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220 posts categorized "Arts, literature & performance"

05 April 2021

Recording of the week: An interview with Ravi Shankar

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This week's selection comes from Sarah Coggrave, Rights Clearance Officer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

In 2017, the Mike Sparrow Collection (C1248) was the first audio collection to be preserved as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. Mike Sparrow (1948 - 2005) was a radio producer and presenter for BBC Radio London (UK) in the 1970s and 1980s, and his collection includes music, reviews, current affairs features and interviews from shows he worked on. One of my favourite recordings is of Mike Sparrow interviewing Indian sitar virtuoso and composer Ravi Shankar (1920 – 2012), in the 1970s.

Based on the details accompanying the collection and from clues within the audio, it is likely this recording was made in early 1978, shortly before Ravi Shankar’s performance on 20 January at the Royal Albert Hall (London, U.K.), in the same year. In this blog I will share some short excerpts from the recording.

Ravi Shankar playing sitar
Ravi Shankar performing at Woodstock Festival in 1969, image sourced via Wikimedia Commons and licensed by CC-SA 4.0.

Ravi Shankar is known across the world for his teaching and performance work, and for sharing North Indian classical music with a range of audiences. In the interview he gives fascinating glimpses into this work, his well-documented association with other famous musicians (including George Harrison and Yehudi Menuhin) as well as discussing how best to define and appreciate different types of classical music.

In this first excerpt from the interview, Ravi Shankar explains what a raga is.

Ravi Shankar defines raga (excerpt 1)

The sitar (a stringed instrument used Indian classical music) presents particular physical challenges due to the length of the fretboard and the method of playing, which, as Ravi Shankar mentions in the interview, results in cut fingers and callouses. In the second excerpt he describes the years of study required to develop the necessary technical and improvisational skills for performances.

Ravi Shankar describes his musical training (excerpt 2)

Throughout the interview Ravi Shankar talks about his desire to bring Indian classical music to new audiences, and reflects on the positive effects of his association with the rock and roll world, including performing at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 (California, U.S.A.) and Woodstock in 1969 (New York, U.S.A.), where the image in this blog was taken. While performances such as these made it possible to reach younger listeners, he also expressed concern about the drinking, smoking and drug taking that took place at such festivals, activities that he thought might undermine the appreciation and enjoyment of the music.

This partially accounts for Ravi Shankar’s subsequent move away from the rock and roll music scene and when Mike Sparrow asks for further clarification, the discussion moves on to what is meant by the term 'classical music'. Their conversation can be heard in the following excerpt from the interview:

Ravi Shankar discusses types of classical music (excerpt 3)

Interview transcript

Later in the interview this theme is explored further in terms of how Western audiences react to their first encounters with classical Indian music and vice versa. Ravi Shankar talks specifically about the greater emphasis on melody and rhythm in Indian classical music, and how this can be disconcerting for listeners who are accustomed to harmony, modulation and dynamics being more central.

Mike Sparrow’s final question concerns Ravi Shankar’s (then) upcoming performance at the Royal Albert Hall (London, U.K.). What might audiences expect? He responds by explaining that he often does not decide on the ragas until shortly before the performance, although avoids starting with a long one in case of latecomers, who might otherwise face waiting outside for up to 45 minutes!

It would not have been possible to share this interview without the kind assistance of Ravi Shankar’s estate, Mike Sparrow’s executor and the BBC. Many recordings of Ravi Shankar’s performances can be accessed at the British Library, as well as his autobiography and other publications describing his life and work. More details on all of this can be found searching British Library catalogues.

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01 April 2021

Guy Brett: Ideas in Motion

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One of the more delicate questions we ask our interviewees in a life story interview is how they feel about death. When I posed this question to art writer Guy Brett (1942 – 2021) in 2008, he gave an answer which succinctly encapsulated our own collaborative endeavour in that moment: ‘I believe in human memory. If nobody remembers you, then you’ve gone, but if people remember you, you live on in some form or another […] that is the afterlife’.

Guy had recently returned from a writing residency in New Zealand and was fascinated by Maori culture and their value system. He lingered on the ideas behind Maori attitudes to life informed by their belief in ancestor worship. The Maori people, Guy explained, are conscious all the time of the genealogy of their families and those who are no longer alive: their ancestors have a present quality and are always being invoked, so their sense of the past remains ever present.

