An Accidental Songwriter and Moors, Music and Meditation. ” Singing the Songlines of Sweden- learning Kulning.”

Day 1 

This one long blog is an account of coming to Sweden to learn to be a Kulna- pronounced Kui – la. This is a fascinating and ancient singing tradition done by women for centuries, with it’s own scale . It is a rural art that comes from the summer farm tradition in Sweden, where women went alone, in summer to herd the cows, milk their cows and make cheese and butter.

I first heard Kulning from a video clip of Jonna Jinton. This clip has been made famous through it’s use in the Hollywood movie “Frozen.” It is ethereal, haunting, melodic, rhythmically free and seems to sing the soul of nature. In general,Kulning is used to call the cows, call to your neighbour that the cow has arrived home in time for milking (!) , and has developed into an art form all of it’s own. It is based on a natural scale with seven notes called Vall, they are made on a cow horn instrument which is basically a horn with three finger holes and one end open to blow into and the larger end is naturally open. It is the most beautiful otherworldly sound. Kulning’s other intrinsic difference to normal western scale based music is the use of the singers body, which I will aim to describe as I learn it. It is also rhythmically free and quite improvised.

So, I set out for Sweden from Scotland. I had to fly south to go north: Inverness to Heathrow and Heathrow to Stockholm. Then I had to take various trains due south to the village of Gnesta, where I had to load myself down even further by shopping for a week at the Co-Op. The bus never arrived so my air B and B host came to pick me up in the Gloming, just as I was getting worried about standing at a chilly bus stop with nowhere to go and no one around!! I share my air B and B with a gentle and delightful soul called Froujke who is from Holland. She is also a singer and is also a shaman. So, combined with my interest in meditation and nature, we are quite a pair already! We had pine needle tea for breakfast this morning! Each morning we are gifting each other a growing experience. Today I led her on some mindfulness breathing meditations followed by a meditation on giving. She is going to lead me on a shamanic journey one of these days.

Our air b and B is a tiny cabin in the traditional wood red style with white windows and a roof line that looks like an upside down boat! Our host lives next door and comes with fresh billy cans of water. We cooked salmon last night on a traditional wood fired range which also heats the small cabin. The landscape in southern Sweden and the plant life, is much like where I live in Moray in north east Scotland, so it feels like I have come from home to home except all the houses are red! The light is sharper and the air feels like champagne- much like in Moray and all the trees, like in Moray, drip with lichen which shows the air is pure. There is still a winter nip to the air so we have come duly clad in layers of warm things to Küln outside as this is essentially an outside art form.

Our course is every afternoon to make the most of the warmest and brightest time of day. Our air B and B host walked us over on this first day, across fields to an old farmstead, which is now a folk museum . Altogether there are 11 of us- and even two men amongst us! We, as a group, come from Poland, America, Italy, Holland, Germany and the Uk. We all work in some form or another with music or the arts. Karin ,our course leader has taught Kulning for many years. This first day we learnt about it’s origins and she also showed us, alongside the cow horn instrument, another instrument that is used for Kulning. It is made from pine and essentially is like a thin long horn wrapped in birch bark and it’s musical intervals and registers are determined by how the player uses their body/diaphram (Octave’s and fifths). We listened to ancient recordings of these instruments and they took us to a fey, ancient place where breath and time stand still. 

This tradition is sadly dying- in 1850 there were 200 00 summer farms. Now there are only 200 of them, so preserving this ancient tradition for the future and allowing it to influence other folk traditions is vital for it’s renaissance in a post modern world. We don’t know when Kulning started, but many centuries ago. One of the cow horn instruments was a 1000 years old, so this shows how this has passed from woman to woman down the corridors of time. International interest will help ensure it is showcased across the globe amongst communities of musicians who are drawn to it.

After hearing the history of Kulning , we then went outside to start doing some body work which forms the basis of Kulning . It is really very similar to what I have learned through the Hussler technique, which is essentially about working with your own body to muscularly develop your own singing body/instrument. We create our own unique singing instrument and create our own unique sound. This seems to be true in Kulning as it is in the Hussler technique. A strong core and use of pelvic muscles and tummy muscles are a core part of both these traditions. (Pun intended). 

Kulning is created as a free form around this seven note scale and is also identified by being very high and suddenly swooping to very low with dramatic vocal changes. We practiced different vocal exercises to land in our singing bodies and began calling across the fields . At this stage it feels like a more sophisticated version of singing Coo-ee, as if you were attracting someones attention! It is easier to Kuln high starting with a consonant followed by vowels. Sometimes Kulning is wordless so you are free to create your own Kulning vocabulary such dree, Koo- ee! “A” is hard to do as the shape of the mouth does not deliver the right sound! We then learnt the scale and a traditional herding song: our homework for tomorrow morning is to settle these into ourselves and practice the vocal calls and body exercises we were shown today. 

