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“If our memory fails us, we exist no more…”

by Simon Broughton

Music has long been important in increasing international awareness about the Sámi. Their yoik singing has come to represent an often forgotten people on the edge of Europe. Singer and songwriter Hildá Länsman represents the youngest generation forging an identity between tradition and modernity.

“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.

Länsman admits that you don’t hear the language much in Finland, but that in Norway it’s better. In her elementary school there were around fifty per cent Sámi pupils, but she didn’t yoik much as she was afraid of being teased. In the late 1980s there was a TV show, Hymyhuulet [Smiling Lips], “in which these Finnish men were pretending to be Sámis, having dirty faces, Sámi dresses and yoiking drunk. It really spread bad stereotypes about the Sámis.” The Yle website, where extracts of the programme can be seen, warns of “serious racist content”, but presents it as an example of television entertainment in the 1980s. Their Nunnuka imitations of Sámi yoiking became very well known in Finland.

Länsman says that the centre of Sámi language and culture is Kautokeino in northern Norway, about 250km south-west of Utsjoki. Länsman studied there for four years and returned last Easter to watch the Sámi Grand Prix, a music competition with two categories, one for pop bands and one for solo yoiks. “It’s always singers from Kautokeino that win,” she laughs, “but it’s good to have that kind of event. Through this you get new yoiks, new Sámi music and they make records.”

Vilda Pertti Nisonen Juha Kauppinen
The Vildá duo: Viivi Maria Saarenkylä and Hildá Länsman.
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. Because those who Christianised the country disapproved of the Sámi shamans, they said that Sámi culture came from the devil. “My parents would switch off the radio when there was music, especially when there was yoik,” Mari Boine told Songlines magazine. “I was an indigenous person who was told that my culture was of no value and I must learn to despise it. But we have never accepted that our culture and language don’t have a value.”

Mari Boine has inspired a whole new generation of artists who are also yoiking to the world, including Sara Marielle GaupAdjagas and Frode Fjellheim in Norway, Sofia Jannok in Sweden and Wimme Saari and Ulla Pirttijärvi in Finland.

New albums released in 2019 by Ulla Pirttijärvi and Hildá Länsman are both landmarks in the Sámi repertoire. Pirttijärvi’s record Áššu is with Norwegian percussionist Harald Skullerud and guitarist Olav Torget, and is a very personal selection of yoiks of people and places presented in a contemporary context. Some are connected with her late husband and other family members, while others are from her native village of Angeli.

Hildá Länsman, coming to the end of her BA studies at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, formed Vildá, a duo with accordionist Viivi Maria Saarenkylä, from Savonlinna in eastern Finland. In Skállovárri – the opening song of their new album Vildaluodda [Wildprint] – she sings about the childhood thrill of reindeer herding, combining various yoiking styles, North and South Sámi as well as Kautokeino. “How strong the rumble still feels,” she sings, “when hundreds of reindeer are gathered in a single herd.” But Länsman has also been learning Bulgarian singing and some of those irregular rhythms seem to be creeping into her music on the new record.

On her forthcoming release with rock band Gájanas, she uses a yoik sung by her great-grandfather. “After my Bulgarian singing I put the yoik into 11/8 rhythm, so it sounds very different, but the tune is the same,” she says. “Singing in Sámi is very important and it feels natural to me. It has so many words that are not there in the Finnish language and without the language you lose the culture.”

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.