At the end of recording Guy’s life story for ‘Art World Professionals’ as part of 'Artists' Lives' [shelf-mark C466-270], I told him that National Life Stories had made a life story recording with his own father, the architect, town planner and writer, Lionel Brett (Lord Esher), for the ‘Architect’s Lives’ archive [shelf-mark C467/14], a decade earlier. Guy found the discovery of his father’s narration of his own life journey profoundly moving. As a thinker, Guy insisted on the clear understanding of the beginnings of things: ‘it’s like a seed’, he said, ‘tracing back to where things originate’. Perhaps this perspective was why the intergenerational exchange of father to son through life story testimony became such a moving moment; through Lionel Brett’s reflections, Guy returned to his own beginnings.

Black and white photo of Guy Brett in front of an art work which is a series of written questions each beginning with 'Is Art?'Guy Brett at the Serpentine Gallery, London, in 1975, with part of Lea Lublin’s Question on Art

The Bretts enjoyed tremendous privilege, but they were acutely aware of their sense of responsibility outside themselves. Even though father and son pursued radically different paths in their lives, their recordings testify to a mutual devotion to public service. Guy took the freedoms he inherited and used them deliberately, responsibly: he dedicated his life to championing the work of marginalised artists and worked tirelessly to reorient the art world’s gaze to the innovations and contributions of artists from the Southern Hemisphere.

Sometimes Guy’s concerns meant turning his back on the art world altogether. About his 1986 book, Through our Own Eyes: Popular Art and Modern History, he confesses that ‘my interest in those popular forms were connected not with disillusionment, but a disappointment, with the professional art world […] I wanted to use my writing to make an intervention in the political process through art. It wasn’t to do with any particular political movement. The theme of the book was lived experience—the strange connection between an untutored practice or language dealing with overwhelmingly powerful social experiences’.

In order to pursue the causes in which he ardently believed, Guy had to operate independently. and it was perhaps due to his early life that he had the inner confidence to operate outside of the academy or institution, to shun dominant ideology. In this audio clip, Guy Brett explains how his response to art and artists were in opposition to the forces and mechanics of the art world at large.

Guy Brett on defending artists not recognised by the mainstream (C466/270)

Download Guy Brett on defending artists not recognised by the mainstream transcript

Guy’s deliberate choice of ‘unjust’ in his description of neglected artists is significant: justice becomes a kind of leitmotif of Guy’s recording and lies at the heart of his personal motivation. From an early age, he identified his commitment to social justice—but the art world, as he emphatically reminds us, is a very unjust place. In his autobiography, Our Selves Unknown, Lionel Brett described his son as belonging to ‘the generation of Marcusean alienation’—that is, a generation of young people eager to break out of the ‘one dimensionality’ of a culture that meant that people found themselves in the commodities they purchased, not the ideas they thought. Looking at Guy Brett’s lifework, it becomes clear that his choices were informed by political convictions that, in his own words, ‘permeate your whole consciousness: it’s simply the pursuit of some idea of freedom, freedom from oppression’. Guy’s younger brother, the Chilean-based Human Rights activist, Sebastian Brett, observes that ‘the alienation of which my father wrote attracted us both to what in those days was optimistically called ‘The Third World’ […] we romantically identified with its liberation movements, and barely a few years later, with the movement of solidarity with victims of the military repression that swept the continent in the 1970s.’

Black and white photo of four men sitting on the floor mailing a news bulletinGuy Brett (centre) with (from left to right) Paul Keeler, Sergio de Camargo, Christopher Walker and David Medalla mailing the Signals news bulletin from Cornwall Gardens in 1964. © Clay Perry

Guy’s understanding of the social and cultural forces that shape our contemporary moment illuminates his excitement for the promise of a more inclusive, multi-cultural, and cosmopolitan London that was in its infancy as Guy came of age. From his earliest days in professional life, Guy aligned himself with a completely international notion of art and art practice that would undermine an art history predicated on a colonial gaze. He wanted to capture what, in his words, was the ‘extraordinary diversity, which is multi-racial, multi-national, multi-genre, and ebbs and flows with the comings and goings of artists themselves’.

Guy Brett on cultural interchange and national ideology (C466/270)

Download Guy Brett on cultural interchange and national ideology transcript

In collaboration with Philippine artist David Medalla and Paul Keeler, Guy helped set up the radical and short-lived Signals Gallery in 1964. This space provided a platform to a host of Brazilian artists—among them, Lygia Clark, Mira Schendel, Sergio Camargo—as well as Venezuelan artists Jesus Rafael Soto and Carlos Cruz-Diez. While London museums and galleries promoted British formal abstraction and embraced American-oriented material culture, Guy was busy writing about bubble machines made by David Medalla. Generally perceived at the time as mad experiments, these temporal sculptures were, for Guy, a ludic riposte to the new forms in British sculpture: whatever forms the bubble machine made immediately evaporated—thus contradicting the notion of a permanent piece of sculpture. In this next audio clip, Guy articulates his response to seeing kinetic artwork produced by the Greek artist, Takis, for the first time. Guy’s spoken expression captures the sense of quizzical intrigue and excitement with which he received these new forms of art. When the rest of the world caught up several decades later, Guy curated Takis’s retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2019.

