Friday, July 20, 2007

Shrouded in Mystery: Defining the Sami Yoik

Mari Boine, courtesy of NorthSide

(I wrote this article a decade ago.  I can't vouch for its accuracy since I have since learned more about Sami yoiks and music since 2003).

Although the Sami (also Saami or Sàmi) are ancestors of the original Finn, (Finland), first discovered by the Romans around 10 AD, contemporary Sami people proves just as innovative and resourceful as their ancestors with a unique flare for modern technology. Both Sami art and music has flourished internationally. And the Sami people once tormented by the Christian church of the northern climes and the so-called civilized Swedes, Norwegians and other arctic dwellers, have proven that they are here to stay, both in Europe and North America. The Sami who once watched their shamans and drums burn during the inquisitions are back beating drums and performing yoiks (also joiks), a vocalization practice that is considered one of Europe's oldest living traditions. And similar to the circle that appears on the Sami flag, Sami musicians include people from all cultures in their repertoire.

Today, you will find electric guitars, keyboards and drum machines embellishing yoiks or you will find award-winning joikers performing classic yoiks a cappella. Many yoikers such as Wimme (Finland), Inga Juuso (Norway), Mari Boine (Norway), Ailo Gaup (Norway) and Ulla Pirttijarvi (Finland) have garnered an international following as well as, working with other well-known non-Sami musicians and producers. Wimme has worked with Hedningarna and Hector Zazou and Mari Boine has collaborated with Bill Laswell. And the popular Finnish group, Varttina has even featured yoiks on their recordings. I read an article awhile back about Sami musicians collaborating with Inuit musicians. This didn't surprise me since both cultures practice throat-singing and derive from a nature-based religion tied in with the cycles of the Arctic Circle where they reside. And I read in an interview with Wimme that when he first discovered recordings of his uncles' yoiks, he found a resemblance between yoiks and Navajo chants.

Frozen Moments, a live recording marries flamenco, yoiks and classical Indian music. Orbina II takes a more ambient rock approach with Celtic coloring and Anders P. Bongo provides 50 classical yoiks in the traditional a cappella format. All three recordings were released on the innovative Norwegian label, DAT that produces books and music featuring the Sami heritage. You will find contact information at the end of this article. Other recordings include a cappella yoiks by Jvvar Niillas and fellow Norwegian yoiker Ingor Antte Ailu Gaup performing with Fri Flyt.

Frozen Moments features Inga Juuso (yoiks), Johan Sara Jr. (yoiks, guitar, producer), Erik Steen (flamenco guitar, producer), Rogelio De Badajoz Duran (flamenco vocals), and Jai Shankar Sahajpal (tabla and vocals) and as anyone might imagine, this collaboration offers plenty of virtuoso moments. This group of musicians pushes both rhythmic and vocal boundaries. One could hardly call their performance a frozen moment since there is nothing icy or stagnate about this passionate music that leaps over borders and sets fire to false cultural perceptions. And the performers also set flame to any rules that pertain to their various musical disciplines.

For instance, Voices showcases yoiks, throat-singing, classical Indian vocals along with flamenco cante. The end result is the strangest and most beautiful a cappella composition my ears have ever witnessed. And all the tracks on this recording dole out similar surprises, sometimes leaving a listener yearning for words to describe the music. Inga performs a solo yoik on Harsh Spring, Petenera features a duet with Rogelio on voice and Erik on flamenco guitar while Jai's tabla contributions are highlighted throughout the recording. Yet, the true musical power happens when these five musicians collaborate. Frozen Moments not only appeal to iconoclastic thinkers, but also to musicians wishing to explore other musical territories and to music lovers in general.

The Norwegian group, Orbina that is comprised of Inga Juuso (yoiks), Leif Isak Nilut (yoiks), Klemet Anders Buljo (yoiks, guitars), Bjorn Ole Rasch (keyboards) with Svein Schultz (bass), Rune Arnesen (drums) and Hans Fredrik Jakobsen (flute and bagpipes) offers ultra-modern yoiks. And in fact, the music that appears on Orbina II carries an ambient rock sensibility colored with Celtic overtones. On one hand, the music is similar to Wimme's electronic yoiks, but then it also resembles Mari Boine's jazz renderings. And the Celtic influence probably comes with Norway's ancient ties to Scotland. Also for those readers familiar with Norwegian folks root music, will recognize Bjorn Ole Rasch as Norwegian violinist Annbjorn Lien's musical partner. It does however lack the trance-inducing magic realism found in Wimme's recordings.

