Arctic magic(Chris Campion/The Observer Music Monthly, 21 January 2007) -- It is Europe's oldest known music, with its own bloody history. Now the 'yoik' of the Sami people is being revived - with a hip new twist, reports Chris Campion from the Arctic Circle.
Up in the Arctic Circle, summer draws to a close. The sun does not set, but hangs below the horizon casting an indefinite glow upwards across the sky. Out across the fells, by a lake, a song burrows through the air - like guttural birdsong, yet still recognisably human in character. Come midnight, it's still bright enough to see a looking-glass reflection of a world just like our own in the still dark water. As the temperature drops towards midnight, a feathery white mist encroaches upon it.
Nilas Porsanger, a small, sprightly 83-year-old wearing a flat cap and large square-rimmed glasses, kneels in front of a campfire. Sound comes out of him in a keening burr, as he rocks forward slightly; he appears to fan the flames with his breath.
His 'song' comprises a short syllabic phrase, repeated but never quite the same. Other voices slowly join in, more it seems in cheery discord than perfect harmony, each tracing the melody to their own subtle rhythm, together producing a hypnotic modulating effect.
This is the yoik - the song of the Sami, the aboriginal people of arctic Scandinavia - and the oldest extant music tradition in Europe, dating back more than 2,000 years. The yoik has been alternately banned and suppressed for centuries.
It is a sound now being revived by a group called Adjagas, itself a Sami word that denotes the mental state between sleeping and waking. Lawra Somby and Sara Marielle Gaup, two Sami in their twenties with a proud history to uphold, formed Adjagas in 1994.
They hit on the idea of starting a festival called Juiogan Reimat ('a Yoik gathering') to bring together the best yoikers in Samiland as a celebration of the music, although the event seems to be largely a family affair. Lawra's father Ande, a renowned yoiker himself, acts as MC. Sara and her family - mother, father and younger brother - have taken care of the logistics for preparing and operating the camp. Her father, Ante Mikkel Gaup, is also a yoiker of note.
With just seven performers, an audience of around 20 and no stage to speak of this could be the most intimate music festival in the world. But it's no walk in the park to get there, requiring a three-hour drive from the nearest city (Tromso in Norway) and a 20-minute cruise across Kilpisjarvi, the lake that straddles the border between Sweden and Finland, to get anywhere near the site.
A motorised buggy powers up and down a wooded hiking path that leads from the lake, pulling a trailer stacked with equipment: tent poles and canvas and food packed in freezer boxes. The driver is a reindeer herder, Ole-Hendrik, a slender young man who is bemused to find people turning up for a festival on his doorstep.
Eventually the space opens up to reveal the site. A plume of blue-grey smoke drifts from the peak of a large lavvu (a traditional Sami tent) pitched by a small kidney-shaped lake. Five smaller tents are ranged around it on a gently sloped clearing that leads down to the water. A carpet of heather, dotted with crowberries, covers the ground. Surrounding fells form a buffer against the deep blue sky. One peak, higher than the rest, resembles a fin.
Ante Mikkel Gaup is chopping and stripping birch wood with an axe that clips into a holder on his belt. He is dressed in a blue gakti , a brightly coloured woven smock that makes up part of the traditional Sami dress.
Traditionally, the Sami were nomadic hunter-gatherers and reindeer herders who roamed the tundra across the crest of Norway, Sweden and Finland. The area is commonly known as Lapland, and its inhabitants as Lapps. Sami do not recognise either name.
'It's not a "land" at all, actually,' says Harald Gaski, professor of Sami literature at the University of Tromso. 'Samiland is a theoretical conception,' he says. 'It has no borders, therefore it can stretch.' Perhaps that's one of the reasons why these largely peaceful people were perceived as such a threat by the Norse who came up from the south to colonise and to subjugate them. Socially and racially, the Lapps were considered an impoverished people, and named accordingly. Lapp means 'patch' in Swedish.
Even today, across Scandinavia, Sami myths and customs have been relegated to a folksy tourist attraction; their costume appropriated to dress the elves at Santa's Village, a Finnish theme park. The tourist brochures selling 'the magic of Lapland' belie the systematic attempts to eradicate Sami culture for much of the 19th and 20th centuries.
