Walking to the bus to Riddu Riddu festival, I saw a group of backpackers walking in the same direction; flying solo with my backpack on I joined their flock.
"Where are you from?" "Norway." "Where are you from?" "New York." "Are you on vacation?" "No, I came here to learn yoik." "We'll you'll sure get a lot of that at Riddu."
That first night we camped and cooked together, and shared everything.
Riddu was amazing. Not only was there quite the lineup of international musicians, vendors, and people, but – cheesy as it may sound – people really came together. We all got into music of kinds we’ve never heard before, deep conversations and experiences with perfect strangers, and a spirit of collective enjoyment that lasted throughout the long-lit night and in the worst of weather. Coming down from the feeling and excitement of the festival, I wonder what the meaning of it was for all of us and in general in the world.
Through this festival the Sami, indigenous people of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Western Russia, in the spirit of reclaiming their cultural pride after centuries of discrimination, and forming their identity now in a modern context, have reached out to other indigenous groups the world around. At Riddu, these people mingle, as do their children, and their musics. Perhaps each group has a global support group in their struggles to keep their identities and land, and with these diverse representatives coming every year to the festival, the local community is forced to recognize the power and personality of Sami culture. It is beautiful to see globalization foster these new types of communities.
"Over and over I have the feeling that people here get it… know the ways, stories, histories, and music of the world and are interested in learning and expressing more in it. We speak of things that matter. Nonchalantly people say, “Art is the act of being in the now”. The people I meet are very open, to do as they please yet within a group contract, such that everyone contributes. Everyone has a voice but speaks in a language all around can understand. We are information-mongers, philosophers on top of the world, making it spin faster. Everyone here knows how to make a fire, live in nature (to an extent).
People come and go to each other’s lavvos – teepees – and put a drink in your hand and a hand on your leg. I wander around learning throat singing most intimately, jamming, and figuring out the melodies of yoiks. Some people here speak seven languages and carry around jaw harps and dried deer meat, prepared for the world and whatever it may bring.
Awe strikes me so. Pragmatism and idealism together? Feeling thinking people. “
Some of the music:
-After the festival I get settled in an apartment with three ladies, one of which I became friends with at the festival. The freedom is amazing and terrifying, standing on a road about to hitchhike... deciding which direction to go… back to the libraries, new friends and contacts of the city or into an unknown Sami town where I have very few resources and leads, but in which yoik is readily palpable. Seeing a lone Seagull flying North and one of those few people I connected to at first sight inviting me in their car to Tromsø, I choose that world for the moment.
-Because I am new here and my project necessitates culling information from many sources, I am forced to walk up to people I feel connections with, in most any context, and speak with them. Following my intuition has always been right - or at least harmless - and though pushing the envelope of one's comfort is perhaps the most terrifying process, since it undoes that packaged, discrete sense of oneself, it is one of the most rewarding. This method expands the self, and since it embraces and cultivates the relatedness of people (rather than the isolationist, “there’s no time or need to talk to ‘outside’ people”, “strangers are dangerous” modern view), it is essential in a methodology regarding nature, in which one has relationship to the entirety of the world around. Most generally, cultivating strong and positive relationship in one’s life – to one’s food, job, family, community, various expressions, etc. – is a way of getting into a more natural state
-Feeling stuck and away from yoik and Sami for too long I contacted yoikers and decided it was time to go to Kautokeino - the left ventricle of the heart of Sápmi in Norway- soon. Somehow I got invited to a wedding in Alta via facebook; from there I could hitchhike to Karasjok and then Kautokeino to make further connections, learn how to yoik, and talk to people about the meaning of yoik. My contact shaded out on me so I decided to do the open-ended solo venture thing. The night before, in search of laundry detergent, I came across two new friends of mine; after chatting a bit, one of them said he was going to go record a man yoiking in Sapporo, Sweden the next day, and from there he would go to Kautokeino. C'est la vie.
Driving with him in the open, people-free landscape, I heard silence, felt time coming instead of going. In this nature, untouched but for the road we drove on, I was terrified, out of my element of the domesticated, gridded, electromagnetic, card-swiping, small-talking, passerby world. I realized how utterly terrified I am of nature and its mystery. I got the feeling that in my cultural history, at some point man was overwhelmed by the vast magic and quick karma of the world and decided not to serve it, but to control it. In this way, we would not have to bow to the forces of nature or eventually even take note of them, so long as we could keep them at bay, insulated by highly refined materials from around the colonized world. Somehow we made adaptation an external process, a materialistic one; we made more time and more tools, then came farming and animals as tools, and so civilization at large.
First off, I am not writing a scholarly article and I have only been here for a couple months. An understanding of yoik would take many, many years and a keen understanding of Sami history and culture, but here are some things I have heard thus far:
My driver/friend/informant said how when person yoiks came to him, he felt he had to share them, and record them so as to not be selfish, to honor the person, and perhaps even the process whereby that yoik came to him.
