The many faces of the yoik
by Heikki Laitinen :: 1994
The Sami yoik is one of the most curious forms of music to be found anywhere in Europe. An archaic mode of unaccompanied solo singing, it is nowadays very much alive on stage and CD. But it is equally at home in the company of a folk, country or jazz ensemble, a symphony orchestra, at a rock concert or disco. The modern yoik has thus acquired an incredible variety of faces. Far from being a relic of the ancient past, it is living music with firm faith in the future.
The special nature of the yoik will become most apparent to you on trying to repeat a simple, harmonious-sounding yoik melody you have just heard. You will be astonished to find that you cannot get beyond the first few notes. You simply cannot recall the melody; your mind is not equipped to record the tune. This is a common experience among non-Sami students of the yoik, for the yoik, and the musical approach - the musical worldview - behind it, differs too much from your own. In addition to the melody, you also have to contend with an unfamiliar vocal technique and style of performance. As a singer, you will find it difficult to come to grips with the yoik. To the Sami, of course, it is as natural as their mother tongue.
What is perhaps remarkable is the fact that the yoik is still alive and kicking. Never once has it needed artificial respiration. How is it possible that the dominant cultures have not (and not for want of trying) succeeded in wiping the yoik off the face of the earth?
The yoik embodies something of fundamental importance to the Sami ethos. It is every bit as important as the Sami language. If the yoik falls silent, so will the fells of Lapland.
You will not beat me down anymore
1993 was the United Nations International Year for the World's Indigenous People. At Midsummer Gárasavvon in Samiland was the scene of one of the main Nordic events in honour of the year. The culture festival was called Davvi Šuvvá - The North is Sighing.
High on Kaarevaara Fell, half a kilometre above sea level, the Midnight Sun did not even attempt to approach the horizon. Beyond the teepee or kota erected for the festival rose the majestic uplands studded with lakes and tarns. Far away in the distance lay the rolling fells. For the space of four evenings and nights the lofty fell resounded to the music of indigenous people. What more fitting an environment could there have been for a festival such as this! The range of music was impressive: everything conceivable, from unaccompanied yoiks and Inuit drum dances to the rhythmic beat of rock. For the indigenous people of the world are demanding full rights for their musics, too.
Of the numerous unforgettable moments, the one that sticks perhaps most clearly in the memory is the concert by Mari Boine
, one of the leading names in Sami music, and her ensemble. Towards midnight she gives voice to one of her most powerful songs, reaching its impassioned climax in:
"I sailed across the open seas,
I peered up at the rainbow
Now I'm on my way home again,
I'm beginning to find my way home.
You will not beat me down any more
you will not beat me down."
This song (It šat duolmma mu) is familiar from Mari Boine's second LP entitled "Gula gula", which is beyond all doubt one of the best ethno records ever produced in the Nordic countries. It was originally released in 1989 on Mari Boine's own label, Idut, and has since been issued as a 'world music CD' by Realworld of the UK.
At this festival the singing is neither ethnic nor world. It is quite simply music, and it tells the main cultural history of indigenous people, the Sami included, over the past couple of decades. The status and rights of the indigenous peoples have changed in many ways. In Finland, too, the Sami have in recent years gradually been granted many rights that tend to be taken for granted: teaching in schools in their own language, the Sami Language Act, their own radio channel.
Nothing, however, has come for free; any victories are the result of a fight for civil rights. And music has assumed a strategic role on the battle field. Yoiks echoed far and wide across the fells as Samis and nature conservationists were forced into police vans after protesting against the plans for building the Alta reservoir in Northern Norway, and issued from the teepee of the hunger-strikers erected outside the Parliament building in the asphalt wastes of central Oslo.
|Now, one-and-a-half decades later, the situation is different. The yoik has even made it to Hollywood, where the first Sami drama film Ofelaš was nominated for an Oscar, and it caught the attention of a worldwide audience as Nils-Aslak Valkeapää skied into the stadium and yoiked the Olympic Games in Norway open.|
The dominant cultures have changed. More and more people are becoming aware that the indigenous people, 'the fourth world', have an important message to communicate, in their music, too. There is growing interest in the Sami languages and music, and many wish to learn them.