Tonight Froujke and I host two of our fellow Kula’s for supper. Thankfully Froujke and I between us bought enough food to be generous hosts and we are blessed in having our own kitchen at our little cabin.

I think there will be much merriment and musical conversations tonight as we journey together in our wild ,rural adventure of becoming Kula’s who can sing the soul of the land and animals, and our own unique souls too, through the use of our bodies. I am looking forward to what tomorrow brings.

Day 2

Today our singing classroom was a glade in a forest carpeted in white star light flowers, in a clearing with a natural echo chamber across to some trees.But first we gathered at the folk museum and did some more body work exercises through play to ground our voices in our bodies for Kulning . We then did a mindfulness walk through the forest to ground us in nature and create more awareness of the natural world. It was lovely to walk in quiet gentle solemnitude; noticing the dry crunch of last years oak leaves, the spring green of the larch, the twisty roots of pines and the soft grey of lichen and stone. The sunlight danced across the forest floor sending skittering shapes of shadow and light across trees and earth. I felt the spring buds and rough patterned bark as I walked. 

Once in our glade we learnt how to” throw” or project our voices like an arrow, sending out our message whilst holding on to our power. We practiced the folk tune we learnt yesterday and put it into our Kulning voices, adopting the “Kulning face expression”, which one could say looks quite eccentric and a bit witchey! It’s kind of a wide snarling open smile with your voice projected forward as if you had a beak of a bird attached to your face! This is combined with the muscular use of tummy, pelvic and back muscles working to create support. It is important to have a fluid tongue and put the voice very much at the front of the mouth. We then practiced with each other , “ throwing “ our voices to one another with different calls and consonants and bits of what we could remember of the folk tune. We have been given another two tunes to learn tonight. We also did a led improvisation with the Vall scale- quite beautiful! I can’t wait to start improvising myself with this. But, I know the best learning comes from being slow and steady so I have to rein in my creative eager side for a bit longer!

We walked the 3km home, across the fields to our little cabin which already feels like home. My dutch room mate is already teasing me about my” afternoon tea” habit, which she has willingly joined me in! Tonight we have no guests to feed, just our air b and b ladies little puppy to look after as she has gone out for the evening. He puts his head on one side and then the next in the most winsome way as we practice Kulning with each other. I don’t think we will try calling him in this way outside yet! 

So, we settle quietly to lighting our Swedish wood burner, humming and singing to ourselves as the evening sun slides golden and still into the Gloming and the birds herald the end of a beautiful spacious golden sunshine Swedish spring day.

It is all rather like something out of a singing fairy tale: innoccent, earthy, natural and real and deep.

Day 3

Today marks the midpoint of the course and my stay in Sweden. It feels like there is a lot to learn in a short space of time. Traditionally girls absorbed the Kulning tradition from their older female relatives over years of summer stays on the farm. We have one week and don’t speak Swedish! I suppose it is better to let go of the idea of being “good” at it and be be happy to absorb what I can. 

Each day Karin gives us homework; to learn a couple of short calling folk songs in our normal singing voices. We film her on our phones and take photos of the words which stump us all! This morning Froujke and I had to walk to the nearby village and back to buy some provisions – we had had a milk disaster in our tiny crammed fridge- so there was no milk left for what Froujke called my ‘British Afternoon Tea tradition”! So, as we walked, we listened to our phone recordings and sang along the roads. I showed Froujke how I have worked out the Vall natural scale in Solfa Kodaly hand signs to speed up learning and make improvisation- which is coming soon- easier to begin . (L, T,DRM. And then downwards MRDT , L, M, SI,).We must have looked like two crazy foreigners, wandering along the road alternatively singing in bad broken Swedish and singing with the hand signs in the air! Nobody thankfully stopped and questioned our sanity, but swooshed by in their cars!

We simply had to visit the hand made chocolate shop in the local village and we bought a small gift there for our air B and B host……and nearly fainted at the price of these famous delectable chocolates…£10 for six balls of chocolate!!!!!!!!

This afternoon at Kulning school we stayed at the folk museum, in the grounds and in the farmhouse. First of all we were told about the different kind of calling songs that are used: there are songs , with different calls for all the different farm animals. There are also different ways of ending a call, dropping the voice like a stone in a well, or going up like a question or ending on the the same note, with more emphasis.