He talked about how the radio homogenizes yoik, shows a popular and commodifiable version of it and that this over time changes the aesthetic of yoik (because we sing what we hear). One difference, which is most easy to hear, between the Sami yoiks and Sami Radio yoiks is the difference in meter; playing in a band, the yoiker is most often forced to accommodate the other musicians. Thus the yoiks - at least the majority of those I've heard this summer at four Sami music festivals - in 4/4, 3/4, and 6/8 get played more. Additive rhythms (8+10 or 2-3, 2-2-2-3-3, 2-5-2-3, 2-5-2-5, as with Johan Sara Jr.) are used only by bands comfortable with meter change/asymmetrical phrasing.
Otherwise, the yoiker, instead of pausing to breathe at the end of one of the sub phrases or even in the middle of the phrase, must breathe in a way so as not to disturb the flow of the music. The sense of the circularity of the yoik – implied since the melody seems to never end when the pauses in its singing always change location – is interrupted by breathing in the same place every time a phrase is sung, which must be done if the band is to stay together. The tonic or key of a yoik also cannot gradually rise during the course of a yoik, and the notes used are almost always constrained to equal temperament, thus undoing two more special elements of yoik-song.
Perhaps such "normalizing" just happens to occur when a solo singing tradition merges with instruments. As a benefit of yoik being added to music, however, there is the inclusion of yoik on the radio and concert stages around the world. Thus Sami culture can express itself to itself and anyone who wants, or happens, to listen to it. Through this adaptation whereby yoik is integrated into music, there is both regeneration and compromise. Yoik is more easily enjoyed more by outsiders and people with contemporary music aesthetics when it is packaged in music; yoik thus gets into more countries and homes, but it is not yoik in the same way that the Sami knew it for centuries. In this era of globalization, when marketing something, especially culture, is there always some aspect of the "original" expression that must change in accordance with the aesthetics and philosophies of the outside world?
Western culture must have changed the aesthetic - a least a little - of yoik through the centuries; from the church songs of the missionaries and priests, through the process of Norwegianization (in which yoik was made illegal for well over a hundred years), and into the modern era in which other musics are constantly heard through the radio, television, and internet. Then again, it is in the nature of culture to change, so perhaps one not need be such a purist when considering yoik's outside influence. I think only where culture is lost, from its practice and meaning, is there something really wrong; however in some absolutist, and partially consolatory, sense when something ceases to exist it ceases to be necessary. I cannot fully endorse this point, just as I cannot endorse colonization, but I think there is a way in which ancient ways and functions of yoiking, and expressing/acting in accordance with traditional culture in general, are less valuable – or are at least perceived to be such - today. For example, modes of predicting the weather from antiquity, such as observing the behavior of animals, the movement of the wind and qualities of the clouds, become less preferable or even obsolete when compared with a 5-day forecast made with scientific instruments by a meteorologist; acapella yoik in the more traditional, glottal style would not make people dance or feel festive in the same way that modern yoik, sung, would in the context of electric guitars playing in a contemporary style.
Thus is the value of the manifestations of traditional, indigenous culture reliant upon the values of modern society, and unless the modern ways of being and doing are clearly more advanced – which would be impossible to evaluate, since there can be no objective means for doing so – the adaptation of culture is a product of survival, but not necessarily evolution.
Concerning the origins of yoik as a part of the “Old Sami Religion”, I feel as if something has been lost, for I hear that this mode of expression died out with the burning of Shamans, their drums, and a great deal of pressure from outsiders denouncing all displays of such "devilish ritual". I cannot confirm that yoik is not used in this manner, however, and from speaking with people about their beliefs and customs which are very much aligned with the Sami religion, I doubt that there are no shamans here yoiking to enable trance and passage to other worlds and layers of reality. It is a shame though that this function was denounced by the authorities, and so as control was gained, some of the meaning of yoik and a methodology for learning was lost. On the other hand, the medium of yoik is so powerful that it still has a great deal of meaning/function. Some of the uses of yoik I have heard are:
1) It is meditation, a place to put focus and allow the swift passage of time and even space. It allows one to connect, remember, and concentrate on the being, attributes, and one’s own relation that what one is yoiking. Thus, when all alone in the winter herding the reindeer, it is a friend.
2) Yoiking someone tells them how one is feeling. If a parent is proud they may yoik the child and the child will feel acknowledged; one person also told me that if the child was behaving in a bad way that a parent could yoik the child and stir them, tell him/her to wake up to what they're doing.
3) Making a yoik for someone or something acknowledges it in Sami society. Yoik exists in some way as a musical world mirroring our own, and to exist in this world means to be loved to such an extent that someone wishes to meditate on your very being, and when they yoik you to others, for them too to experience the goodness of your presence. Of course this makes the person yoiked very happy.
4) Yoik describes things - attitude, appearance, movement, feeling, etc. – in a way that only music can.
5) It is a symbol of Sami culture, and through it do the people express themselves to a wide audience.
There is sooo much more…