Black and white photo of Guy Brett standing upright and holding a magnet towards Takis who is also standing uprightGuy Brett holding a magnet with Greek artist Takis, circa 1964 © Clay Perry

Guy Brett's response to sculpture of Greek artist Takis and his use of magnetism in art (C466/270)

Download Guy Brett’s response to sculpture of Greek artist Takis and his use of magnetism in art transcript

Guy’s receptive sensibility meant that his writing existed in a symbiotic relationship to the artwork he sought to explain. In his recording, Guy describes the process of identification he felt with certain artists when he responded to their work. He explains how Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica’s attitude made so much sense to him that it became ingrained in his own way of looking at things. Guy’s sometimes humourous, always poignant, recounting of organising Oiticica’s groundbreaking 1969 exhibition, the ‘Whitechapel Experience’, in the face of mounting establishment opposition, reminds us of the battles fought by this generation who innovated radical new propositions in art. The panoply of experiences on offer—the staged beach experience; human-sized nesting boxes; and a billiard table that invited the participation of local youths—was a far cry from the self-contained art objects usually on quiet display.

Guy’s lifelong commitment to the path less travelled took courage: an autodidact with no formal training, he enjoyed a curiosity uninhibited by convention. His writing about art drew not on academic jargon but on pre-verbal feelings stimulated by his engagement with both the work and the maker. He cherished intellectual freedom and made unexpected connections between cultures and disciplines—from the lived experience to the interplay of science and mystical philosophy; in his words, ‘All I have learnt about art I learnt from artists and knowing artists and talking with artists and looking at what they did and my own reading’.

Guy Brett on writing and the purpose of art criticism (C466/270)

Download Guy Brett on writing and the purpose of art criticism transcript

In keeping with his interest in Maori custom, Guy Brett’s presence will continue to be felt, not only through his finely-wrought prose and quietly radical sensibility, but also through his words as captured by his life story recording, which still have much to teach us if we make the time to listen. The gently probing, deliberately paced and stripped back audio recordings in the National Life Stories archive offer an antidote of resonant, lived reflection: they create a vital space, amongst the digital noise of our twenty-first century lives, for profoundly felt, movingly candid responses to the human condition.

Written by Hester R. Westley.

Hester R. Westley interviewed Guy Brett for the National Life Stories Project Artists’ Lives in 2007-2008. The full life story interview is available for researchers at the British Library and can be found by searching C466/270 at sami.bl.uk The interview with Lionel Brett (Lord Esher) can be listened to online at BL Sounds.

08 March 2021

Recording of the week: Mohamed Choukri at the ICA

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This week's selection comes from Steve Cleary, Lead Curator of Literary and Creative Recordings.

Tangier  Morocco - photo by Brett Hodnett
Tangier, Morocco by Brett Hodnett – used under Creative Commons license CC-BY-SA-2.0

Today’s selection features the Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri (1935-2003), recorded at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London, 22 September 1992.

Choukri’s first volume of autobiography, published in English as For Bread Alone, tells the story of a harsh and poverty-stricken upbringing in Tangier. Choukri was in fact illiterate until the age of 20. Two further volumes, Streetwise and Faces, continued the story.

Choukri is also known for his personal accounts of friendships with Paul Bowles, Jean Genet and Tennessee Williams – all foreign-born writers who resided for varying durations in Tangier.

In this excerpt, Choukri talks (in Arabic) about his motivation for being a writer.

Listen to Mohamed Choukri at the ICA

The live English translation is provided by Owen MacMillan.

Download English-language transcript

This recording excerpt comes from our ICA Talks collection, which comprises recordings of more than 800 talks and discussions held at the ICA, London, during the period 1982-1993. These events featured leading writers, artists and filmmakers. Almost all of the recordings are available to listen to online.

Follow @BL_DramaSound@BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

22 February 2021

Recording of the week: Breathe in

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This week's selection comes from Giulia Baldorilli, Reference Specialist.

Born in 1885 in a small town in the Free State province of South Africa, Tromp Van Diggelen had an unfortunate childhood. He suffered from various respiratory-related illnesses, such as pneumonia.