In Norway, from 1850 onwards, a policy of enforced assimilation meant that Sami children as young as six were sent to boarding schools, where they were taught in Norwegian. An estimated 140,000 Sami were also sterilised in eugenics programmes that operated across Scandinavia until the 1970s.
Since that decade, Sami culture has undergone something of a renaissance, and the yoik has played a crucial part. 'Lately, it has become more and more a symbol, for Sami-ness,' says Gaski. 'That you express Sami-ness through yoik and some relation to the yoik.'
A yoik is not a song but a resonant melodic phrase, sung unaccompanied and repeated through various iterations with no fixed beginning or end. Traditionally utilised to induce a trance state in Sami shamans, it is a music essentially animist in nature. Yoiks are not sung about something but considered a rhythmic signifier of the actual thing itself, be it a place, an event, a family member, associate or an animal, especially reindeer. According to Sami practice, a yoik is not composed but received through adjagas. After a yoik is first invoked, it shimmers into eternity, hanging in the air like a memory, waiting to be recalled.
In addition to its sheer natural beauty, the festival site has been chosen for acutely symbolic reasons. 'The Sami people live in all these countries but that border has made trouble for us,' Lawra explains in his soft, lilting voice. 'They closed the border in 1905. Before that the reindeer naturally travelled to the coast and then back again. The Sami followed the reindeer. When the border closed, the whole balance was interrupted.'
This particular spot was deemed sacred by the Sami. It is the meeting point of three different grazing pastures for the reindeer, where the forest meets the tundra and the tundra meets the coast. The Sami and their deer are inseparable. Reindeer have provided Sami with not only a source of companionship and inspiration but also clothing and food.
Inside the lavvu, Sara, her sister and mother are preparing reindeer stew. Lawra sits nearby, lounging on a bed of reindeer skins laid out around the fire. The warmth causes them to gives off a musky odour, like the smell of old clothes. Beside him lie his father and seven-month-old baby brother, and his great-uncle, Nils Porsanger.
Ande Somby begins to yoik, merrily repeating a chain of syllables. 'ME GO NA CHA ... ME GO NA CHA.' Round and round it goes, faster and faster, like a tongue twister. Then the chain abruptly changes. 'DA CLIN KEE ... DA CLIN KEE ... DA CLIN KEE.'
Lawra and Nils join in, yoiking and smiling and laughing all at the same time. Three generations of Sami men are passing their song on to the next. The baby gurgles with pleasure.
'This is a yoik of a person Nils Porsanger has been working with,' Ande explains. 'Migonadja' is an old man called Mikkel who is driving his reindeer faster and faster across the tundra. But the faster he goes the more the snow gets churned up by the hooves of the reindeer and kicked into his eyes, forcing him to blink and blink to see again.'
All this is contained within a slender rhythm and barely any text. In its own way, the yoik also reveals a good deal about Porsanger's character. 'He can yoik all the time,' Sara says, later. 'I heard that he even yoiks in his sleep.'
It wasn't always this way, though. For many years, Porsanger's wife wouldn't allow him to sing. 'Yoiking has this energy that some people consider sinful,' says Ande.
Those people are the adherents of Laestadianism, a Christian revivalist movement named after its founder, a Lutheran priest and botanist who was part Sami himself. Following an 1844 epiphany, Lars Levi Laestadius took it upon himself to save the Sami from the alcoholism encouraged by wily Norwegian traders offering booze in trade for the Sami's reindeer pelts.
Laestadianism swept through 19th-century Samiland and still has a firm hold today. Old traditions and beliefs were trampled underfoot by new superstitions. Its rapid take-up is often ascribed to its incorporation of aspects of traditional Sami worship, including divinely-inspired trance states, while condemning the original practices.
'If you listen to the Laestadian hymns then you will find many of the techniques used in yoiking,' says Ande. 'But if you said that to a true Laestadian believer then they would probably kill you.'
Yoik became the devil's music. Wherever Christianity met indigenous culture, says Ande Somby, it brought not only the Holy Trinity but an unholy one too: the bottle, the cross and the axe (the rule of law). The combination of the two wrought tragedy.
