This week's selection comes from Finlay McIntosh, World & Traditional Rights intern for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.
Although in the UK, reindeer are associated with Christmas and winter wonderlands, for Europe’s only recognized indigenous community, the Sámi, they are a part of everyday life.
The Sámi inhabit Sápmi—a territory stretching from the northern areas of Norway, through Sweden and Finland to the Kola Peninsula in Russia—and their livelihoods traditionally revolved around reindeer herding. This way of life has largely changed throughout decades of modernization and cultural assimilation into nation-states but the reindeer has remained central to Sámi culture and identity.
We see this strong bond between the Sámi and their animals in these examples of traditional yoik or joik, recorded by Maggie Hamilton in 1997, in Jokkmokk, Sweden.
Yoiking is an age-old Sámi tradition that can have many functions. In the past, some yoiks were used in shamanistic rituals to contact the spirit world, whereas nowadays some tell epic narratives and stories for entertainment. Some yoiks can be extremely personal and are used to evoke an ancestor or friend, whereas others can act as a personal signature, which if performed, can be seen by others as boastful. Sámi parents can yoik their children to sleep like a lullaby or even drown out a baby’s crying with their powerful performances.
A yoik is a direct reflection of its subject, which can be anything from a person, place or landscape to an animal, including, of course, the reindeer. Through performance, the yoiker tries to express the soul of what is being yoiked, and in effect, yoiks the subject into being. This is why it is often said that a yoik is not about something; it is that thing.
This also brings up interesting questions about musical ownership. As a World and Traditional Music Rights Intern, I spend a lot of my time contacting rights holders, who we consider the owners of the recordings in our collections. Whereas we may think the creator or performer of a piece of music is its owner, the Sámi hold a different view: as yoiking attempts to evoke the subject into being, it is thought that the subject owns the yoik, rather than the performer.
This is certainly the case when yoiking people but perhaps yoiking reindeer is another matter. Needless to say, I have not asked any reindeer for their permission to use these recordings!
In this first example, the performer yoiks an adult reindeer, which he describes as heargi, or a big and strong reindeer. This is just one of the hundreds of different and often poetic descriptive words the Sámi reindeer herders use to differentiate the reindeer in their herds. The Sámi language’s extensive reindeer-related vocabulary describes every possible size, shape, colouring, temperament and antler position of the animal. We can hear how the performer evokes this heargi reindeer bull with his rich, deep voice.
In this second example, the performer yoiks the wind. Introducing the yoik, he tells us how the wind helps the reindeer herders to navigate vast expanses of tundra and locate their herds. He says that because reindeer often run face-first into the strong-blowing north wind, the wind tells the herders which way the reindeer are travelling – North. This also helps the herders to find their animals easily.
This is a fascinating example of how yoiks can contain and transmit knowledge specific to the Sámi lifestyle. They can pass on knowledge about reindeer management practices and navigation as well as expressing the close connection between animal and environment.
In this final example, the performer yoiks biegganjunit, or wind nose, which is a very specific metaphor embedded in Sámi culture that conjures up the image of the reindeer as they are running against the blowing wind with the ice-cold air rushing up their noses. The performer tells us that although this yoik contains few actual words, it depicts the scene of these reindeer as they run, smelling for the scent of wolves and other predators that are being carried in the wind.
Again, this shows that the meaning of a yoik does not just come from the lyrics. In fact, some yoik do not have any words at all. Yoiks can express a meaning that goes beyond words but this can only be understood when the performer and their audience are closely connected.
Yoiking and other elements of Sámi culture were repressed throughout periods of Christianization and state assimilation efforts. However, since the 1960s, it has experienced a revival. Sámi yoik has been incorporated into a variety of popular music genres and has gained more visibility on the international stage—it even made an appearance at the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest with Norway’s entry “Spirit in the Sky,” performed by Keiino. By continuing to yoik throughout history, the Sámi manage to maintain their cultural identity and now the tradition is thought to be one of the oldest continuous musical practices in Europe.
However, yoiking is an oral tradition at its core and some have questioned the value of documenting it in archives. As these recordings show, much of a yoik’s meaning is created between the yoiker, what is being yoiked and an initiated audience who can construct meaning by connecting the dots. When yoiks have such a strong attachment to a specific place, people and environment, some argue that if removed from that context, written down, recorded or translated, yoiks lose their complex layers of meaning and feeling. How can they mean anything to people who are not Sámi and do not know the specific contexts from which they come from? Despite this, without archives, many of these traditional yoiks—untouched by folklorizations and Eurovision song contest sparkle—would have been forgotten and not passed onto the younger generation of Sámi.
If you want to learn more about the yoik recordings in the Maggie Hamilton Collection, you can read the catalogue entries in our Sound and Moving Image catalogue. There are examples of yoik evoking bears, moose, mountains, the performer’s grandfather and even Christianized yoik, with the performer providing fascinating information about the tradition, its history and meanings.
These sound recordings were donated by Maggie Hamilton to the British Library and have been digitised as part of the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.