We listened to different recordings dating back to the early twentieth century of all these different calls, and then we had a hilarious quiz where we had to identify which animal the caller was calling by the different calls. The call characterises the quality of the animal. I surprised myself by getting 7 out of ten right! A cow call is long and most melodic and does not jump about like a goats call and the sound has lots of long vowels in it- a bit like a moo! The sheep call is identified by “PRR…” within the call. The calf call was like a more playful lighter call of it’s older cow counterpart and the goat call takes you on a crazy and sometimes guttural dance. 

We also heard different examples of Kulning on recordings. The most famous and extraordinary were two farm ladies with exceptional voices- incredibly high and versatile like two flutes. They engaged in a call and answer session and it was like a natural opera, with no artifice, with the backdrop of cows and cow bells. Or, like two human birds. It was so otherworldly and extraordinary that the back of my neck went all tingly. It reminded me of an unconscious and natural version of Mozart’s Papageno aria, but all the more beautiful for there was no artifice. Although Kulning is largely done by women, men are not exempt and the recordings she played us had a few examples of men Kulning, using their falsetto voices.

Again we did some playful bodywork exercises to build the muscular connection to our singing bodies- I suppose traditionally, they would not have even had to think of this as the traditional Kulning ladies would have been physically very strong- hefting butter churns and urns of milk and generally working out on the farm. But, for modern soft living folks building a muscular connection to our bodies to sing in the right way without damaging our voices is a key part of learning. Kulning is tough on the largynx- so without proper body use and good placement of the voice ( the beak witch face) one would be liable to damage the vocal cords.

After our quiz we went out in the grounds of the museum in small groups and pratciced Kulning to each other: we used bits of the folk songs we have been learning in our natural voices and then put them into wordless calls an octave up in our Kulning voices. We then split into pairs and “Kulned” something we already knew. My Italian counterpart, Sara, taught me “Ciao Bella” in Kulning! Karin came around and gave us individual feedback. My body support is good but I am a bit too British in my vocal placement , with my voice needing to be further forward in my beaky witch face, to be Kulning properly!

We were then invited to improvise or have a small melody created to share from our homework. We had still been acquainting ourselves with the scale but the Italian girl had created a mini song in Swedish- with her hosts help- about coming round to mine and Froujke’s place for supper and singing altogether! Very impressive. I had a go at improvising on the spot using the Kodaly hand sign system for support. Our homework is to create a melody from the Vall scale. We then learnt a new folk song and then practiced pulling it around in free rhythm and then ornamenting it. We did this as a group a phrase at a time, starting and stopping at the same time but in between pulling the melody about and adding in ornamentation. I loved doing this and actually the collective sound was wonderfully polyphonic in a slightly messy kind of way. It has given me a creative idea I am chewing on for my own song writing idea…..

Tonight Froujke and I hosted our air B and B lady for supper who then took us out to a local festival. The last day of April marks the return of Spring to the land and it is celebrated by the local mens choir singing spring songs in parts, a speech from the mayor and a giant bonfire lit by flaming torches by all the local children. It was great fun to go and gave us a lovely sense of being temporarily absorbed in a place. The men’s choir was led by Karin’s husband and all our Kulning colleagues came with their air B and B hosts. There is something lovely about men singing harmony in groups, it is somehow both endearingly tender and strong all at once. I don’t think men generally sing enough together in my experience. It would be nice to see more of it. 

Having rushed off to our spring festival we had left piles of washing up to be done from the special guest risotto I had cooked- to be done tomorrow morning- alongside creating our Vall melody. Knowing me, I will be doing both at once as I often “ song create” whilst chopping vegetables or washing up! 

Day 4 

Creating a mini val song for homework, filled my dreams along with a shamanic song dream which felt extraordinarily symbolic about the meaning of singing! I dreamt that Froujke and I were at some kind of out door school which had a principal, a man who stayed in his office all the time, nursing his shadow and his air off superiority. He was hard to get to know and very critical, proud and superior. He constantly wore a mask like the white ones in a greek tragedy. I knew he did not like me and felt challenged by my authenticity, my joie de vivre and honesty. However, Froujke and I had noticed that some students were engaging in negative behaviour: they were hurting animals and were stealing sea buckthorn berries ( this bit made me laugh because Fraujke and I have been loving a Swedish cordial made from sea buckthorn berries!) So, I had to go and see the principal to report this behaviour. When I went into his room, I knew I had a job on my hands and so I started to sing to him. I sang with all my authenticity and heart and love of our human nature and slowly he started to soften and heal! I woke up feeling that this somehow is one of the purposes of song and singing.

I woke from this dream very early at about 5.45 am and already the birds were singing outside on a golden still Swedish morning. So, I dressed quietly and went into the main room of the cabin to wash the dishes from the night before and to write my mini Vall melody. I decided to write a calling song, not a herding song but a call from mother earth to us, her children. It may well form the basis or chorus of a full song I will go on to write.

