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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.
“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.
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”
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.
“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.”
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.
“It’s like the joiking traditions are being revitalised. There is a growing awareness, especially among people in my generation”, says Marja Mortensson, a South Sami joiker and singer from Hedmark.
Her music centres around different aspects of her Sami identity.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
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.
The examples are many – the growing adaptation and commercialisation of joik points towards a steady and strong revitalisation of the old vocal tradition.
Rebirth. Revitalisation. Renaissance.
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