Note-taking, Recording, Just Play Along! Some Reflections on Documenting Rural Music Heritage on Kihnu Island, Estonia

Theme: Documentation of Intangible Rural Traditions and Practices

by Ms. Siyun Wu
HeritageForAll Intern (Call 2019) from Beijing, China and lives in Leiden, Netherlands
Internship Program “Rural Heritage and Traditional Food”
PhD candidate in the Music Heritage and Citizenship in Estonia, Leiden University



Approaching rural music heritage at the World Heritage island of Kihnu (Estonia), this case study looks into the local tradition and kept-alive practices of folk music and dance. Drawing from the ethnographer’s fieldwork experience with the local heritage and the community, the bodily and sensory encounter with the music in particular, reflections will be brought on the documentation of cultural heritage: What and how to document heritage? What does it mean to do documentation and to be an ethnographer that is ‘being there’? How should heritage fieldworkers approach local community?

Music heritage keeps alive…

With the interest of how the diverse landscapes of music heritage are being preserved and kept alive in the “Singing Nation” of Estonia, I started searching and following flows of traditional folk music around the country, in the cities and in the forest, in festivals and in clubs, in museums and in archive, on the internet and on the streets. And in no time after my research journey set off, I have found myself sailing southeast to the small island of Kihnu in the Gulf of Riga.

Although small in scale (population 701, area 16.9 km²), Kihnu as a cultural space was one of the first two heritage elements of the country being listed by UNESCO (the National Song Festival ​Laulupidu as part of the Baltic Song and Dance Celebrations being another) in 2003. While many islands in the country are gradually becoming ‘holiday hometowns’ where people only go back for visit occasionally, Kihnu is increasingly known as a living example of the disappearing Estonian culture with its own rich and unique traditions and some ‘odd’, old customs. If one goes around the island today, among the breathtaking landscape of sea and forest, the tranquil village and farming field, (s)he can still glimpse on the traditional lifestyle of Kihnu people with men going to the sea hunting seals and fishing while women running around the island farming and keeping the household, as well as the numerous songs, games, dances, ceremonies, and handicraft skills. With singing as an integral part of different collective folk-life and religious activities and celebrations and in a mix with different influences brought to the island by seamen, the musical repertory of the Kihnu islanders includes runic or Kalevala-metre songs origin from pre-Christian times, rhymed songs and folk tunes around the Balto-Finnic with a local adoption and recreation (Kihnu Museum, Kihnu Kultuuriruum, UNESCO 2019).

Sound archive of Kihnu singing in Estonian National Museum ERM, ©author, 2019

Reached to the Kihnu melody in the summertime in 2019, I was quickly attracted by and intensively immersed into Kihnu’s music heritage through not only the rich collections of documents and archival recordings (see Kapper & Rüütel 2015, Kihnu Museum, Estonian Folklore Archive, Estonian National Museum), but also the plentiful occasions and contexts on the island where Kihnu music tradition is actively alive. Living on the island and getting to know more Kihnu people, I am gradually led to hear and learn songs and tunes and to see how music is also involved in different cultural traditions and current uses on the island, from the spectrums of domestic life and social gatherings within the community to performances and festivals that are also open to or even specifically aim for visitors. Music heritage is more than “a thing” (Smith 2006), a final product of musical work (Seeger 2004), an unchangeable series of notes and lyrics collected into and preserved as archives here. In Kihnu, it’s a vibrating process of producing and reproducing, in a living mode of sharing, transmitting and hence constantly open to selections and adoptions, changes and recreations. And it is through these selections, changes and recreations that I am trying to see how music heritage is alive around people, has been and keep being meaningful for the people, being influenced by while also reshaping people and their relationships with each other, within the community, and, inseparably, with different kinds of outsiders, me included.