Mortena Sàrà falls into light acid jazz while Jeagge-Jussà feels experimental. Boade features a duet with male and female yoiks and Gàisi carries Celtic influences complimented by a flute. Lemet Ante takes this approach further by introducing bagpipes and flute and highlighting a yoik by Anders P. Bongo.

And speaking of Anders P. Bongo, his second CD, Dolin released earlier this year, offers traditional yoiks sung a cappella. Anders performs 50 yoiks, all composed for those who have passed away. The yoiks are all under two minutes long and some of the yoiks feature double vocal tracks.

Anders hails from Kautokeino in Northern Norway and he is dedicated to keeping one of Europe's oldest living traditions alive. His yoiks, like all yoiks are dedicated to people, a landscape or an animal, but in this case, he dedicates the yoiks to people who have died. Yet, the reindeer herder and award-winning yoiker won't bring tears of despair to your eyes while honoring the dead. And he might even inspire musicians to learn more about the vibrant Sami culture.

Sharing much in common with Anders P. Bongo, Norwegian reindeer herder, fisherman and farmer Jvvar Niillas also performs a cappella yoiks on his recording, Deh2. In his late 70's, Jvvar presents 29 short yoiks (under 2 minutes long) sung in his gravely voice. The CD was released in 2002 by a small label, Hommat out of Norway. The yoiks or traditional songs come from the Buolbmat district and after a few listens you might even call the yoiks endearing. For obtaining this recording, try sending an E-mail message to

The Norwegian group Fri Flyt represents an eclectic collection of musicians fuse klezmer, gypsy, chansons and yoiks into a multicultural musical stew. Featuring Danish clarinetist Peter Bastian, yoiker Ingor Antte Ailu Gaup, vocalist Gabriel Fliflet and violinist Oluf Dimitri Roe, Fri Flyt creates an acoustic musical backdrop where Sami and Jewish and gypsy cultures meet, court each other and then marry. Nihkaid sounds oddly French with its wash of accordion. Elvi might be called a chamber orchestra piece, but most of the tracks fall into in the hard to describe genre. Flyr fritt was released in Norway in 2001, but you might be able to obtain a copy by contacting, Gabriel Fliflet by E-mail,

If someone asked me at this point to define a Sami yoik, I doubt that I could because the ancient tradition, dating back thousands of years has shapeshifted into the modern world. The groups Wimme, Mari Boine and Orbina have dressed up the yoik with jazz renderings and electronica. Mari's songs carry a mystical element, are sung for the most part in a Sami dialect and her lyrics refer to Sami traditions. Wimme Saari's yoiks touch noses with the shamanic tradition despite their electronic backdrop. Anders P. Bongo and Jvvar Niillas on the otherhand offer personal yoiks sung to people, in the case of Bongo's yoiks, desceased people are being honored.

I have also noticed that Sami musicians have been expanding outward and embracing musical traditions from other cultures as is the case with Fri Flyt and the ensemble that appears on Frozen Moments. However, even more intriguing and I haven't found any recordings yet, I heard rumors that Sami musicians have collaborated with Inuit and Navajo musicians. I have also seen Sami flutes (even though I read that they only had the drum as a traditional instrument) that resemble the flutes of Native Americans of the Plains and the Southwest (US).

Actually, I love the fact that the Sami yoik is hidden behind a thick veil of history. And I am comfortable with the modern yoiks in my collection. I would give anything to travel back in time and witness the original yoiks used in the context of a nature-based religion. And I wouldn't mind if the original shamans reappeared on the planet. I have dreamt of such a day, but until the impossible becomes possible, I will continue my quest discovering nuggets from this ancient culture.

This article can also be found at

c 2003 P. L. Herlevi

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