Sunday 14 September 2014

Ojkanje - the wolf singing

In the mountains of the Balkans we find a peculiar type of "old style" singing which can only be compared with the howling of wolfs. The singing can be solo or group singing. If it is done in a group it has the same polyphonic characteristics as the howling of a wolf pack

Gray wolves howl to assemble the pack (usually before and after hunts), to pass on an alarm (particularly at a den site), to locate each other during a storm or unfamiliar territory and to communicate across great distances. Wolf howls can under certain conditions be heard over areas of up to 130 km2 (50 sq mi). Wolf howls are generally indistinguishable from those of large dogs. Male wolves give voice through an octave, passing to a deep bass with a stress on "O", while females produce a modulated nasal baritone with stress on "U". Pups almost never howl, while yearling wolves produce howls ending in a series of dog-like yelps. Howling consists of a fundamental frequency which may lie between 150 and 780 Hz, and consists of up to 12 harmonically related overtones. The pitch usually remains constant or varies smoothly, and may change direction as many as four or five times. Howls used for calling pack mates to a kill are long, smooth sounds similar to the beginning of the cry of a horned owl. When pursuing prey, they emit a higher pitched howl, vibrating on two notes. When closing in on their prey, they emit a combination of a short bark and a howl. When howling together, wolves harmonize rather than chorus on the same note, thus creating the illusion of there being more wolves than there actually are. Lone wolves typically avoid howling in areas where other packs are present. Wolves from different geographic locations may howl in different fashions: the howls of European wolves are much more protracted and melodious than those of North American wolves, whose howls are louder and have a stronger emphasis on the first syllable. The two are however mutually intelligible, as North American wolves have been recorded to respond to European-style howls made by biologists.
In Serbian it is called "ojkanje". The center of this musical tradition seems to be in the area of the Dinaric alps and in the Balkan mountains. Ethnographers from the end of the 19th and the 20th century, which researched this type of traditional singing in the Dinaric alps and Bosnia, all report that it was part of the tradition of the "Orthodox population" meaning "Serbians". Czech historian and ethnographer Ljudevit Kuba, writes in the text ”Narodna glazbena umjetnost u Dalmaciji” (Zbornik za narodni život i običaje južnih Slavena, Zagreb, 1899) that ojkanje is only found in Serbian populated areas of the western Balkans. Antun Dobronić writes in his essay "Ojkanje" (Zbornik za narodne običaje i život Južnih Slavena, Zagreb, 1915) that the only people who sing like this are Orthodox Serbs. Dušan Umićević writing in magazine Razvitak, Banjaluka, 1939 says "No Catholic or Muslim sings like this in Bosnia"Stanko Opačić Ćanica writes in "Narodne pjesme Korduna", Zagreb, 1972 that ojkanje was also known as "Cyrillic singing" referring to the fact that only Orthodox Serbs sang like this and they were the ones who wrote using Cyrillic alphabet.

This is a Serbian singing group from Nevesinje doing ojkanje.

Similar types of polyphonic "old style" singing is also found in other parts of the Balkans.  

Here is the list of examples of this type of singing from Serbia, Croatia, Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Greece (Epirus, Makedonia). 

Serbian Old style singing

Croatian Old Style singing

Albanian Old Style singing

Macedonian Old Style singing from Rodopi mountains

Bulgarian Old Style singing

Romanian Old Style singing (Doina)

Epirus Old Style singing

Greek Makedonia

We can find similar type of old style singing in Sardinia, Basque country, Ireland, Estonia and Georgia. But the singing seems to become less animal and more human like, the further away you go from the Balkans. 

Sardinian old style singing

Basque old style singing:

Irish Sean Nós (Old style) Singing

Estonian Old Style singing

Polish highlands Old Style singing

Georgian Old Style singing. I have to put a big questionmark here. This is the only example I could find where Georgian choral singing loses its characteristic harmony and "disintegrates" into wolf singing.

I was recently made aware of a type of singing from Georgian region of Guria, western Georgia,  where it is called "guruli krimanchuli". This is the old style true and true. What is interesting is that this version of wolf singing has parts which strangely resemble Yodling from Alps...What is interesting is that this is the part of Georgia where we also find higher percentage of the I2a haplogroup...