More than anything, however, Sami culture itself has changed. There are signs of a new self-assurance in the way the Sami have, for example, taken upon themselves such universal rights as a national flag and flag days - a major recognition of national
culture - a national day and a national anthem. The first Sami history of the Sami appeared in 1992, the work Olbmot ovdal min by Samuli Aikio
. This history teaches us to see things in a new light. One concrete manifestation of the new self-awareness is the popular map by a Sami artist viewing the world from the North Pole: the Sami are right at the hub, the rest of Europe on the periphery.
There is, of course, much that has not changed. The support for Sami culture has indeed grown in Finland in the past few years, yet Finnish society provides as much support in a single day for one opera as it does in a whole year for the culture of an entire nation. The ratio is thus more than 300:1. Yet neither has any chance of survival without support.
Vuolle, luohti, le'udd
Samiland is vast and open. It begins in the central regions of Scandinavia and ends on the eastern tip of the Kola Peninsula. It is shaped like an arch, and is so long that it would stretch all the way from London to Minsk. The land is cut by the frontiers of four states: Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. The borders are, however, young, for they were not finally closed until the end of last century.
In view of the vastness of the area and the absence of a nation-state, it is no wonder that the Sami are a nation of many nations. There are ten Sami languages alone. They belong to the Finno-Ugric family of languages and are closely related to Finnish. Six of the Sami languages have the status of a written language, and a few of these date back three or four hundred years.
The dominant form of Sami music has been unaccompanied singing. Until recently, there was really only one instrument: the shaman's drum. It was therefore all the more important. Its booms and rattles rich in overtones gave wing to the aural imagination as the shaman departed on a journey into the other world.
Even today the old songs to some extent still have certain elements in common, as do the majority of arctic and archaic styles of singing: basic melodic schemes confined to only one or two phrases and the skilful, endless variation of short musical and poetical motifs. They also incorporate more or less everything that escapes our normal musical notation: gradual changes of pitch and the varied use of guttural and vocal resonances, various means of voice production and vocal timbres. The masterly human voice technique culminates in the songs describing and imitating animals. These sound compositions reveal one of the sources of inspiration for vocal techniques.
The songs are, however, very varied in nature. Just as languages and their dialects gradually change from one area to another, so the modes of singing, the musical dialects have acquired different manifestations. The diversity and variety of dialects has been further enhanced by the fact that the majority of the songs are of a very personal, local nature. This diversity still exists in many places even today.
But the musical dialects also fall into three broad areas of song. The ten Sami languages can be divided into three groups: South, North and East Sami. This division applies equally well to the songs. And the three areas even have different names for the old songs: vuolle, luohti and leu'dd.
The South Sami vuolle is a restrained but intensive manner of singing. The singer makes use of the two or three notes, all close to one another, with which he draws recurring yet varying melodic spans consisting of several long sounds interspersed with quick glissando figures and ornamental falsetto notes. The vuolle differs from the North Sami luohti in both its scale structure and its melodies. The difference is so great that the Swedish musicologist Olle Edström
has quite rightly suggested in recent years that the difference supports the concept held by certain linguists and archaeologists that the South and North Sarnis did in fact have a different prehistory thousands of years ago.
The North Sami luohti has two unique, distinctive musical features: it makes use of a pentatonic scale with no half-tones and it always has a specific subject, almost always a person, which it describes in music. One fundamental feature of the scale is that it does not have any passionate halftones at all. To some this conjures up a rolling mountain landscape. You may get a vague idea of the scale by using only the black keys on the piano. Find a major triad, play a tune based on it that now and then leaps up and down in wide intervals. Then sing it. Describe your subject in an intense voice and a marked rhythm, with syncopations, altering the accentuations and the vocal timbres, adding glissandos, quick ornamental figures and using different breathing techniques. The result will be something approaching a luohti and a style of performance that makes even a snatch of song a colourful entity. The melody should, however, have few phrases, be carefully premeditated and skilfully constructed to produce an architectonic entity.
