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Yoik on the road

by Riikka Hiltunen

Wimme Saari, one of the world’s best-known Sámi performers, has made a powerful comeback after a long break away from the recording studio. His new album, Mun, contains less electronics than before, but there is still an element of trance involved. Wimme transports his listeners to another time and place.

Wimme Saari is used to causing confusion whenever he opens his mouth on stage outside Finland. He describes listeners grunting in amazement: “What on earth is this? Something new and strange!”

But ‘new’ is not an adjective that immediately springs to mind when speaking of the sounds that Wimme makes. His art is the traditional singing of the Sámi people, the yoik. Wimme sings in a style closely akin to the North Sámi luohti tradition, but above all he is known for his modernisation of the yoik tradition. Combining electronic backgrounds with the traditional voice technique is one means of doing this. An important partner in this exploration was and is sax player and producer Tapani Rinne, who is also known for his own band, RinneRadio. Now back together after a lengthy break, the two men have been making music, collaborating on the captivating and acclaimed Mun, with a more acoustic sound than on Wimme’s previous albums.

The release of the new album helped fill up the concert calendar, and after Wimme performed a showcase gig at Womex 2009 in Copenhagen, his agent could scarcely believe the queues that formed at his desk.

Yoik of the home village in Helsinki

Wimme is from Enontekiö in the northernmost reaches of Finland, but he ended up in Liperi in North Karelia near the eastern border. For predictable reasons, as Wimme freely admits.

“A man will follow a woman to the moon, if need be.”

His homesickness is particularly bad from mid-August to mid-September. If he misses his yearly trip to the fells of his native land, they come to him. At least in his dreams.

“The winter before last, I went back home in my dreams every single night from early December well into January. It was because I did not have a chance to visit in the autumn.”

However, by contrast Wimme can feel himself at home anywhere at all in the world. He has felt a strange feeling of familiarity in the Yukon Territory in Canada and in Soweto in South Africa – so much so that he thought that those were places where he might even want to live.

“It’s easy to become accustomed to pretty much any place; after all, people are not all that different wherever you go. We all live under the same sun and look up at the same moon,” Wimme says.

He himself does not make much of his northern roots, although the exoticism of the Far North is of course exploited whenever he performs abroad. His music is not just about the fells and trackless wilderness; there is always a certain urban element to it too. One of his greatest hits is a techno song named Texas, and on his new album the easy-going and cheerful Paris draws on his own memories, like so many of his songs.

“The words just came to me in the studio when I recalled that memory and thought about how I had wandered, smelled and enjoyed the city. Tapani had created a background in Parisian style that was easy to float on.”

Wimme has tried urban living too: in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he lived in Helsinki and was employed at the recording archive at the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE). That period influenced his music too.

“The environment changes how you express things, and this was especially true of me when I was younger. There is so much noise in the city that you begin to use your voice more, to shout. In a natural environment, you can make music with much softer sounds.”

However, a more far-reaching and lasting impact on Wimme’s music and his life as a whole came from the archive tapes he discovered at his workplace. Traditionally, the yoik is passed on orally from one generation to the next, but in Wimme’s case the chain nearly broke. Because devout Christians used to disapprove of the yoik, considering it sinful, many families did not practice it at all in Wimme’s youth. He did hear old men singing yoiks at reindeer roundups, and his interest in the tradition increased as he reached adolescence. But his own mother never sang yoiks for him.

“I discovered a real treasure trove at YLE: tapes with recordings of yoiks made by my mother’s brother and cousin in the early 1960s. This opened up my family history, and I was able to bridge the gap left by my mother and my family refusing to teach me this tradition. Now I had the complete package neatly tied up in my head. I could access the ancient world. It was a huge thing, a sort of epiphany.”

Tales without words

In Wimme’s case, it is something of a blessing that the tradition was conveyed in this way, at one swoop. He has brought the yoik into the modern era, not just by combining it with new backgrounds but also in terms of melodic profiles and harmonies. Those who have been singing yoiks since childhood tend to be less inclined to abandon the traditional pentatonic scales and the old tradition.

“I suppose it turned out all right in the end, even if I was an adult before I learned the yoiks of my home village,” Wimme himself says.

What is traditional about his singing is that the tale in a yoik must not be interrupted.

“When I lead a voice, there is always a lot of information in it. If you just stick lovely phrases together, the whole thing breaks down: the chain of information is disrupted. The yoik becomes indifferent and no longer has meaning. It may sound nice, but it will not engage your emotions.”

This is true not only of yoiks with lyrics; there is also information embedded in the melodic turns of wordless yoiks. Wimme himself admits to the aforementioned disruption of information on his previous band album Barru; these days, he cannot listen to it any more. Barru was followed by Wimme’s first solo album, Gapmu, which only contains unaccompanied yoik singing.

“Electronics got the upper hand for a while with Barru, but on this new album the machine is a servant again, as it should be.”

Wimme and Rinne both seem delighted that they are working together again after a long break. After a stupor brought on by a sort of frustration, they needed a breathing space to be able to regroup.

Rhythm of breathing, rhythm of life

There is a long list of guest artists too who lend a new expression to the music, and the album breathes in the same rhythm and tempo as the people.

