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Recordings from Sápmi.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Markomeannu and onward

            There was again the perpetual stomping of feet around the lavvo, the reverberated heavy bass echoing off the mountains, the drunken yelps of joy, lust, and too-muchness throughout the long-lit night. I wandered around again, found friends with whom I could speak, sleep and leave my things, spoke with yoikers and musicians, and jammed with people with words and life's notes.


Highlights –


Joik battle – There was this competition for the best yoiker, for one to prove their skills and self with 30 seconds and a phat beat. I dared myself to do this - go big or go home, right? – walking up to the people backstage with my newly found Norwegian friend and asking to join the competition even though sign-ups were over. “Gumption" is a word my father taught me, and I guess I learned it well enough to go on stage in front of hundreds of people on a concert stage and essentially do karaoke in a style I have only tasted in my body for a few weeks. I also had two reasons for joining the battle:

1.     I 1.) I figured when they said Brian Dolphin from New York, who came to Norway to learn about yoik and how to yoik, that yoikers and others would come my way and talk to me or help me to learn.

2.     I 2.) I thought it would mean something to Sami people, who in their process of cultural revival perhaps feel honored when an enthusiastic foreigner comes so far to learn about their rich culture.

And the result: I won!

… one round against two Sami, that is.

In the second round, when they made us yoik to the theme of “flirting”, I picked a duck yoik – cause they strut their stuff when the waddle, no? – and added my own Norwegian lyrics: “You are my heart. It beats…” and Sami: “… I love you”. Tragicomically, I lost to a little girl.

I did really win though cause people recognized my sincere effort, or at least enjoyed the comedy of a “New Yoiker” on stage. Also those professional yoikers I walked up to recognized me and already had advice for my yoiking.


On the last night of the festival the professional yoiker who won the contest was roaming around the campsite with his wife, having conversations and yoiking. I remember when I first saw this man at Riddu Riddu. I knew he was special and that I had to speak with him; when I tried though, the language gap was too vast, and so until that night we had only exchanged the simplest of small talk and kind words.

Like a moth to a flame I swooped by him to record his yoiking, and then he turned to me and let my microphone have some more quality material. After a few minutes we were sitting down and he was yoiking for me and asking me to follow along. Then we sat down and took turns yoiking this tune about a foreign girl who comes to Kautokeino that none of the guys could get.  In each round I felt as if both my ability to yoik and my ability to be aware and present in a higher mode of learning rose and rose. These turns only ended when I reached my own boundary and felt the compulsion to laugh at how hard it was to yoik in his exceptionally evolved style and with those sharp quarter tones he repeated at exactly the same frequency every time. Still, while he was lifting me into this state of learning and as our voices melded into a sonic unity of bright, bristling overtones, nothing else existed.

He was surprised and happy with my yoiking, and said wouldn’t normally teach yoik in this setting or almost any other, but he too felt something special about me and recognized my craving to learn. This was my second real yoiking lesson and so impactful because in this man’s voice, he was fully expressed, and all his warmness and wisdom felt. Yoiking is about the feeling, the embodiment of spirit in music, and in those who really know how to do/be it, the very breath of life vibrates; it shakes those walls we construct against the world into rubble and leads our bodies’ cells in a jolly romp of a dance (cymatics - Google Search).


As for the musicians there, to me Inga Yuuso, Adjagas, and Johan Sara Jr.stood out the most. They carve their niche at the nexus of traditional yoik and modern instrumentation; such music confronts listeners and musicologists equally because it is so unlike anything one can readily categorize, and it embraces their lineage in a modern context.

Some clips from Markomeannu are at this page: 


Yoik is about relationship

A man from Sweden - whose mother is Sami and who learned yoik from her and his Grandfather - said that the yoik we hear today is not real yoik, it is just part of modern music. He told me that real yoik is about building relationships between beings; he then proceeded to yoik the nearby patch of flowers.