Kihnu traditional music concerts, ©author, 2019
Kihnu traditional music concerts, ©author, 2019

When music is on, like Estonian linguistics, folklorists and ethnographers who have been searching, collecting and studying poetic or musical folk expressions in the remote rural area for over a hundred year (Kuutma & Jaago, 2005), I try to document Kihnu music traditions by taking field notes on what I hear and see and making photos and audiovisual recordings when I am allowed. As some locals joke with me sometimes, I am the strange nerdy Chinese girl that comes to a party with pens and paper. When people are singing, playing fiddles and harmonicas, listening and dancing, my hands are busy with my pen and notebook, recorder and camera, trying to catch and record my encounters and experiences on the island as much as possible during the limited time I can spend there. Tracing everyday life on Kihnu, I am trying to capture and document as in detail as possible whenever traditional music emerges and comes alive, similarly or differently. Then the question follows, what details are there? How can I and how much do I really capture from what I see and hear? How can I achieve a better understanding of what I capture and experience? And eventually what is the better way to note down the as-rich-as-possible experience I have?

Come Dance!

Documenting and archiving have been seen as one crucial measure for safeguarding and celebrating Intangible Cultural Heritage (UNESCO 2003, 2006). Music heritage as being alive and so actively recreated in people’s everyday life like in the community of Kihnu, through time and interactions with Kihnu people, I have decided to make some changes in my way of participating and documenting.

Finding various forms of usage of traditional music and the rich variety of recreation even for the same one piece of song or tune, I was excitedly motivated by the ethnographer instinct of recording and documenting. I was, however, also in the meanwhile increasingly caught up by the anxiety of missing the moments when music was on and of not recording fast and comprehensive enough on what was happening. Until one day, a Kihnu friend stopped me.

Kihnu people playing music, dancing in their traditional dresses in festivals, © author, 2019
Kihnu people playing music, dancing in their traditional dresses in festivals, © author, 2019
  • “Come join us Siyun!” taking my hands off my pen and camera, M, already getting some red color in her cheek from the dancing, pulled me into the dancing circle.
  • “Oh M, thank you, but I need to do my work.”
  • “Come on, don’t spoil the fun! It’s a party! You want to learn how Kihnu people live. You see any Kihnu writing and filming here?”
  • “But I don’t know how to dance.”
  • “You have heard the song and seen us dance many times!”
  • “But that’s different!”
  • “It’s very simple. You know the song already, now just follow me. You will learn fast.”

… (Personal communication, 12 July, 2019)

Then, without any recordings and documents, I had one of my most enlightening and rewarding fieldwork experiences. Neither were there many conversations throughout the rest of the night until the very end of the party. But the experience was richly charged with embodied knowledge and skills, senses and emotions, as well as interactions between music and people asmuchas between people.

First of foremost, my scope of attention and points of focus were switched and opened anew. When being an observer and recorder, I usually try to pull away to see and record from a distance so that I would not be on people’s way and could have as much in the camera frame as possible. Different from that this time, I got pulled in and hence surrounded by people moving around and immersed in music in a completely different way. More than just listening and following the music piece as a whole and in a smooth flow, I was in music in a way that I needed to find the music from a distance and among different sounds, to make matches with step, move, and spin, to catch the right beats so to be in the same pace with the dance partners. At the moment being in the music, I felt with my full body being involved and getting evolved with music. My heart was beating, my feet were stepping, and my hands were clapping according to music. I smelt and felt the wind from the sea, people’s breath and the hot air surrounding the whole dancing ground.

All the more so, following M’s steps and trying to finish dances with all people around, I started to pick up those signs and gestures and interactions between people. It was not through talking but from her grips and moves as a lead that I learned how to follow the music. Like most folk dance and dancing event, whether the routine is a group dance or not, people danced with their partners while also with the others, and even with musicians and people outside of the ground (audiences and spectators). While dancing with M, I was also moving accordingly with other pairs. I got the sense of what to do, where to move, and people’s welcoming acceptance and joyful engagements with me from their smiles, their eyesight, subtle changes in their steps and gestures. Like what M said to me, you know what to do automatically when you are in and then you will enjoy. And it was at that moment when I was able to dance with instead of after the music and M, when my body can respond automatically, singing and dancing along in the exact same beats and paces with the musicians and dancers, I started to sense the joy, instead of merely seeing it and being influenced by the people. I started to laugh and make ‘extra’ moves like what I had seen before when some musicians dropped a note or added a fermata, when some dancers made a double-speed spin or initiated a group shuttle. At the musical moment, much more happened besides the dance at the party. Can be seen quite often in Kihnu gatherings or parties, there were people at least partly in their traditional costumes, in a family or friend group, chatting, drinking, laughing, hugging, knitting, gaming. With the music and the momentary atmosphere it created and hold up, people were communicating, sharing life, bonding emotion and creating memories with each other in multiple forms, linguistically and bodily. For me, losing the full-picture view as an observing and recording fieldworker and transcending the boundary between the Kihnu people and me as an outsider, I was led to an underwater side of the music heritage iceberg.

