“When I was a little child my father was slaughtering reindeer. He put the blood in a cup and I drank it.” Hildá Länsman laughs at the memory. “My father didn’t notice, but when he looked up at me I had blood all over my face. He got scared that something bad had happened to me.”
Sámi singer and songwriter Hildá Länsman really grew up amont reindeer in Utsjoki (Ohcejohka in Sámi) in the far north of Finland. Her late father, Jari Länsman, was a reindeer herder, as is her younger brother Nillá-Ánde. It was the traditional occupation on both sides of her family.
The Sámi say that you yoik a person, not about a person. But a yoik also tells you something about the singer. “When I was three years old I made a yoik for the moon and my little brother at that age made a yoik for the sun,” explains Länsman. “That maybe shows the difference in our personalities. I am a more melancholic person, I like when it’s dark and I like the polar night. My little brother is more active and social.”
In the group Solju, Länsman performs with her mother Ulla Pirttijärvi, and the photos for their impressive debut album Ođđa Áigodat [New Times] depict them with a reindeer in the frosty mountainous landscape close to their home. “The reindeer used to be mine,” Länsman says, “but we made an exchange with my ex-boyfriend and he tamed it so now it can pull a sleigh.”
The opening title-track goes straight to the central theme of their music – the difficulty and necessity of finding a balance between the contemporary world and their traditional Sámi culture. There are no solutions in this song but there is a commitment to addressing the problem.
If we lose our faith, our visions have power no more If our memory fails us, we exist no more
Solju is the word for the silver brooch that Sámi women wear on their colourful traditional costume. They look like the large decorative snowflakes that swirl around in the title sequence of Disney’s Frozen, whose opening song, Vuelie, was composed by Sámi composer Frode Fjellheim based on a traditional yoik. Disney felt that those resonances would give it the mythological atmosphere they wanted.
“Of course the intention is very positive,” says Länsman, “but I was disappointed how little from Sámi culture was actually in there – a distant reminder of some costumes and the modern choral version of the Vuelie song. It could have been so much more.” Länsman was born into an environment where Sámi music and culture were hugely important. Her mother was a founder member of Angelin Tytöt, a trio with Tuuni and Ursula Länsman, who released their first album Dolla [Fire] in 1992. Pirttijärvi is a renowned singer of Sámi yoiks and their guttural texture is fundamental to the Solju album, alongside the softer voice of Hildá Länsman. On Heargevuoddji [Reindeer Driver], Pirttijärvi and Länsman alternate verses about reindeer herding to the backing of a Sámi frame drum, other percussion and electronics. The rough leather of Pirttijärvi’s voice, harking back to the ancestral tradition, is a fine counterpart to the softer silver of Länsman’s voice, representing the new generation. Solju won the Folk Music Creator of the Year prize at this year’s Finnish Etnogaala in January.
The Sámi language
2019 is the UN’s International Year of Indigenous Languages and the Sámi are the only indigenous people living within the EU. The Sámi live in the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and part of the Kola peninsula in Russia. Ulla Pirttijärvi and Hildá Länsman speak Northern Sámi, which is recognised as a threatened language by the UN with somewhere between 15,000 and 25,000 speakers, only around 2,000 of whom are in Finland.
and returned last Easter
Photo: Pertti Nisonen & Juha Kauppinen
Renewing the tradition
Music has for a long time been important in increasing international awareness of the Sámi. Nils-Aslak Valkeapää made a strong impression when he performed at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, but it’s Norwegian singer Mari Boine who’s been the inspirational figure. Songlines
Sara Marielle GaupFrode FjellheimSofia JannokWimme SaariUlla Pirttijärvi
New albums released in 2019 by Ulla Pirttijärvi and Hildá Länsman are both landmarks in the Sámi repertoire.ÁššuHarald SkullerudOlav Torget,
Hildá Länsman, coming toViivi Maria Saarenkylä, Vildaluodda
Featured photo: Hildá Länsman
American philanthropist and benefactor Elsa Brule has made a million-dollar donation to the Sibelius Academy’s Global Music Department at the University of the Arts Helsinki. Collaboration between Vildá (Hildá Länsman and Viivi Saarenkylä) and Native American communities served as inspiration for the donation.
This article was revised on September 30, 2019.