5 Fascinating Folk Vocal Traditions

The traditional Maori Haka uses the body as percussive instrument, which becomes part of the song. . (Photo: ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock)

If you think about it, all entertainment used to be live. If you wanted to hear music, you sang it yourself or sought out other singers — adding in your own percussion section with clapping hands or stomping feet. A more passive experience was only for the very wealthy, the only ones who could afford to pay musicians, actors or painters to perform or create for them regularly.

In fact, the poorer or more isolated you were, the more likely you would have been to make your own art and entertainment. That's part of the explanation for the rich folk music traditions from around the world. Here's a sampling:


The Maori are the aboriginal people of the islands of New Zealand, and the Haka was originally their war dance or challenge. It would be performed by two opposing groups. These War Haka included various proclamations of the warriors' strength and ability to slay their enemies. Today, many sports fans are familiar with the song and dance. Since the late 1980s, it has been performed prior to rugby games by New Zealand players of various races, not just Maori. While Haka are usually performed by men, women and even children have their own Hakas. (You can see the women participating in the very emotional Haka in the video above.) The key to understanding the song lies in picking up how the various body parts are used as instruments — so slapping of the thighs, leaping, stomping, and beating one's chest show how dance and sound (body and voice) come together to create a song.

Shape-note singing

Sacred Harp or shape-note singing is one branch of an older tradition of American music that has its roots in England and New England, though today the distinctive and specific style that it evolved into is associated with the American South. It developed over the period 1770 to 1820 and later in the 1800s was a big part of traveling revival services. It's usually sacred — often emotional — church choral music, and is sung a cappella, with a rotating leader. It is a participatory, not passive, tradition, which makes sense as it derives from church singing, where the shape-note style of music notation was used to make it easier for a large congregation of people to read music. For an example of this kind of music sung in a church setting (as opposed to the performance above by more professional musicians), check out this video.


The Sami are the original native people of northern Norway, Sweden and Russia. Yoik or Joik is the type of singing that was a traditional form among these people, and according to the origination stories for the songs, they came from the fairies and elves of the lands above the Arctic Circle. The songs have minimal or no lyrics, and are personal and often spiritual expressions that can be dedicated or inspired by a person, animal or place that the singer finds personally significant—sometimes they are made for a new baby when it's born. (If it sounds familiar, there is a Yoik in the Disney film, "Frozen.")

Inuit throat-singing

As Kathy Kettler describes in the video above, Inuit throat-singing evolved as a "friendly competition among girls, that they would do while the men were out hunting." It includes imitations of natural sounds and animals, and no other instrumentation is used save voices. It's almost always performed by two women who face each other, and is meant to be competitive, speeding up and becoming more complex as the song goes on, ending when one woman runs out of breath, can't keep up, or starts laughing. In November 2015, Justin Trudeau was sworn in as Canada's prime minister and two 11-year-old Inuit girls, Samantha Metcalfe and Cailyn Degrandpre, performed Inuit throat-singing at the ceremony.


Klapa translates from the Croatian as "a group of friends" and indeed, this traditional musical style started with a group of friends singing together in church. The compositions are usually sung a cappella, by groups of men or women (not mixed-gender groups). Some minor accompanying instruments might be present, especially since these folk songs continue today and are being added to all the time. Themes tend to center around a few topics, including love and romance, the sea, grapes and wine, and Croatia. They are popular enough within the country that people might sing them on the street after a few rounds of wine in the evening — Klapa is the people's music and is shared throughout the country.