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The rebirth of the joik: portrait photo of the Sami artist Elle Márjá Eira outside during winter in Northern Norway.

The raw rebirth of the joik

Young Sami artists are currently bringing new life to one of Europe’s oldest song traditions. Ancient sounds meet modern genres – and the result? A brave new wave of internationally acclaimed and prize-winning musicians.

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Sami artist Elle Márjá Eira .
Photo: Marie Louise Somby
Elle Márjá Eira

“The joik is like swirls in the northern lights and wind on the mountain plateaus. I feel other-worldly when I joik.”

Elle Márjá Eira, a multi-talented artist from Kautokeino in Northern Norway, joiked before she could talk.

Today, she tells the world stories about her life as a reindeer herder through music.

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Elle Márjá Eira .
Photo: Marie Louise Somby
Elle Márjá Eira

Cool, Arctic, electronic music coloured by traditional Sami tunes and melodies.

“Joik is in my blood. I have practised it in all situations and phases of life. I feel that my ancestors are with me when I’m joiking”

The language of the heart

Passed down from generation to generation, the chanting song of the Sami people has survived through centuries. Some of the oldest joiks we know today were recorded by priests and missionaries in the 1700s and 1800s.

According to oral traditions, however, the Sami got their joik from fairies and elves of the Arctic lands. Joik used to be a vital tool for delivering knowledge and stories.

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Elle Márjá Eira .
Photo: Marie Louise Somby
Video Thumbnail - vimeo - Elle Marja Eira - Guodohit
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Elle Márjá Eira – GUODOHIT (Guođohit-To herd) .
Photo: Ken Are Bongo. Music: Elle Márjá Eira / Morten H. Pettersen
Finnmark, Northern Norway

“I do not joik about something, I joik something or someone. It could be a person, an animal, a lake, or a mountain. I love to joik my great grandpa Orbona Aslat. His joik has survived within the family for more than 150 years.”

“Joik is the language of the heart. It’s pride. Personal. Complexity. Identity. Memories. Soul. Spirituality.”

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Finnmark, Northern Norway .
Photo: Maria Varteressian
Finnmark, Northern Norway

A painful past

It is neither possible nor fair to tell the story of the joik without including a very dark chapter in Norwegian history.

For centuries, the Sami culture lived under intense pressure from the Norwegian government. According to the Great Norwegian Encyclopedia, it started with missionary work in the early 1600s.

For a long time, the Sami people weren’t allowed to speak their own language and were forced to learn Norwegian under strict assimilation policies.

Joiking was condemned as sinful and was forbidden in Sami area schools.

It was not until 1988 that the Sami Act was included in the Norwegian constitution.

By then, the Sami language and joik had disappeared from several regions.

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Finnmark, Northern Norway .
Photo: Maria Varteressian
Marja Mortensson
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At the beginning of 2017, she released her acclaimed debut album Aarehgïjre – Early Spring.

A mere year later, she released her second album Mojhtestasse – Cultural Heirlooms, which won her Spellemannprisen – the Norwegian Grammy Award – in the category Folk/traditional music.

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Marja Mortensson .
Photo: Jarle Hagen
Marja Mortensson

“Despite the continuous battles to maintain our languages and cultural identity, there has been a positive change in recent years. Today, it feels safe to be Sami.”

Returned to the Sami roots

As a South Sami, Mortensson has not been exposed to joik to the same extent as Eira, who grew up in the north.

“In the South, much of what is left is preserved in archives. The joik has been hidden well.”

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Marja Mortensson .
Photo: Jarle Hagen
Marja Mortensson

As a teenager, however, she decided she wanted to find her roots, so she started researching her own family’s cultural heritage. Mortensson discovered several joiks that belonged to her family.

“Joik is like a whole philosophy. It’s about the connection with nature and the people around you. When I joik, my head gets filled with images, and I feel that I travel – either to a place or into the soul of the person I am joiking.”

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Marja Mortensson .
Photo: Jørn Kristensen / Hauganfoto
Elle Márjá Eira

The greatest gift you can get

Many Sami receive a joik as a present during their life. While some people have one, others have several personal joiks.

It’s a common way of seeing people around you. Instead of saying nice things about someone, you joik them.

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Elle Márjá Eira .
Photo: Marie Louise Somby
Elle Márjá Eira – GUODOHIT (Guođohit-To herd)
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“My dad once made me one. When he gave it to me, he said with a twinkle in his eye: ‘The joik is as complex as you are’”, Eira says.

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Elle Márjá Eira – GUODOHIT (Guođohit-To herd) – Joik .
Photo: Ken Are Bongo. Music: Elle Márjá Eira / Morten H. Pettersen
Elle Márjá Eira

Old tradition, modern sound

Both Eira and Mortensson are celebrated for their innovative interpretations of the joik and their ability to delicately blend the old vocal tradition with genres like pop, electronica, and jazz.

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Elle Márjá Eira .
Photo: Marie Louise Somby
Video Thumbnail - vimeo - Reindeer in Finnmark, Northern Norway
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“Nature, life, and the universe inspire me. I am not so concerned with genres and boundaries. There is a Sami saying that goes: It is better to be in motion than to stand still”, Eira says.

Mortensson agrees.

“As long as my music is closely related to joik, I allow myself to experiment and bring in new elements, such as drums, tuba, and percussion. Still, the joik philosophy is always the base of my work. What I convey should feel real. That’s the only criterion I have.”

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Elle Márjá Eira – GUODOHIT (Guođohit-To herd) – Reindeer .
Photo: Ken Are Bongo. Music: Elle Márjá Eira / Morten H. Pettersen.
Elle Márjá Eira

A proud and loud future

Whilst Eira and Mortensson keep collecting awards and continue to tour the world with modern interpretations of the joik, they also open up for a whole new generation of Sami artists.

The same way as famed musicians like Mari Boine, Frode Fjellheim, and Ann-Mari Andersen – to mention a few – did for them.

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Elle Márjá Eira .
Photo: Marie Louise Somby
Elle Márjá Eira

In 2013 joik was introduced to Hollywood, thanks to Frode Fjellheim, the South Sami musician and joiker who composed the opening track of Disney’s Frozen.

In May 2019 the Norwegian-Sami group KEiiNO, who combines pop, electronica, dance, and joik, ended up sixth representing Norway in the Eurovision Song Contest final in Tel Aviv.

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Elle Márjá Eira .
Photo: Marie Louise Somby
Elle Márjá Eira
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Elle Márjá Eira .
Photo: Marie Louise Somby