The East Sami leu'dd is often a long, narrative personal song, a prose epic in free metre recording the unwritten history of the native village in poetic terms. The songs are in a language all of their own bearing elements quite alien to the spoken tongue. The singer can draw on numerous different melodic patterns, some free in rhythm, others regular and dance-like. The approach is one of improvisation, of variations without a theme. The listener senses the melodic line behind the performance even though it may never actually be stated as such, for the singer varies it and its elements, giving free rein to his imagination. Sometimes the singer may chant in the manner of a shaman on a single, throbbing note, embellishing his tune with rapid ornaments and a rhythmic vibrato. Like the other vocal genres described above, the leu'dd is the outcome of an independent, self-aware and self-chosen cultural history. This is the type of song best suited to this way of life. Which explains why there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world.
There are thousands, maybe thousands upon thousands of Sami songs in various archives the length and breadth of Europe. Some two or three thousand of these archive gems have so far been published in the form of sheet music or sound recordings. Yoiks have for the past three hundred years at least been described by travellers and analysed by scholars in European languages. In the past few years a few congresses have been held, bringing together yoik scholars of the world. Yet the Sami study and interpretation of the yoik is only in its infancy. In time, it will undoubtedly force us to modify many of our concepts, just as the history written by Samuli Aikio has done.
Yoik (juoiggus) is nowadays the generic name for a traditional Sami song. But in speaking of yoiks, people are most often thinking of the North Sami luohti. One reason for this is that the vast majority, i.e. three quarters, of the Sami belong to the North Sami. The luohti is the most visible and most audible genre of Sami music.
In summer 1904 and 1905 the young Finnish composer and musicologist Armas Launis
travelled the area inhabited by the North Sami in the far north of Finland and Norway. He was the first to concentrate on noting down yoiks, and in 1908 he duly published a collection called Lappische Juoigos-Melodien consisting of 824 North Sami yoiks. The broad introduction is still one of the most detailed musical analyses of the yoik ever to be written.
The singers who performed for Launis were young and old, men and women. In the fell village of Kautokeino in Norway one of the singers was Biret Peltovuoma
, the 35-year-wife of a fisherman. She sang 79 yoiks which Launis jotted down in his note book. Each one of them had its own social message: 72 times a yoik described a certain person, placing him or her in a musical landscape, and on seven occasions the subject was an animal of the fells.
Peltovuoma began with her own daughters and sons, her neighbours and friends. Then she progressed further away from the immediate circle. She yoiked about what she considered to be the basic essence of reindeer owners rich and poor, reindeer breeders good and bad, the post master, the old school master, men tall and short, girls brazen and shy. She cast her glance further afield, to the nearby villages and the shop-keeper, his unmanageable son, and his daughter as pretty as a picture. Passing before her eyes were ladies' men and men's ladies, characters flighty and respectable. There was one man who loped wolf-like round the villages, and finally there were the animals: a reindeer panting as it galloped into the wind, a raven crowing and a wolf howling as it mauled its prey.
Of each of her yoik subjects, Peltovuoma drew a miniature musical portrait. Each of the paintings had its own light and shade. It revealed the singer's attitude and status. “Some look back in anger or recall with love, others with sorrow,” wrote the Sami writer Johan Turi
in 1910. The musical landscape sketched in by Biret Peltovuoma, the work made up of the different yoiks, was a frank, unashamed picture of her life, her human relations, her community. Yet its relationship with real life was that of a work of art.
The singer describes her subject in words and music, through her performance and voice technique, expressions and gestures. The poem is sparing in its words, and aphoristic, leaving room for images and associations. These the singer carries along in increasingly allusive manner, on little nonsense-sounding words such as 'nun-nun-naa' or 'hei-go-lol-laa'. These interjections, their vowels coloured in different hues, and the position of these vowels in the melody do, however, bear an important message. The yoik is a masterpiece in the use of microstructures.
Not only does the yoik describe its subject: it is one with it. A yoik is like a person's name; without it, no one is a real person. The yoik is therefore bound in time and place. Yet my absent friend is there when I yoik him. The yoik bridges the distance, it gives the community emotional coherence, solidarity, is how the German yoik scholar Andreas Lüderwaldt
Launis's yoik collection was a scholastic treatise of considerable significance, but it did not affect the yoik itself, which carried on as before. Launis himself composed a Sami opera called "Aslak Hetta" in nationalist vein and containing yoiks in 1929. Since Launis, many classical Nordic composers have used yoiks in their works. The composer to penetrate deepest into the essence of the yoik is the Finnish Erik Bergman
, whose magical choral work "Lapponia" (1975) is inspired by the shamanistic style of performance.