Something about this moment was a bit too much for me, since here was this man manifesting song from nature right in front of me, staring intently and remaining completely still but for the melody dancing out of him. He was connected and in the moment, so real that I wanted to pull back into the familiar world of academic skepticism, deny that his melodies had anything to do with the flowers, and cease upon his sincere vulnerability. If I did this, perhaps I would have played the part of colonizer, exploiter of nature, machine-made-man; I would have been the rigid, silent slave who tries to enslave passionate, singing freedom out of fear that I also could surrender all my control and notions of the world to this same flow and melody.

This was a man of nature, a fisherman and hunter who was taught to let live the most beautiful creatures he caught on his hook or in his crosshairs, rather than make them into trophies on a mantle. He knew not only of his inherent "dominion" over nature (Genesis 1:26), but that it was his mission to serve its highest interests rather than just consume its fruits without regard. By letting the most beautiful specimens of nature live, he not only stayed true to his heart's deep appreciation of nature but also pragmatically let the genetics of these released animals spread and create more such elegant beings; in such a symbiotic act is the philosophy that one can live content and not sacrifice the higher to the lower, and also that there are enough resources in the world.

He used yoik more as it was traditionally used – though perhaps he was no shaman – transcending the ego and otherness to connect with things enough to sing, honor, and remember them. Thus he feels justified in saying that yoik as it exists today is not real. Is yoik still real or natural when it is adapted to pop aesthetics, auto-tuned to equal temperament, processed with effects, put into a mix with synthesizers and other electronic instruments, recorded in a stringently isolated environment, and played back the same – regardless of context - every single time?

There is no one final answer to this very leading question, but let me explain what I think is his perspective by speaking of nature. One of its most fundamental attributes - alongside the diverse movement of life and various cycles governing its existence- is relationship[1]. True, styrofoam comes from nature, but its relationship to nature is very dissonant. Crunch styrofoam up and put it in a warm compost heap and it will still take decades to decompose, whereas wet leaves will become soil within days. So, sure heavily processed music is natural, but give it to ears and the environment and is it taken and digested[2]? Play rock music for plants and they die (The effect of Music on Plants (The Plant Experiments), in concert humans lose their ability to hear, and I'd venture to say that more car accidents and violent crimes happen when rock music is blasting than when Indian classical music is. In terms of power structure, once music is put on stage or the radio, it enshrines false idols with resources of instruments and production – and of course skill - that the public cannot access; this in turn leads people to think they are like musical serfs if they do not attain the popularized standard of “musician”. Lastly, since music is made as a product for consumption, a lot of it appeals to the lifestyles and high fructose tastes of those who spend the most money... its message will conflate love with fucking and/or co-dependently needing someone, self-worth with ego, having fun with losing control (not thinking, getting drunk, tossing around money), and all those other great things that our economic system corrupts in order to gain capital.

I illustrate this dystopic vision of music gone bad in order to show that this man I spoke with had a valid point in saying that modern yoik - which partially enrolls such negative tendencies - is not that “real yoik”, which directly seeks symbiosis. Then again this purist view is short-sighted, for music is a tool we use to relate to ourselves and the world, and our world – in sharp contrast to the nature once known so intimately by the Sami – is one with technology, processing of every sort, and a growing urban setting. In order to get through to us and express us, we need the crunch of electric guitars, synthesized sounds, screaming and minor chords, for such is our world. Yoik, as with any music, has changed to accommodate the change in its people, but it function is fundamentally the same in that it seeks relationship. It is in how our music affects us, and how our food does, that the character behind it – and so our society and world – is revealed. Thus when this man said that modern yoik is not real yoik, his value judgment was idealogical, concerning the often parasitic nature of our society and its products, rather than aesthetical.

A good final question is how is it that such artificial music can still be catchy? How can McDonald's still taste good? Why would nature allow us to enroll ourselves in such unhealthy things via our senses? Perhaps this is another line of questioning that points to the problem of evil, a.k.a. how can a God - or being such as Nature - that is all good and all powerful allow for such profound evil to exist in the world....


One question I asked during Markomeannu was "how do I learn yoik?" My favorite answer came from a professional yoiker, whose lineage in yoik is well-renowned. He said was that I had to I had to go where I could experience the context in which it exists, get deeply in touch with the Sami worldview, way of life and sentiment. He said the emotional aspect was first; otherwise, I could learn the technique of yoik just by listening to CDs and mimicking them. Essentially, what he said was I had to form relationship with the people who knew yoik, and through them I could form a relationship with that more amorphous entity from which yoik emerged, whether that be Sami culture, language, or nature. Thus, via connection is yoik both birthed and passed on.