In 1852, Aslak Haetta and Mons Somby, two Laestadian Sami, led a gang of 35 Sami into the town of Kautokeino to confront the Norwegian merchant responsible for selling alcohol there. He was murdered, along with the sheriff who tried to intervene. The local priest was beaten, too. Haetta and Somby were caught and subsequently executed, their severed heads sent to the Anatomical Institute in Oslo to join a collection of Sami skulls.
Charged by their awareness of Sami history and the Somby clan's role within it, Ande and his elder brother, Niilas, joined the Samefront, a Sami activist movement whose fight for indigenous rights in the late Seventies included acts of civil disobedience that brought them into direct conflict with the Norwegian state. In 1979, seven Sami staged a week-long hunger strike in a lavvu pitched outside the Oslo parliament building.
In 1982, Niilas Somby was forced to seek refuge after blowing up a bridge near the proposed site of a controversial dam and power plant in Alta (near Kautokeino) that would have flooded a Sami village. The incident caused the Norwegian Police Surveillance Department to open files on Sami activists.
The birth of Lawra, his first son, prompted Ande to renounce political activism. He began to study law, becoming only the second Sami to get a doctorate. 'The first was 360 years ago,' he says.
All this time, the yoik survived largely underground by means of what Harald Gaski describes as 'the secretive text'. Folksy and innocuous-sounding yoik poetry about reindeers and nature often hid alternate meanings, expressing a pride in Sami culture and sadness at its oppression. But, by some bitter irony, it only ever emerged in public when alcohol was coursing through Sami veins. 'When people got drunk the songs of their hearts started to come out,' says Ande.
By five in the morning, the camp site is completely quiet. Inside the lavvu, the fire is burning out. Strewn around it are several empty bottles of liquor and a few Sami engaged in loud and lively banter. Ole Hendrik, the reindeer herder, is extremely drunk and keen to express himself. 'I wasn't too sure about this yoik festival,' he says, announcing a change of heart and musing over future prospects for the event. 'I never thought I would find a woman to be my wife, but now they will come to me.'
Outside, daylight breaks over a clear sky. The mist that shrouds the lake slowly melts away. Lawra also decides that the gathering has been an unqualified success. He takes the appearance of the Northern Lights as Nils Porsanger yoiked by the campfire as a positive sign. Now he is enthusiastic about next year. 'We're going to get more people,' he says, 'and extend it over three days.'
A shy and intense young man filled with the idealism of a new generation, Lawra found his identity through yoik. 'I didn't want to push the culture on him,' says Ande. 'I said to him when he was 11 or 12 that if he wanted to be a yoiker then we'd better start now so that he could get his voice trained. But he was more interested in skateboarding and hip hop. I thought, well, he belongs to this time and he has to live his life.'
Lawra grew up in Oslo but was regularly sent to stay with his grandparents in Sirma, a village in the north, where he learnt to speak Sami. At 17, he started to practice yoik vocal techniques in secret, until he felt ready to perform in public.
Sami culture is all that Sara Marielle has known. The Gaup family is also well-connected within the Sami world. Her uncle was the first leader of the Sami parliament and an emissary to the UN. A cousin is the film-maker Nils Gaup, whose 1987 drama Ofelas ( The Pathfinder ), based on a 12th-century myth, was nominated for an Oscar.
Sara, too, seems fiercely proud of her cultural identity. 'My mother taught me how to make traditional clothes. My father taught me the musical part. The rest just came. When I was 14, I didn't know what to do. I will know soon.'
As it happened, adjagas provided her calling. The music Lawra and Sara make - produced by a member of Norwegian music collective Jaga Jazzist - sounds like an ethereal version of the blues. Their aim, says Lawra, is to inject a new energy into the repertoire of Sami yoik. 'The yoiks don't fit us any more so we need to make new ones, to get out what we are feeling right now. It's quite personal for both of us.'
'Sometimes in adjagas I feel that I understand all the world,' says Sara. 'I understand all the questions that I sometimes wonder about. You feel that and then you are really open for these yoiks to come. If I couldn't yoik, I think I would die.'
This last phrase she says matter-of-factly, but with total sincerity. And with that, she boards the boat on the small jetty, laden again with people and baggage and reindeer skins, as it prepares to travel back to what feels like another world entirely.
The self-titled debut album by Adjagas is out on 29 January on Ever Records