A new era nevertheless dawned for the yoik in 1968. The year is no coincidence; it was a mad year for Europe. So it was only natural that the young Nils-Aslak Valkeapää
, a native of Enontekiö in Finland, should in this year release his first record, "Joikuja", thereby launching a completely new era. There are yoiks on the record both accompanied and unaccompanied, gently intimate and strongly declamatory.
The disc sparked off new recordings and yoik concerts of a new type. Within a few years the yoik became the symbol of the emergent national Sami movement. The record "Juoigamat" released by Valkeapää and his friends in 1973 is an optimistic classic that reflects the spirit of the times. On it the yoik begins to lead a social life of a new kind proudly dressed in Sami costume, at evening gatherings and in children's games. On the sleeve of the record Valkeapää wrote in his own hand the simple entreaty "Juoiga viel’lja, oabba!" (Yoik brother, sister!). Over the next few years the four young members of the Daednugadde Nuorat
vocal and instrumental ensemble hit the Norwegian charts with their three LP's.
|Valkeapää's next record, "Vuoi, Biret-Maaret, vuoi!" (1974), again marked a turning point in history. It was the first record of ditties in the Sami language, and the first of many to come. The themes of the songs vary from love to strong social comments and emphasis on the kindredness of indigenous people. In tone it is every bit as controversial as Valkeapää's well-known, sharply-worded pamphlet "Greetings from Lapland, The Sami - Europe's Forgotten People" (1971, in English 1983).|
Valkeapää financed the record himself and it was the first Sami record to be released on a Sami label - another turning point. The accompaniments are by the Finnish
composer and jazz musician Seppo 'Baron' Paakkunainen
and his ensemble. Since then Valkeapää and Paakkunainen have continued working together for the past two decades. The result has been concert tours all over the world and a fine series of recordings covering a wider and wider spectrum.
Nils-Aslak Valkeapää is one of the most versatile artists in all of Scandinavia; poet, composer, musician, painter and photographer, and champion of his poeple's rights. His records are works of art even just to look at. His books of poetry, with their illustrations at many levels, are book-art of a new kind. In 1991 Valkeapää was awarded the Literature Prize of the Nordic Council for his monumental collection of poetry and historic photographs "Beaivi Áhcázan" (The Sun, My Father). And in 1993 he received the Prix Italia for his "Bird Symphony", a sound work combining the nature of Samiland and yoiks to form music unlike any other.
In 1982, together with Seppo Paakkunainen, Valkeapää produced a set of two LPs entitled "Sápmi lottazan 1-2", a landmark in the history of the yoik. All the yoiks, poems included, are the work of Valkeapää. On the first record (Sápmi, vuoi, sápmi!) The yoiks, two of which often sound simultaneously, are accompanied by sounds of nature and tokens of the fight for civil rights, such as the sound of the police helicopter, while on the second (Davas ja geassai) Paakkunainen and his ensemble create for the yoiks a background that could be called a new type of ethnomusic or ethnic sound art, had these concepts not become so distorted by the patronising attitude of the dominant cultures.
The same year saw the world premiere of a second big joint project, "Sámi luondu, gollerisku" for symphony orchestra, improvising instrumental group and two solo yoikers - three elements not previously combined - built by Paakkunainen round yoiks by Valkeapää. A recording of the work was released as the result of a Sami-Finnish-Estonian joint venture and with funds from the Foundation for the Promotion of Finnish Music (LUSES) in 1992. The expressive yoik and the saxophone share the company of a classical symphony orchestra, first in tones of mild irony, later with a fine display of swaggering: this was all that was missing from the yoik!