“The album has a feeling of being very laid back, with no hastiness and no trying to jolly people along. You do not need to stress or strain to follow the music.”

Is this time-space effect in fact the secret behind the magic of Wimme’s music? All of his albums, regardless of how they were produced, seem in some bewildering way to exist outside of time. The music is timeless yet at the same time in tune with the times. There are no clocks where the music goes.

“Music and the yoik are not of this day even on this album. The time of music is different from the time of the hands of the clock. All past souls and spirits are in it, there is a perspective of eternity.”

Tapani Rinne, when asked from a producer’s point of view what the reason is for this timeless feeling on the albums, generously credits the yoik itself.

“The yoik in itself is timeless. It is no use trying to impose production values in an effort to be trendy, though you need to keep your eyes and ears open for suitable ways of making the music reflect the times.”

The division of duties between the two men is clear and uncomplicated, and their relationship is one of mutual trust and respect. They come from different backgrounds and bring different things to the project. Rinne has never studied the yoik tradition, although he has of course learned a lot about it over the years.

“It is mainly about making music. Often I do not even necessarily know what the yoik is about when we are working on it. Sometimes funny things happen when we assemble the tracks. Sometimes it screws up badly, sometimes something goes wonderfully right by sheer accident.” Rinne talks of ‘compiling’ and ‘building’ tracks. Although the new album is largely based on acoustic sound sources, computers are still involved. All the tracks were assembled in the studio using a cut-and-paste approach, and the many different loops generate a happily bubbling electroacoustic soundscape.

Always present in the moment on stage

At concerts too, worldly clocks stop and the time of the yoik takes over. Wimme may take a nap before a gig in order to seem like he has just woken up to a new day. The yoik can come out anyway it wants, in the moment.

“I always try to be present in the moment and in the space, these days. Years ago, especially after the first album, I tried to sound exactly like the album, and that sometimes left me feeling ‘whoops, that was wrong’. Then I understood that if I just mechanically repeated myself, I would lose the joy. A yoik singer must have the freedom to live in the moment. It was a huge relief for me when I understood this.”

Those who have seen Wimme perform know that his arresting stage presence does not come from acting like a diva or pandering to the audience but from the huge intensity of his complete immersion in what he is doing. Does it ever happen that a yoik singer gets lost in a world of his own when on stage? Tapani Rinne says yes.

“That is the best-case scenario. You lose conscious control, and the intuitive power of the music takes over. The whole band is present in the moment, and everyone trusts one another. In such a state it is possible to take risks and to reach whole new dimensions, and the audience senses it too. Wimme has a superb talent for immersion,” Rinne explains.

It also makes a difference where and for whom Wimme is performing. His ‘perfect’ yoik performances happen back home, where there are people in the audience who actually understand the Sámi language.

“I automatically start producing more text and playing with words. I yoik people I know in the audience, bringing them into the music. It really is the best thing there is if you can use the audience as material. The emotional charge is particularly strong then.”

By contrast, at venues abroad, for instance in Spain, his yoiks are more frequently wordless, and he focuses on melodic shaping and development and shades of tone. The narrative still carries, with each listener giving it his or her own interpretation. “It does not have to be visions of the north; everyone sees the music their own way. Some cry, some laugh, the whole range of feelings is there. Some even experience the concert as a therapeutic trance. It all depends on how open you are in the concert situation and how far you dare let yourself go with the music.”

International audiences differ by country. French audiences are quiet, observant and downright analytical, while in Canada listeners easily get involved and show their feelings.

Antennas and javelins

For the Sámi, the yoik is traditionally a sort of link between the natural and the supernatural. Wimme sees himself as simply a mediator, an ‘antenna’.

“At the bottom of it all, I am just a link between the real world and the world of the yoik. I bring forth things that already exist and are there all the time: the invisible world, its energy flows and the streams of souls.”

Wimme finds his subjects principally in this our world, which according to ancient Sámi lore is the ‘middle’ world. His yoiks are based on his own experiences, and Wimme says with amusement that he has no need to borrow since he has plenty of his own baggage to deal with. It is easy not having to copy or borrow from anyone.

On his previous albums, Wimme delved into history, and very ancient history at that, but on the new album he looks forward.

“When you change and grow older, some begin to reminisce about the past. I, on the other hand, began to look to the future. I am aware of the past too, of course, but now I only consider more recent history, the past two decades or so.”

Wimme is hopeful for the future. He has a good feeling about making music now and is confident about his art and his future. On the cover of the new album is a photo of Wimme in a javelin throw at a roadside stop during a car trip in the 1990s. The javelin flies off into space, and the thrower cannot know where it will land. Wimme feels that his singing is similarly unpredictable.

“I jump into a feeling and start spinning a yoik, not knowing where it will go. It is a bit like throwing a javelin.” It remains to be seen where the javelin thrown on this album will land. Both Wimme and Rinne are cool-headed but enthusiastic about this new departure. Without haste, they bandy ideas back and forth and wait to find out what will evolve over the next few years. There are many listeners out there who have taken the new album to heart and hope that this javelin will fly far.


Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo: Maarit Kytöharju