This is what I wrote :

Earth Song

L, L, M M M R D L,

I will call you through my sunset

M, M, M, SI, L, L,

I will call you through earth fire

L, L, M M M M L’ L’ M

I will call you through my restless wind

M D L, M, M, SI M, SI,L, (glissando)

My children, listen to my – call.

Above the words are the solfege . The comma represents below doh and the apostrophe shows the octave above the La home note. It is in the Vall scale. If I was to turn this into a full song there would be verses to go with this and I would have some wordless Kulning within it, possibly even as a harmonic accompaniment to these lyrics . I will think on…..

The morning passed quickly doing some yoga and meditation and before too long we were hiking across the fields for our afternoon outdoor school. Today we had a different teacher – another Karin ( Ericsson)- who has a band that sings in Kulning harmonies. Can’t wait to check her out when I have internet. She decided after a group check in that she would spend time with each one of us to give us some individual tips and help, whilst the group in general went over learning the herding songs we had already been given. 

It sounds funny but I was bit disappointed with my ten minutes! She said I was doing great, had learnt well, had good vocal placement and that it was “ good work”. Then we did some free flow Kulning improvisation and harmonies for about two minutes. I know I should be pleased that I am making good progress, but I wanted to dive into the deep waters of learning some quarter notes and harmonising! But there was, of course no time for that in a 10 minute tutorial. She was a very lovely lady though.

One of the ladies in the group is a yodelling teacher from Germany and she was hosting a workshop at the Waldorf school in Gnesta, that evening. So, we got a lift into Gnesta from the other German lady in our group and hung around the village square like recalcitrant teenagers until it was time for the workshop. I was dead on my feet from being up since 5.45 am with not much food and unfortunately the yodel singing set off my post covid symptoms of a tight chest and complete exhaustion. All I wanted to do was lie on the floor – not skip about yodelling . A shame as I will not have such an opportunity again….but human bodies do what they do!

Bed was a longed for necessity!

Day 5

Our last day today! I felt better when I woke – a relief as I have had some post covid symptoms that come and go. Froujke and I made rice salad to take as we were meeting before lunch today as a reporter was coming to talk to us from the local paper and we also thought of sharing a last picnic lunch altogether. We had our original teacher Karin, back and we went in groups of cars to a nearby lake to practice Kulning across the water to an echo point. We did some body/voice warm ups and then imitated her Kulning calls across the water. Each time we paused and took a rooted breath, feeling the connection with air and land , held our power and then sang the call, listening back to the echo. It felt very powerful and shamanistic and somehow made me feel very rooted in the place. I found it to be really quite empowering. 

It. Is quite extraordinary that an art form that has evolved for a profoundly practical purpose( herding and calling animals) somehow also embodies the spirit of place, nature and the soul of the singer. It is an unconscious profundity, I think, as farmers are generally very pragmatic and sensible people. But, perhaps they are so part of their surroundings and natural world that this element is just naturally woven in to their art form.

Following this exercise, we made a massive circle through the wood by the lake – we could only see the next person in the circle. We then went round the circle three times, Kulning completely free style – whatever we wanted- without words. This was a lovely way of finishing before we went back for the picnic to the grounds of the folk museum and to meet the local reporter. 

After our picnic we had a last sing song together; this time learning a simple song in Swedish that could be sung in harmony. We were divided into four groups and each group repeatedly sang one line of the four line song and then we were invited in turn to step into the circle and to freestyle improvise over the group harmony. It was a very lovely experience and rather like stepping into a vocal sound bath.

Then it was good bye after a last check in and thank you’s. As a teacher I appreciate the careful preperation, planning, delivery and clarity of Karin’s teaching. She has taken us – a group of diverse europeans with varying knowledge and experience of music – on a journey to understand her singing culture. It was beautifully delivered and planned. I will remember this week- which feels like a slip in time ,forever. It will inform my song writing and I already have a couple of song ideas beginning to bubble in the song cauldron in my head. The “hook” of one is the chorus above. 

Tomorrow, Froujke and I have one more day….so we will walk to a lake and buy the famous ice cream in Bjornlunda, before getting ready to leave on Wednesday morning. Having Froujke as my room mate has been a wonderful extra blessing. We have got along famously and I will always remember our hilarious evening of doing an improvised story song as we washed up. This is something I often do with students to encourage free flowing musical improvisation. I have never done it with a fellow songwriter and adult; the results were side splittingly funny and sometimes rather risqué ! Not one to be performed in public or recorded. 

What a wonderful, magical, creative, musically informative week. Thank you Help Musicians UK, from the bottom of my heart. Below are two pictures; one of the group and one of our teacher Karin.

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