The last movement, "The Ocean of Life", represents a culmination in the collaborations of these two artists. Valkeapää shows himself as a sound artist at his very best, with broad melodic spans steeped in colour, while the orchestra paints impressionistic mood pictures, -capturing every nuance of the improvisational nature of the yoik. On this record the yoik also enjoys the company of sambur, a stringed instrument which Valkeapää had made from the piece of gnarled northern wood. Also appearing with Valkeapää on the record are the Sami yoiker Johan Anders Baer
and the Finnish musician Esa Kotilainen
, both makers of a number of recordings.
In Sami hands
The Sami have thus taken the yoik into their own hands. It has not always been easy for the culture of a small minority to survive. Many records and books, some of them important, never reach the public. Publishers are hard to find, record companies have gone out of business. For about a decade everything rested on the shoulders of Jår’galaedj’dji, but since the late 1980s the main Sami record labels have been DAT and Idut.
During the first fifteen years or so some thirty LPs were released in all. Although the yoik never lost any ground, Sami music was taking possession of all the genres of music. Life settled down: in 1982 Sami musicians founded an organisation of their own, Sámi Musihkkariid Searvi. There were, however, several quiet years in the middle of last decade, but the past few years have seen the release of over twenty CDs, the majority of them yoik records and half of them unaccompanied.
One reason why the archaic yoik has both survived and sought new outlets for expression is that it has never required any outside assistance. There is a steady stream, of new, young yoikers taking the stage. The yoik has leapt straight into the LP and CD era and has never been committed or confined to paper. New yoiks are simply born of their own accord. Surrounded on all sides by modernisation, the most primitive has become the most progressive. Now that the yoik is, furthermore, finding its way into the schools and music colleges, many are asking: can the yoik preserve the elements that cannot be captured on the printed page? Can it survive as oral tradition in the classroom?
The yoik has been in the public eye and ear for a quarter of a century. It has become a national value. Although it has retained an astonishing number of its ancient features more than most of the musical genres with a similar fate - and its performance is, even on vast platforms before thousands of people, still very personal, it has naturally undergone certain changes. It is slightly more melodic, the vocal technique has become a shade more conventional, it has had some of the corners rubbed off. But it has also gained something: expressive melodic spans and lively rhythms.
Many of the yoik performances have already lost all their words; all that remains are little isolated syllables and their vowel timbres. Maybe the words were sometimes too outspoken and personal to be paraded on stage. As a result, the yoik has become reduced more to musical landscape painting. The advent of accompanying instruments has made the gradual pitch changes impossible. Many of the yoikers do, however, still possess the art and use it in their unaccompanied performances. Due to the vocal technique of the yoikers, falsetto singing is easy and expressive, and it is a skill readily used by modern yoikers to give their performances extra colour. Many keep strictly to the traditional style, others are taking even their unaccompanied yoiks in a very personal direction. In the performances and recordings of Inga Juuso
, a singer on the Norwegian side of the border, the yoik expands into a long and powerful narrative.
Although the new era in Sami music has had a strong North Sami bias, the music of others, too, has discovered a path to the present day. Admittedly this has not always been easy. The South Sami ethnorock group Almetjh Tjöönghkeme
released a CD called "Vaajesh" in its own language in Sweden in 1991. The record contains some elegantly stylised, unaccompanied, South Sami yoiks. In Norway Frode Fjellheim
has published some instrumental arrangements of South Sami yoiks he has discovered in archives. The CD is called "Sangen vi glemte". Two performers in great demand at yoik concerts, Johan Andersen
and Olav Dikkanen
, Samis from the shores of the Arctic Ocean, have likewise made a recording of their own.
In Finland, Aune Vesa
, the local songsmith of the Inari Samis, has already published a collection of songs and is in the process of writing a Songspiel. Some leu'dd songs of the Skolt Samis were published back in the late 1970s. Vassi Semenoja
, Helena Semenoff
, Tyyne Fofanoff
, Domna Sanila
and a group performing a Skolt quadrille have travelled far from home with their traditional music and dance. The Skolt Sami musician Jaakko Gauriloff
was for some years Lapland's Provincial Artist and has in collaboration with llpo Saastamoinen
, a researcher and performer of Sami music, helped to revive the leu'dd tradition. Gauriloff's latest recording, accompanied by the Pohjantahti
ensemble, contains songs in the Skolt language by Gauriloff himself as well as some old leu'dds.