Supported by his teacher at school, Tromp started studying the functionality of human body which eventually led him to discover that simple circular breathing exercises would improve physical strength and build up body resistance.

Instead of investing in long days of training at the gym, he realised good breathing techniques could in fact help him add a few inches to his chest, thus building up physical endurance. He would later become known as 'The Man with the Perfect Chest'.

This focus on functional strength allowed him much more freedom to finally participate alongside other children in sport competitions.

He understood that muscle flexibility was improved by blood flow, and simple breathing exercises might improve the muscular tone, leaving us with a healthier and stronger appearance. This knowledge is at the core of 'A Lesson in Correct Breathing', released by Columbia.

Colombia disc label

Breathing Made Easy

Download Transcript for Breathing Made Easy

In the recording you hear real intakes, while following Tromp’s clear instructions on how to expand the chest and then release the breath.

These talking demonstrations based on practical and simple advice are sequences that are easy to follow and repeat, accessible to anyone. Ultimately, they show us how much a correct breathing technique can improve the quality of our life as a whole.

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15 January 2021

Grace Robertson, a pioneer of women’s documentary photography

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It was when Glenda Jackson fixed me with her frankly intimidating glare and barked, ‘Is that enough for you?’ that I knew I was in way above my head. What on earth was I doing on London’s South Bank, not only with a national icon of stage and screen but with one of the pioneers of documentary photography, Grace Robertson? What on earth did I think I was doing? Luckily Grace (who sadly died on 11 January aged 90) came to my assistance, accustomed no doubt to dealing with tricky customers, and calmly said that yes she’d got the images she needed, thank you. Glenda was pacified.

Those times in 1993 took us around the country for the National Life Story Awards, part of the International Year of Older People, to meet and photograph ‘champions’. Jackson, Richard Branson and Lord Soper were amongst them, and it was a huge learning curve for a young and relatively inexperienced oral history curator. Grace, then aged 63, agreed to take part in the project to ‘celebrate the role of older women photographers’ and I got to know her gentle and unobtrusive technique (despite her considerable height: she was six feet two inches).

Lord Donald Soper being interviewed by his granddaughter as part of the 1993 National Life Story Awards
Lord Donald Soper being interviewed by his granddaughter as part of the 1993 National Life Story Awards. Image courtesy of Grace Robertson/British Library

Grace was fearless but great fun and with her husband, photographer Thurston Hopkins, was enormously generous to me when Val Williams and I were starting up our Oral History of British Photography (OHBP) project at the British Library in 1990. At exhibition openings she’d say to me: ‘Have you met XYZ [famous photographer]’, and then whisk me off to meet my heroes. She and Thurston played an important part in OHBP: both were interviewed themselves (see the BL Sounds website at Grace Robertson and Thurston Hopkins), and Grace trained up to become an interviewer herself, capturing recordings for the collection with Mark Gerson, Penelope Anne Tweedie, Humphrey Spender and Margaret Harker.

Born in 1930, the daughter of journalist Fyfe Robertson, Grace Robertson was one of the few women photographers to work for the magazine Picture Post, which did so much to promote documentary photography’s role in documenting ‘ordinary’ lives before, during and after the Second World War. Her father gave her a Leica camera in 1949 and Grace worked as a freelance photojournalist for Picture Post (initially under the pseudonym Dick Muir) from 1951 until it closed in 1957. She was often allocated commissions about women’s lives. Her 1955 images of childbirth were truly pioneering and she later remarked that ‘I felt I was an observer of society. I never thought about my presence in it. My driving force in photographing women was to find out what made them tick.’

Photograph of women from ‘Mothers’ Day Off’, Picture Post 1954
From ‘Mothers’ Day Off’, Picture Post 1954. Image courtesy of Grace Robertson

Grace went on to work for other British and American publications including Life, retraining as a teacher in the mid-1960s, and only returning to photography in the 1980s. Latterly she lectured on women photographers and published an autobiographical monograph, entitled Grace Robertson – Photojournalist of the ‘50s. Shirley Read, another OHBP interviewer, remembers that Grace was also the Chair of ‘Signals, the Festival of Women Photographers’ in 1996, and ‘she could be formidable in that role’. In retirement she and Thurston moved to Seaford in Sussex where he died aged 101 in 2014.

Grace Robertson was interviewed by Alan Dein in 1993 for An Oral History of British Photography.

Blogpost by Dr Rob Perks, Lead Curator of Oral History @BL_OralHistory

11 January 2021

Recording of the week: The voice of Robert Browning (1812-1889)

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This week's selection comes from Steve Cleary, Lead Curator of Literary and Creative Recordings.

