When Jonna Jinton was 12 years old, she heard the most beautiful sound she had ever heard.
She was on a school field trip to a music museum in her home country of Sweden. The tour guide instructed them to clasp their hands over their ears, and she let out a haunting, high-pitched cry that echoed in the entire room.
A few decades later, Jinton has mastered this Scandinavian vocal technique called “kulning,” which was used to corral farm animals during ancient times. She performs her own songs and posts them on her YouTube channel for her combined 4.7 million followers to see.
Most of her viewers only learn of kulning through her videos, but the practice dates back hundreds of years. However, it has become obsolete in recent decades.
Kulning likely dates back to the medieval era. During spring, farmers sent their livestock to a small fäbod, a remote, temporary settlement in the mountains, to allow cows and goats to graze freely. Women accompanied the herds and lived with them in isolation from late May until early October.
The animals grazed during the day and would wander far from the cottages. Thus, they needed to be called back each night.
Women developed kulning to lure the livestock from their grazing grounds. Their calls needed to be loud enough to be heard across the mountainous landscape.
The volume of kulning can reach up to 125 decibels, so it can be heard by a cow over five kilometers away. However, it remains a mystery what prompts them to trot over to the source of the sound.
Performing kulning at a great volume requires learning about the proper technique, which is starkly different from classical or popular singing as it is more like calling. Young women learned from the elders, imitating their songs and slowly adding personal flair to them.
According to Susanne Rosenberg, professor and head of the folk music department at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, improvisation is key to the kulning. You have to vary it because you never know how long you’ll be calling for. You have to keep singing until all the cows come home.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, remote summertime herding faded from practice as well as kulning. Luckily, a few musicians and historians are weaving it into Swedish culture in new contexts using modern platforms. Kulning saw a revival in theater, contemporary folk music, university classrooms, and feminist organizations.
Jinton studied one of Rosenberg’s books to learn kulning, and she is now one of the musicians who intend to share it with the public through social media.
When she turned 21, she quit her studies and left the city to live in a remote village where her mother was born. There, she began regularly practicing kulning in the forest to avoid bear encounters or sing songs to her cow, Stjärna.
Jinton started a blog, and when she posted her first video of kulning, the internet lapped it up.
“Before I started sharing my videos, I thought I was alone feeling this way about these sounds,” she said. “But so many people were feeling something special, almost as if they were being reminded of something.”
Both livestock and humans are entranced by kulning, and Jinton hopes to share that feeling with others by performing this vanishing art.
But for Rosenberg, kulning never really disappeared.
“I do not see it as a revival,” she said. “It’s really a continuation of an expression that is so strong, it will always find a way to persist.”
Check out the video below to hear Jonna Jinton’s magical song to the cows.
Visit her YouTube channel here.