The Impact of Sami Tradition

Sami folk music is called joik. It is quite unlike most European music and very different from the music of the ethnic majorities in Russia, Sweden, Norway and Finland.

In the olden days, Europeans often regarded their own music as advanced and the joik as primitive. On a journey to North Cape in 1799, Italian Guiseppe Acerbi heard Sami joik and concluded: “Their music was without meaning and without measure, time or rythmus”. Similar views are frequently found in historical literature. With this attitude, there was little opportunity for an exchange of musical impulses.

Interestingly, the first known examples of influence may be found more than one hundred years before, this time in connection with joik texts. In 1673, the texts of two love joiks were printed in a book about the Sami people. They aroused interest in Europe and several poems were later written on the basis of these two texts. The English translator expressed surprise at finding a description portraying such tenderness. It was, he wrote, “love and poetry, not unworthy of ancient Greece or Rome."

The earliest examples where we may speak of a kind of musical influence are Norwegian songs which copy the joik, including a song from the last century: Jeg fattige Lappmann som bor uti Lappland (I, poor Lappman who lives in far off Lapland), where the tune is intended to illude a kind of joik melody.

Over the ages, many songs have been written in broken Norwegian with a Same as the main character, often trying to copy joiking. Some songs are humorous and relatively innocent but many of them evidence disdainful, discriminating attitudes. This trend has continued until the present day. In fact pop bands still exist in Norway which have the cultural arrogance to play and compose this type of derogatory song.

In the last century, however, important changes have taken place. A large collection of joik melodies from Norway and Finland was first published in 1908. Swedish enthusiasts started collecting Sami music at about the same time, their work resulting in a large collection of joik melodies that was finally published in 1942. This could only happen because new attitudes were beginning to emerge and the Sami joik was starting to be regarded as a unique and valuable contribution to musical culture.

Classical composers were among the first to express this attitude. The Swedish composer Wilhelm Peterson-Berger wrote a Lapplandssymfoni, first performed in 1917, where he used several joik melodies. In a preface to the bound edition in 1942, he explained his view of the joik. He realised that the differences between the joik and the Nordic musical tradition were so great that joik might be offensive to the “naive Germanic musical mind” and that was why peasants and farmers despised Sami melodies. But all the methods of classical music for utilising a theme were present. No good composer would disown what is achieved in some joiks. “It is impossible to deny the impression of great artistic content,” said Peterson-Berger.

Music based on collections of joik melodies was composed in Finland too. However, the first composer to write this type of music was Norwegian Ole Olsen. The University Library in Oslo contains an unpublished manuscript from 1912, Lappisk Juoige-Marsch, arranged for a small orchestra and piano and based on joik themes from Finland and Norway.

The fact that researchers and composers were the first to change their attitudes is probably characteristic. From different starting points, both have the necessary training to discover and value the musical quality of the joik.

Several composers have later been interested in Sami joik. In Norway, they include Ketil Vea, Folke Strømholm and Sigmund Lillebjerka. In the field of research, collections of joik have been made in all the countries where Sami people live. The biggest collection is in the Tromsø Museum, where collecting and researching Sami music is a priority area.

The next turning point came in the 1970s. In Norway, this was a decade that focused on local culture and history, and local communities developed a feeling of worth and cultural pride. This also affected the Sami communities and led to a renaissance of interest in the Sami cultural identity. Political conflicts about Norwegian membership of the EU and the development of the Alta waterway in northern Norway on traditional Sami territory were important in this respect.

Sami artists who based their music on modern arrangements of joik began to emerge. Many recordings have been made of various mixtures of joik, modern joik and Sami songs, most of them released in Norway. The best known group was Tanabreddens ungdom (Youngsters from the Tana Riverbank), who made many recordings, the first in 1973. Several of their songs reached the national hit lists. The Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) produced a children's TV programme about a Sami family and used a joik as a signature tune. In this way the joik became known all over the country.

The best known joik ever is the one that was used in the Norwegian entry for the Eurovision Song Contest in 1980, a newly-composed song with elements of traditional joik. A Sami joik therefore represented Norway in an international competition. More than 600 million people saw and heard the song at the final in Den Haag, and in Norway this is the best known joik of all.

A joik introduced the opening ceremony of the Olympic Winter-Games in Lillehammer in 1994 and TV viewers all over the world were able to hear Sami music presented as part of a diversified Norwegian cultural heritage

Mari Boine from Karasjok is the best known Sami artist. She has become internationally famous as an ethnic musician and in 1989 her CD Gula gula was voted one of the five best records in the world in its genre. She mixes different stylistic elements on the basis of Sami traditions.

Norwegian artists have also begun to work seriously with Sami music, including the world famous jazz musician Jan Garbarek. He has recorded a joik that is used as a signature tune for the NRK's weekly religious programme På kirkebakken. From a historical perspective, this is ironic since the Church was formerly the strongest critic of the Sami joik because it was regarded as ungodly, a heathen influence.

School song books are an official expression of the authorities’ views about which songs schoolchildren should learn. Until the end of the 1970s they contained no Sami joiks, but in 1977 two school song books were published that included joiks. A third book was published in 1979 and the joik was represented with seven songs and a detailed introduction.

There is increasing interest in learning about Sami music throughout the Norwegian educational system. It is also more usual for music students to learn about Sami traditions. The North Norway Music Conservatory now offers a one-year course in Sami joik in cooperation with the Tromsø Museum.

There has been growing interest in Sami culture in Norway throughout this century and it is therefore exercising increasing influence on Norwegian society. Conflicting attitudes still exist, but in general the Sami tradition now enjoys a respect unparalleled in history.

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.5 - 1997 No. 3
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