‘It’s so strange, I’ve never heard anything like it’: The folk collective Healing on recording the world’s oldest song

About 300,000 years ago (a few millennia more or less) the human larynx fell down, an evolutionary advance that separated us from the apes as crucially as the development of opposable thumbs and a large cerebral cortex. That meant our throats got bigger, allowing us to expand the sounds we could make beyond animalistic howls and howls. Suddenly we could talk. We could develop a vocabulary. we could sing

This development marked the birth of music, but we really only know of relatively recent developments in this vast history. The world’s oldest known musical instrument – a Neanderthal flute carved from the bone of a bear and found in a Slovenian cave in 1995 – is only 50,000 years old. The oldest written piece of music is much younger: a whopping 4,000 years old. What remains of this are little more than hints on how to tune a lyre—certainly not enough to get a melody out of it.

To find the oldest known complete song, you only have to look back 3,400 years. It consists of lyrics, musical notation and tuning instructions for a Babylonian lyre carved on a clay tablet and is called Hymn to Nikkal or Hurrian Hymn No 6. Archaeologists found it in the early 1950s – along with nearly three dozen other incomplete Hurrian hymns – during an excavation in the royal palace of Ugarit in what is now northern Syria.

Despite being a complete song, Hymn to Nikkal has been the subject of controversy since its full release in 1968. Most of the disagreement revolves around the style of play: the Hurrian language in which the song was written still baffles archaeologists. A challenge, which the Germanic-Nordic experimental-folk-collective Heile has taken on with their forthcoming third album “Drif”.

Healing 2019 in BerlinAs old as time … Healing 2019 in Berlin. Photo: Frank Hoensch/Redferns

“We leave the scientific battle to the scientists,” says instrumentalist and producer Christopher Juul. “You will find five different versions of this song by five different people. We never write music from the point of view, “We have the answer; it is exactly like that.’ We want to create an atmosphere where you can feel what it was like [in ancient times].”

Healing know what they’re talking about when it comes to early music. Juul and singer Maria Franz met through Viking re-enactment societies and in 2014 formed Heile along with Kai Uwe Faust, a Viking-inspired tattoo artist. Since then, the band’s goal has been to “amplify the story.” Their two previous studio releases, Ofnir and Futha, resurrect the music of the Viking, Iron Age and Bronze Age cultures, inspired in part by an extensive library of artifacts and lyrics owned by Franz, who is also the band’s archivist – and theirs Live shows extend this historical allure with their costumed theatrics and tribal-sized lineups.

“I think we can learn something by looking back,” says Juul, speaking to Franz on a video call from his home studio in Copenhagen. “A lot of what we do revolves around respecting the ground beneath our feet and also some basic human emotions that I think you might lose if you’re too busy and too hectic in this one live reality. Turning back time also slows down time.”

This fondness for old sounds makes perfect sense when co-lead singer Franz reveals that Juul was the son of a goði: a priest of Norse paganism. “In Scandinavia it’s still an accepted religion to work within the old beliefs,” says Juul. “My father married people and baptized children. We did the blót” – an Old Norse pagan ritual at the beginning of the summer and winter months – “twice a year. That was completely normal.”

Franz grew up near Borre National Park: a Viking graveyard in southern Norway. “These reasons are why I am who I am today,” she says. “It’s a beautiful place. I always dreamed of how the Vikings would live and dress there, how they would fall in love and how they would fight for their village.”

On Drif, healing expands their horizons beyond their usual landscape of Norse and Germanic cultures. There is a serenade called Tenet that hums ancient folk melodies inspired by Sator Square, an ancient Roman palindrome unearthed at various locations in Europe that inspired Christopher Nolan’s film Tenet. The song Urbani was sung by soldiers in the Roman army, while Busla’s Ban is a 13th-century Icelandic curse.

Watch the video for Anoana from the new album Drif

Nikkal, healing’s rendition of Hymn to Nikkal, is the penultimate track on the album. The band drew on the 1984 scholarly work A Hurrian Musical Score from Ugarit: The Discovery of Mesopotamian Music by Marcelle Duchesne-Guillemin, a pioneer of ancient music theory. She believed the piece contained intervals that together formed a two-part harmony. It went perfectly with Heile with their two singers. The result is three of Drif’s most hypnotic minutes, as otherworldly as it is beautiful.

A well-known fact about the song is its dedication to Nikkal: the wife of the moon god worshiped in the ancient Near East. “Most of the songs are meant to be remembered,” says Juul. “We saw it in Iceland, where people would compose these incredibly long songs that repeat over and over to detail a lineage. I’m pretty sure a song like Hymn to Nikkal would have been written to teach adults and children about this subject: this moon goddess.”

For millennia, music history was sustained solely by word of mouth. Generations have always passed songs down to the next generation, be it spoken, written or recorded. So is there a consistent line – are there echoes of Hymn to Nikkal in modern popular music? Franz laughs. “No. The rhythm in these lyrics is just so strange; it’s so alien. I’ve never heard anything like it.”

This makes preserving Hymn to Nikkal even more important for healing. “I wish people could really feel the emotion behind the old tracks we’re reinterpreting,” she continues, “because we travel across the spectrum of human emotions. Music is one of the tools we can use to reconnect with ourselves, our surroundings and the people around us.”

Drif will be released in Season of Mist on August 19th.