Portrait of Robert Browning
Above: British Library digitised image from The Poetical Works of Robert Browning (1888).

Robert Browning was an English poet and playwright born in Camberwell, London.

Like his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), whose great success as a poet exceeded his, at least in her lifetime, he was one of the most popular poets of the Victorian era.

This cylinder recording of Robert Browning is the earliest recording of a major British literary figure that we know of.

It was made at a dinner party given by Browning's friend, the artist Rudolf Lehmann on 7 April 1889, on a phonograph brought to the party by Thomas Edison’s representative in Europe, Colonel Gouraud.

Here is Browning attempting to read his poem ‘How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’.

Unfortunately, he runs into a bit of trouble trying to remember how it goes, but all is resolved in good-humoured fashion.

Listen to the voice of Robert Browning

Download Robert Browning transcript

Browning was then in the last year of his life. He was to die that December.

It is not unusual nowadays for a recording of the deceased to be played at a memorial event honouring a poet or a writer. Recording technology is now more than 140 years old. It no longer brings with it the shock of the new.

In 1890, however, when this recording was replayed at an event held on the first anniversary of Browning’s funeral, it was by no means common to hear a voice from ‘beyond the grave’.

It was all too much for Browning's sister Sarianna, who called it 'an indecent séance', and wrote to a friend:

Poor Robert's dead voice to be made interesting amusement! God
forgive them all. I find it difficult.

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04 January 2021

Recording of the week: Happy New Year!

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This week's selection comes from Andrea Zarza Canova, Curator of World and Traditional Music.

Centre label of African Acoustic Vol.1 - Guitar Songs From Tanzania  Zambia & Zaire
'Bonne Année' was released on the album African Acoustic Vol.1 - Guitar Songs From Tanzania, Zambia & Zaire by record label Original Music

In this recording made by John Low, three boys in their late teens perform a song called 'Bonne Année' (which means Happy New Year in French) that they composed for the New Year celebrations of 1979.

Bonne Année recorded by John Low (BL C27/5 S1 C9)

Singing are Mukuna, Chola Piana and Soki Nambi, who also plays the guitar. Normally they would have played together in their electric guitar band, Orchestre Makosso (possibly named after another band that was famous in the 1970s) but on the night of the recording, they borrowed the recordist’s guitar.

John Low had been staying in Lubumbashi, the capital of Katanga, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to study the guitar music of Jean-Bosco Mwenda. While he was there, Bosco arranged for Low to go to Likasi, where Bosco was brought up, with a Cultural Officer called Tshibuyi Katina. This was to see more of the region, and record there if possible. Likasi is in the Katanga copper belt, and it was in a neighbourhood called Zone Mpanda that Low and Katina unexpectedly met the three boys.

In John Low's forthcoming book ‘Two Guitars to Katanga’, he describes this moment with beautiful clarity –

Perhaps the best things in life are always unexpected. What followed was a performance of rare beauty. Soki picked intricate and varying patterns on the guitar, full of melodic interest. The boys sang in three parts: low tenor, high tenor and falsetto. Their young voices blended perfectly and the vocal lines soared and floated unhurriedly above the more urgent, choppy rhythms of Soki’s guitar work. The relationship of the vocal parts to the guitar patterns was very complex, yet Soki played and sang effortlessly. He was supremely talented.

These teenagers would have honed their musical skills already as young boys, almost certainly by playing in banjo groups like Yumba and his friends who we’d recorded earlier on. But now they’d moved up into a different league, and were avidly absorbing the idioms of modern Congolese dance music. Their first song, the more beautiful of the two I recorded, was called Bonne Année, and had been composed for the New Year celebrations that year.

The song, in Kikongo language, was published  on the album 'African Acoustic Vol. 1 - Guitar Songs from Tanzania, Zambia and Zaire' on John Storm Roberts' record label Original Music. In fact, all the tracks on that album are field recordings made by John Low and these, and many more, are available to listen to at the British Library as part of the John Low Collection (C27).

Thanks to John Low for allowing me to feature his recording and for his generous correspondence over email, which I've paraphrased in this post.

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28 December 2020

Recording of the week: Sámi Yoik; evoking reindeer, the wind and 'wind nose'

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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.

A herd of reindeer
A herd of reindeer at Jukkasjärvi in Lapland. Man in a Sami costume. Courtesy of Swedish National Heritage Board

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.

Adult reindeer yoik (BL REF C1650/73 BD 4)

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.

Wind yoik (BL REF C1650/73 BD 5)

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.

Wind nose yoik (C1650/73 BD 6)

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.

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