by Riikka Hiltunen :: 2010
Wimme Saari, one of the world’s most celebrated Sámi artists, has taken his voice-painted landscapes to virtually every corner of the world. In his touring of the stages and clubs of the world, he has revitalised the joiku or yoik tradition (as the traditional singing or chanting of the Sámi people is known) not only by placing it in a new context but also by developing new modes of voice production.
The joiku is traditionally unaccompanied, or accompanied only by a drum. In the musical world of Wimme, however, the joiku is typically merged into an electronic soundscape. Wimme’s principal collaborator since the early 1990s has been sax player Tapani Rinne, also known for his innovative jazz-plus-electronics combo RinneRadio. Ever since Wimme’s first, self-titled CD (1995), his sound world has also depended on Matti Wallenius on stringed instruments and Jari Kokkonen on keyboards and computer programming.
This exploratory collaboration has resulted in CDs with a unique sound world and mood. The combination of the ancient joiku and modern machine-made sounds is something quite captivating, mysterious and even supernatural. To be sure, the electronic sounds are largely inspired by nature; and Wimme’s own voice is never processed but always appears in its natural state on the recordings.
Wimme released his first actual solo album, Gapmu, in 2003. This features only unaccompanied joiku. To distinguish it from his recordings with the band, he released it under his whole name, Wimme Saari; when appearing with the band, he is known simply as Wimme.
The voice is the key
Although underpinning something as old as the joiku with electronics may seem a startling concept, machines are actually quite a natural companion to the tradition. Since the traditional joiku involves no instruments at all, adding any instrument will produce a modern combination. On the other hand, the aesthetics of machine music often aim for effects that are a natural part of Wimme’s musical world, such as a certain kind of trance feeling and a blurring of the sense of time.
But the key to everything is Wimme’s voice, as he makes use of traditional joiku techniques yet develops them further. He explores his entire range from high falsetto to deep bass with remarkable ease, and like joiku singers of old he colours his melodic lines with accents (known as niekku) and ornaments produced deep in the throat. Wimme’s joiku singing is mostly wordless, and improvisation and imitations of animal sounds are an important part of his repertoire. He has also developed the harmonic and melodic features of the joiku in combining his singing with instruments.
Wimme’s broad-minded attitude to joiku techniques is probably due to the fact that he did not learn joiku singing in the usual way. The joiku is traditionally passed down orally from generation to generation, but in Wimme’s youth the joiku was largely frowned upon because of strict Christian morals, and many families did not practice it at all. It was only when he went to work for the Finnish Broadcasting Company as a young man that Wimme discovered archive tapes of his relatives singing joiku tunes. Inspired by what he heard, he began to explore the tradition further.
Although there is much that is modern in Wimme’s music, it is firmly rooted in the tradition. The essential feature of the joiku is that the song does not purport to describe something – it is understood to be that something. A joiku is thus a sort of sung representation of its subject, painting an aural picture for listeners to behold. Indeed, Wimme’s live performances have a fierce and tangible intensity. A joiku can feature traditional subjects – nature, people, animals – but also phenomena of the modern world. For Wimme as for joiku singers of olden times, the joiku is a means for expressing emotions that would otherwise be too painful to utter.
Wimme’s new album was released at the end of 2009, featuring the return of Tapani Rinne, who has been busy with RinneRadio for a while.
Translation © Jaakko Mäntyjärvi