What is extremely interesting is that this type of singing is found only in Northern Greece where it is known as Dorian singing. Dorians came from the north, from the Balkans, and there is still a debate about their ethnic origin.

How old is this type of singing? Is this maybe the oldest, the most primitive type of singing which dates from the time when people still learned from the animals? Is this neolithic or maybe even paleolithic singing? Why is this type of singing so concentrated in the Balkans? Is it linked to any particular genetic tribal group? It is interesting that this type of singing has its epicenter in the Balkans, which is also the epicenter of the I2a haplogroup and that it is also found in Sardinia, another I2a haplogroup hot spot. Is this type of singing linked to the I2a haplogroup tribes?

The grey wolf was once one of the world's most widely distributed mammal, after humans and lions, living throughout the northern hemisphere north of 15°N latitude in North America and 12°N in India. Event today, gray wolves are one of most widespread land mammals, inhabiting various ecosystems throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and a small portion of Africa.

Considering the distribution of wolves I would expect to find similar type of singing throughout the wolf distribution area. However it seems that this particular "wolf" singing either only developed in certain cultures, or was only preserved to this day in only the most culturally conservative communities. 

I would appreciate any links to recordings of "wolf" singing from other cultures which are not in the above list so that I can update this article.

Every group singing is ceremonial. Group singing confirms and reinforces the group bond. Animals use it for precisely this purpose and I believe that originally humans used group singing in the same way. There is no surprise then to find group singing at the heart of religious ceremonies. Early medieval Balkan Christian music developed directly from the group wolf singing. 

Serbian Christian chanting:

Greek Christian chanting:

Albanian Christian chanting 

This is a very good recording of the hymn to the Mother of God chanted on the Holy Liturgy at Serbian Dečani Monastery by an Orthodox Byzantine Choir of the Christ's Resurrection Cathedral in Tirana: 

Bulgarian Christian chanting:


  1. Basque polyphonic singing

    I think there's something similar on the Orkney or Shetland Islands but i forget what it's called.

    If it's to do with the surviving source regions of haplogroup I as a whole and not just I2a (and not regions that received the later expansion of I as part of the iron age Germanic expansion) then there would probably be examples from the Pyrenees, western Finland and wherever in Scandinavia provided the source of the Germanic variants of I.

    I like that idea personally but another possible explanation is it's mountain singing developed originally for the same reason as wolf howls - long distance communication.

    ps found a Finnish version

  2. I agree with you about the reason for the development of this type of singing. It is an effective way of communicating and commining, which people probably learned by lisntening to the wolfs. I believe that It is quite possible that the this singing type is linked to the I haplogroup as a whole. I1, I2a2 are found with I2a1 in Ireland where we find the old style singing. I am still to find any example from other I1 areas. Maybe the original "wolf" singin just turned into "normal" choral singing. Is there a strong choral tradition in I1 populations?

  3. I am listening through Nordic folk music at the moment. There seems to be a definite similarity between the polyphonic female singing from the Baltic and the polyphonic femal singing from the Balkans. The Baltic seems to be more polished, sounding more like the later development from the original rough style.

    Basque singing is very interesting. Again it seems to be half way between the original wolf singing and modern polyphonic singin, but definitely very interesting.

    This one is particularly interesting as it has a solo lead fallowed by a group like in the Balkans

  4. "Basque singing is very interesting. Again it seems to be half way between the original wolf singing and modern polyphonic singin, but definitely very interesting."

    If Basques were a mixture of R1b men and paleo women then Basques being halfway might fit the theory. It would be interesting to see if there are other examples from the Pyrenees to compare it with.

    Looking specifically at the female and male versions might show more some regiuons had continuity on the female side but not the male and some had both.

  5. Hello, I am from Georgia and here is the style of Georgian polyphonic singing that you were looking for :

    This style is called Krimanchuli (კრიმანჭული - in Georgian) and this style is common in Guria region of Georgia which is the western part of Georgia. The style of the singing is different from one region to other.

    1. Thank you Papai this is exactly what I was looking for. I will include it into the article.