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100 Voices of the North, pt. III - The beauty of Joiks

19 . 05 . 2020


Spread over a vast area, covering four countries, the Sámi people have inhabited the arctic and sub-arctic regions of Fennoscandia for over 3,500 years. To make up for past suppression, the authorities of Norway, Sweden and Finland now make an effort to build up Sámi cultural institutions and promote Sámi culture and language. Currently, the revitalisation of the Sami culture has grown strong and the Sami traditions have been reinvigorated by increasing awareness and conscious efforts to preserve the Sami culture as a unique and valued part of the Scandinavian societies. A characteristic feature of Sámi musical tradition is the singing of joik.

Joiks are song-chants and are traditionally sung a cappella, usually sung slowly and deep in the throat with the apparent emotional content of sorrow or anger. In a way, it is similar to the Inuit throat singing and isn’t at the same time. Using the voice and forming sounds deep in the throat might appear similar, the outcome and performance, however, is completely different. Joik, the singing tradition of Sami, is considered to be ancient with roots presumably in prehistoric times. It is unique to the Sami culture and particularly among European singing traditions. This singing tradition is characterized by a special vocal technology that utilizes nearly the whole range of the human natural vocal potential and was original without instrumental accompaniment. The use of words could vary from one region to another, from nearly none in the North Sami language area to long epic descriptions in East Sami in the Kola Peninsula. The melodies with regular rhythmic and melodic patterns could often be freely played with and improvised on. Additionally, joik could also be applied to story-telling.

There is a lot of research about joiks and there is even the theory, that the joik have had and possibly still has a role as a health-promoting and/or resilience factor within the Sami culture, giving the Sámi people a significant difference compared to other indigenous people in the Arctic. Usually sung a cappella, musical instruments frequently accompany joiks in recent years. Joik remains an integral part of Sámi culture because of its integrative quality. A joik connects the performer and his or her listeners, not only with each other but with their collective past by uniting it with present experience. As Richard Jones-Bamman has put it: Joiking effectively collapses time. Not all Sámi can perform joik, but knowledge of the genre is still a key symbol of Sámi communal identity. Even though its existence was long denied in public pronouncements, joik has continued to be practiced and heard.

For modern Sámi artists like Sofia Jannok the joiek philosophy remains the base of their work, they delicately blend the old vocal tradition with genres like pop, electronica, and jazz. As South Sámi singer Marja Mortensson has put it: “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.”

Check out this Spotify playlist with Sámi music.

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