Echoing this sentiment was what two professional musicians from Tromsø told me. Though they were of Sami origin and both seemed to me to yoik quite well, yet they said that they could not yoik because they were not raised in the context of Sami culture, in which yoiking and all its meaning would be passed on to them. They said they could do the technique but still not yoik.

In conclusion to this long entry, Nature is about relationships and so is music. Nature, also, encompasses everything, yet there is still a degree to which we can consider some things more or less natural based on their ability to feed back into the cycle from whence they came. The degree to which music feeds back into its cycle - which maybe we can think of as making meaning, its means and ends intimately related – in feeling more, connecting with people/places/things, remembering, working harder, focusing, etc. The value of music - like food -  is in its relationship to the people, because it has the potential to serve, or at least support, all of our needs.

[1] Music, like nature, can also be thought of in terms of it diverse, cyclic movement and the relationship therein. Since in all things there exists unique life and relationship, we can always think analogically about the world, especially since the same things that affect plants and animals also affect us and our myriad creations; the magic is in converting one form to another, distilling thought into art, life to music, and vice versa.

[2] Perhaps there is something about the repetitious nature of yoik that allows it to be digestible (memorable).  It is also mostly pentatonic – a very natural scale found all over the world - such that all notes are harmonious with all others; perhaps this is why yoik is so easily adaptable (digestible) to virtually all musics and instruments. What is the nutrition of music? What cycles does it play into?


  1. Hey Brian! I just started to read your blog long after the Markomeannu. I enjoyed the reading of it as it encompasses philosophical, poetical and spiritual thoughts in a very "natural" way! A good food for thoughts... I have nevertheless this feeling that by trying so hard to unite all the aspects of music, your approach is being more seductive but less convincing. I won't attempt to deconstruct your arguments_ would be too long and vain_ but just want to make you some friendly remarks.
    First, what is nature for you? I heard that some people don't have a word for "nature" (the only example I have in mind is the japanese, until two centuries ago). The ethnocentric vision of Europe or US would say : they unite with nature. Danger : are they "natural people? Primitives? Aboriginals? No they have a different vision of the natural elements and the land, but it remains a cultural vision. In practical knowledges and techniques concerning agriculture, hunting or climate, I think we could say they are closer to the "nature" of nature (as opposed to the cultural nature) than us. But in music I think one should be more careful.
    From what I know, first, yoik is not a music (a western concept again), but a means of communication between people. Its authenticity might rely on an emotionnal and spiritual proximity with nature, but we should not forget the social aspect. Its authenticity is weakened by its transformation into music in its western function. What does it consist in? As you said, a separation between professional musicians and mere listeners and between the stage and the public, music is taken out from its social context.
    Third, I noticed another ethnocentric assessment about capitalism and its corruption capacities on music. Maybe it is not only ethnocentric but also ideological. This idea is only coming out of my poor head so please be indulgent if not very clear. I just think that capitalism is not enough to destroy a culture, in the sense that it changes material conditions (music on stage, electronic instruments...) but that an education based on Sàmi culture, a childhood spent in the scenic countryside of northern Norway are strong enough for individuals not to be accultured. I read an article about the changing paradigms of ethnology saying that we totaly underestimated the resilience capacities of "non modern" societies as we can see with the Inuit or the Sàmi. I agree with your opinion on the destructiveness of capitalism, but even if based on a vision of nature and human being absolutely insane, it reaches the individuals and societies superficially and will make them evolve in function of their own vision (making money : to buy a big car or to get sure that your familly is safe in a long period of time, Accumulate goods vs long-term planning). Fearing capitalism is helping its destructiveness.
    I realise that my remarks deviate a bit from your own obsessions. I hope you'll find an interest in it and share some visions to get even deeper.

    Marie Chaumet

  2. all in good time my friend
    much love

  3. cool man. ur a good writer - dana da phd