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Improvisation and intuition with Katarina Barruk

by Katarina Barruk, Saara-Maria Salonen

Katarina Barruk is an Ume Sámi singer and songwriter from the Swedish side of the Sámi region, Sábmie. Barruk sings in her native language, Ume Sámi, which is in the UNESCO’s red list of critically endangered languages with just an estimated 100 speakers. Making her language heard across borders, Barruk’s live performances have improvised elements, and improvisation is an important force in her music that mixes traditional joik with pop. In this interview with FMQ, Barruk talks about her relationship with improvisation.

Improvisation has a major role in my creative process. When a song doesn’t exist yet, you need to start somewhere, and often that starting point comes through some form of improvisation. When making music, I work really intuitively. I choose a starting point which can be a certain emotion, feeling or a special place or event, and then imagine that feeling or place within myself, and finally create an improvisation around that. When we play live concerts, improvisation is always present there as well. 

I have a project with AvantJoik, where our concerts are exclusively improvised. We don’t know exactly what we’re going to play each time. But when I perform my solo project, which includes some pop songs, we also play tunes that have a more open feel, drawing from traditional joiks. I like to improvise around that. When touring in the past two years with the album Ruhttuo, my two musicians and I have created a new composition during our live performances. We kept improvising around it as the tour progressed, so in the end we had made a composition with our live audiences. Now when we perform it, it’s never quite the same as it was before.  

Improvisation requires you to trust the people around you and to work together with your co-musicians. You have to know that if you take this leap of faith, then they will be there, ready to tap into whatever decision you make. Or if they are the ones choosing the direction, then you need to follow and go along with it. So it’s important to have that kind of trust, because it allows you to make bolder decisions. My way of improvising has changed a little, or it has become richer.


“Tjáhtjiebuhttale” from Ruhttuo.


Some years ago, I started working with Maya Ratkje. It was really interesting because we both are vocalists. We noticed that my starting point for improvising has always been that the sounds that I make must mean something. I don’t make sounds just for the sake of making sounds. It always has a certain meaning behind it. I am in an emotional state of mind, trying to channel that emotion or trying to put myself into a place or a story someone else had told me. I see these clear images when I improvise; this gives me the energy to create the sounds that come out in the end and that the audiences or the listeners can hear. And this is my starting point, the basis of my improvisations. 

Having worked with Ratkje for several years, I have noticed that her improvisations often start from a certain sound that is interesting to her. It’s interesting to make the sound and to listen to it, and this can then give a starting point and meaning to her improvisation. In other words, we realised that we have a shared improvisation project with two very different starting points for why we make the sounds that we do. It’s super inspiring to get to learn from such an experienced improviser and get different perspectives.

I’ve also found myself making sounds just for the sake of the sound. The sound can fascinate me and inspire creativity in the improvisation process, which then makes it even more rich and fun for me to do. Psychologically, sometimes I could be really tired after an improvised concert, simply because I had been so focused on tapping into that energy, and I still experience this. But I think I have found a way to also rest in my improvisations a little bit.




I believe that the joik philosophy is my starting point – its emotional mindset, or certain places or events that I’m trying to revisit. When you joik traditional joiks, it’s never just a case of making random sounds. It’s always a case of telling a story or a person or a place. I think that this philosophy is the basis for my improvisations. In improvised concerts, the outcome is not necessarily a traditional joik, but the philosophy is there. It’s the foundation for improvisations. The joik tradition’s melodic language and the way of using your voice and vocals influences me a lot.

I think improvisation has quite a significant role in Sámi music in general. I know that in my way of making music, improvisation plays a big part. I am not a traditional joiker. I can joik traditional joiks but I am also a vocalist. I create a lot of singing tunes or other weird kinds of tunes, whatever I choose in that moment.

I have noticed that when instrumentalists play alongside a traditional joik, they also need to improvise. This is because the joik itself doesn’t follow a predetermined tune or rhythm, in the same way that often is the norm in western music. I’ve heard that many of my colleagues find it fascinating, the way how it becomes an improvisation in itself.

Improvisation is really a way of being free without any limits. I can express myself even better through improvisation than through the songs in my set list. It’s the freedom and the energy that is present right then and there, that we make together. You can’t do that in the same way with something that has been firmly set or pre-planned.

I have been playing and touring so much over the last year and a half. A big part of my musical process has taken place on the stage.

I feel really safe when I improvise on stage, because I’ve done it so much. Now, when I think about it, the improvisation that feels closest to me is improvising with my friends or people that I trust or that I have played a lot with. With them, I can really dare to do the things that I would like to achieve in my improvisations.


Featured photo: Sara Berglund