisen musiikkiakatemian opiskelija

Writer Anna Lumikivi

Anna (student 2017-2018 and 2019-2020), tells her personal relationship to leu´dd :

“For example, leu´dd has a completely different technique than singing in general. Learning is quite slow and requires patience, but it is also rewarding. This reflects the Skolt Sámi mentality in a fun way—it sometimes takes quite a while to get a grasp of something. No one had ever heard my grandmother leu´dding, but two years before her death, she suddenly started doing it. It was a fortune that I could record a few leu´dds. This way I have gotten to learn straight from my grandmother. I was recording the leu´dding with a phone and it happened that my grandmother’s roommate was watching the TV with the volume at maximum. It was difficult to distinguish the lyrics. Therefore, I have written new lyrics for them and refined the existing ones. The melody per se has still been transferred, and these are the leu´dds that are closest to me. It is typical of a leu´dd that the same stories are told with different melodies or vice-versa. Nothing is carved in stone, and personal style is allowed.”

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