“What is really going on here?”

Music is much more than just the sound made and captured by our bodies or by certain

instruments or machines. Music is also relevant to the emotion that is driven from the production of, the appreciation of, and the participation in a performance (Seeger 2004). Asking the question “what is really going on there?” (Small 1998), Small’s concept of musicking extends the spectrum of music from music pieces to the people doing music, and includes not just the people who make the music but the full range of people “to take part” in the musical worlds “in any capacity, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for performance (what is called composing), or by dancing” (Small 1998, p. 9).

Taking Small’s question and the idea of approaching the musical world as a human encounter and a social action to my experience with Kihnu traditional music in that party night, what I was luckily invited to and shared with is one operating zone where Kihnu people taking part in and keeping their culture alive with as a community. Taking part in this musical world not only by making notes and recordings but bodily and sensorily engaging, I came to realize the limitation of my earlier focus on documenting and the assumption of “seeing everything by having everything captured in the lens ”. Before, I was there in different concerts and performances, but I was also not entirely there. Standing aside listening, seeing and recording people musicking is different from sharing the moment as one inside the circle. Noting down the moments when people laughing and playing with their skills does not mean understanding the music heritage and the musical world where people find their joy, togetherness and other significances they want to preserve the heritage for. Although our captivations and understandings of “what is really going on there” are always limited and situated, by not being a documenting fieldworker for a moment, I think I have archived a deeper grip on the music I heard and have gained more insight of why music heritage matters for the Kihnu community from the past, at the present and in the future.Estonian scholar doing fieldwork in 1940s in exhibition by ERM,© author, 2019

Estonian scholar doing fieldwork in 1940s in exhibition by ERM,© author, 2019

Like how M so insight-fully said to me after the party, “Now you know Kihnu music and why I love Kihnu so much.” Joining the party change my experience with the music, and also my relationship with the locals. “It’s nice to have people from different places coming, seeing and filming Kihnu. It’s really great you are doing research about our heritage as well. But many people don’t really get nor care what we are doing and why we like keeping our lives in such traditional, old ways. We don’t like those people.” M’s friendly invitation, in this case, also sends a thought-provoking message on how our ways of approaching and documenting ICH may be received by the people we work with and what influences might be caused upon them. Our willingness to learn, join and do what people do, caring not only the music heritage but also the people musicking particularly when we first start approaching, can be a more respectful way to the people and community owning, practicing and sharing the heritage.

To expand our scope of noticing and capturing “what is really going on” and to eventually reach a richer and deeper level of thick description (Geertz 1973), perhaps for us ethnographers and scholars from different disciplines doing fieldwork on cultural heritage, before notetaking, making records, impulsively engrossing ourselves with documenting “the heritage thing”, we can first try joining the party and playing, dancing along!


  • Sa Kihnu Foundation (2019). Retrieved from
  • Geertz, C. (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books. Inc.
  • Kapper, S., & Rüütel, I. (2015). Kihnu Tantsud. Tartu: Eesti Kirjandusmuuseum.
  • Kuutma, K., & Jaago, T. (2005). Studies in Estonian folkloristics and ethnology: a reader and reflexive history. Tartu: University of Tartu.
  • Seeger, A. (2004). Why Suyá sing: a musical anthropology of an Amazonian people. Urbana, IL : University of Illinois Press.
  • Small, C. (1998). Musicking: the meanings of performing and listening. Hanover: University Press of New England.
  • Smith, L. (2006). Uses of Heritage. London: Routledge.
  • UESCO. (2019). Kihnu Cultural Space. Retrieved from
  • UNESCO. (2003). Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage 2003.
  • UNESCO. (2006). Report of the Expert Meeting on Documenting and Archiving Intangible Cultural Heritage. Retrieved from

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