His brother Leo Gauriloff
composed the music for the most recent production of the professional Sami theatre Beaivváš at Kautokeino. It tells the history of the Skolts during the Second World War. The theatre has taken the production on tour to Scandinavia and Estonia and the beautifully sung leu'dds have attracted special attention. Considering that even the youngest leu'dd experts have until recently been of retirement age, it now looks for the first time as if the ancient Skolt song might have a future. The opening up of the Russian border and the establishment of firm contacts with the East Sami on the Kola Peninsula and their music and dance ensemble Oijar
have kindled firmer hopes for the future.
Wimme Saari and Angelit
deserve a chapter all of their own in the history of Sami music in Finland. Both represent the youngest generation of yoikers. They have grown up in a new atmosphere, proud of their Sami heritage. What once was felt as an encumbrance is now a source of strength for them, and one which more and more members of the dominant culture, too, are trying to foster: they have, right from childhood, been citizens of two cultures. Their performances also reflect the beat and zest of the rock generation. Through them the yoik has broken down many barriers, filled rock and jazz clubs, issued from the radio and television and made guest appearances in schools. The yoik is becoming what it has always been: domestic music. All conflicts are old-fashioned.
|Wimme Saari is a native of Enontekiö, in the western part of Finnish Lapland. He learnt his archaic yoiking style from the older men in the family. This art has made him in great demand as a soloist at music events for young and old alike in different parts of Finland. Saari has developed the solo yoik with his dedicated interpretations and sometimes improvising performances. But the full extent of his vocal art is only apparent from the pieces accompanied by various ensembles.|
So far he has gone furthest with RinneRadio, a jazz group consisting of sax player Tapani Rinne and computer music. Both on their records, of which Joik (1993) deserves special mention, and above all in his stage performances Wimme Saari has really let his full capacity loose. For then he constructs
intensive, clear, melodic arches the length of one performance, sings in a more than usually expressive falsetto, and is sometimes driven to a mode of sound improvisation bordering on the violent. This, then, is the free yoik. But recognisable throughout is the old yoik. Saari has in fact recaptured the colour and grittiness of the ancient yoik, and even the clever voice technique of the animal yoiks. Saari's first solo disc is in the making.
Angelit come from the eastern part of Finnish Lapland, the little Inari village of Angeli. Encouraged by their teacher at school, the girls (Ursula
and Tuuni Länsman
and formerly Ulla Pirttijärvi
) began performing together over a decade ago at around the age of ten. Over the years the group became popular at young people's arts events and folk music festivals. They were influenced by the courses in African music held up in the north, a course in Sami theatre and practical theatre work. The three were already singing with Mari Boine on her record of Christmas music in 1987. But not until their first CD, "Dolla" (1992, producer Sari Kaasinen
, the folk music ensemble of international fame), did Angelit really hit the headlines on an unprecedented scale.
The old and new yoiks and the girls' own songs, accompanied with drums, a guitar and sound-painting sound effects, are markedly, unashamedly rhythmic. During the past couple of years they have been all over the country, appeared at festivals abroad, and wherever they have been, they have swept their audiences off their feet with their spontaneity and their magnetic energy. The music video "So fine" filmed by the rock band Waltari
in Lapland admirably draws extra colour from this energy. At last the yoik has discovered the youth of its own era.
To be quite accurate, Wimme Saari and Angelit no longer represent the youngest generation of yoikers. For the next generation is already growing up and making itself heard. The yoik has a future, too.
1) Angelit was originally named as Angelin tytöt (up to spring 1999. Ulla Pirttijärvi has been launching a solo career from around the mid-90s.
2) Since 1994 Wimme has released three recordings: "Wimme" (1995). Rockadillo Records ZENCD 2043 (in USA NorthSide NSD 6005); "Gierran" (1997). Rockadillo Records ZENCD 2055; "Cugu" (2000). Rockadillo Records ZENCD 2067 (in Germany Westpark 87078; in USA NorthSide NSD 6048).
Text originally published in Finnish Music Quarterly 4/1994.
Nils-Aslak Valkeapää: Per-Ola Utsi
Seppo Paakkunainen: Maarit Kytöharju
Wimme Saari: Juho Huttunen