12 September 2007

Sámi wisdom, energy and beauty

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Mari Boine
Idjagieđas (In the hand of the night)

Ever since discovering her music back in 1989, with the US release of Gula gula on Peter Gabriel’s labor-of-love label, Real World Records, I’ve awaited each new release from Sámi singer/songwriter Mari Boine with great anticipation. In almost 20 years of listening to her work, I’ve been delighted and fascinated with her art – and my reaction to her latest release, Idjagieđas (In the hand of the night) is no different. While she has been critically acclaimed all over the world, including the US, her albums don’t always see a release in this country – and this is the case with Idjagieđas – it came out in Europe in 2006, and is still available only as an import on these shores. This makes it harder to find and a bit more expensive – but I don’t regret a penny I spent on this CD. It’s one of my favorite acquisitions so far this year, and in my opinion one of her best efforts.
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The Sámi people have lived traditionally across what we know as Scandinavia – parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. They are usually referred to as ‘Laplanders’ – a term they resent, which has over the years acquired several undeserved negative connotations. In recognition of their culture and heritage, Norway, Sweden and Finland have taken steps to ensure that that the Sámi have a voice in government. (For a more comprehensive article on Sámi culture, including forwarding links, see below.)

Mari’s last recording, Gávcci jahkejudgu (Eight seasons), came out in the US via the Northside label in Minneapolis in 2003 – for my tastes, it ventured a little too far into electronics / sampling, but it was still a very satisfying recording. With Idjagieđas, the arrangements and writing have edged back away from the techno-tendencies into the style I’ve always considered to be her strongpoint – ethnically-based tunes built around acoustic instruments with the tasteful addition of electric instruments (for instance, some wonderful electric guitar from another old favorite of mine from Norway, the incredible Terje Rypdal), all in perfect support of Mari’s writing and singing. There are some electronic keyboards and sampling present throughout the album – but rather than dominating the arrangements, as they did more often on her last release, they’re mixed more in proportion to the rest of the band. As a result, the sound feels more natural and less forced.
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Mari’s voice is a one-of-a-kind instrument – her expressiveness and control are the marks of an artist who is aware of her natural gift and wields it with a great deal of respect and humility. She can coo softly, as in a lullaby or a whisper in the ear of a lover – she can also raise her voice to the sky with the pounding of a shaman drum, calling down eagles and raising the hair on the back of the listener’s neck – she can integrate yoiking (or joiking, alternatively), traditional Sámi improvised singing, into her music with naturalism and ease. She travels these extremes – and all points in between – as the material requires, never exploiting her instrument simply for effect without meaning. Even though almost all of her songs are delivered in her native tongue, there’s never any doubt as to the emotion carried by the words...

…and her lyrics speak of many things. Sámi culture dominates, of course – ancient folktales, tribal wisdom, love and reverence for the environment, spiritual beliefs, healing ceremonies and more are all addressed within her music. She finds many parallels between Sámi concerns and things which should concern all of humanity – the importance of strength and resilience in women, for example, as well as the virtues we should cultivate and honor, not simply in order to enrich our lives, but to attempt to keep the human race from disappearing from the earth.

Her lyrics are peppered with bits of wisdom that are both ancient and relevant – in ‘Suoivva (The shadow)’, she sings, ‘The dress of the envious never gets longer – the plate of the envious never fills up. Should’a beens, should’a dones, carrying guilt…always bound to do favours…’ In ‘Gos bat munni čiŋat leat? (Where did all our colours go)’, she alludes to the weight of needless guilt and pointless, unproductive hindsight again: ‘Our festive garments – where on earth did all of our colours go? … You knew I stood there right by the edge of the cliff. You saw I’d been to the shadowlands – my face was sinking to the deep, all saturated, about to drown in guilt. Breathe me back to life…’ While it’s important to know the past, and to learn from it, it’s more important to live in the present and look to the future.

Other songs address the importance of friendship, of receiving and giving love and support to the others in our lives at every opportunity. From ‘Mu ustit eŋgeliid sogalaš (My friend of angel tribe)’: ‘My friend in league with angels dances so easily between people, holding my hand and warming me…’ In ‘Davvi bávttiin (On the fells of the north)’, she sings more directly of elements of Sámi culture and beliefs: ‘The longhaired shaman daughter herds her white and spotted reindeer on the fells of the north as in an old picture – the shaman daughter trance sleeps…she yoiks…she washes herself with the rushing water…with the echoes of the cliffs she yoiks, rinses her intuition in the cascade.’ Another song, ‘Big medicine (Fápmodálkkas)’ (sung in English), laments the loss of ancient methods of healing, questioning the wisdom of adopting modern ideas to the complete exclusion of traditional ones, suggesting that the most effective ‘medicine’ – that which will heal us in more ways than just the physical – is to be found within ourselves.
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Mari has always given a grateful nod of acknowledgment to the musicians who accompany her – the core players on each of her recordings are the regular members of her touring band. This solidifies the feeling of unity in her music – when the performers are familiar with each other, as well as with the artist they support, the arrangements flow more naturally and organically, coming together into a whole that is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. To the expected instruments such as guitar, bouzouki, fiddle, bass, keyboards, and percussion are added components one might not necessarily associate with any type of Nordic music, such as marimba, berimbau, gimbre, darbouka, kora, mbira and more – and all are included in the mix in just the right amount, in such a way that nothing sounds out of place.

This recording is stunning – the sound quality is absolutely crystalline, allowing the music to be experienced in all of its beauty and strength. There is delicacy here…there are strong rhythms and memorable melodies…and at the center of it all is the incredible voice of Mari Boine, singing the heart and soul of her people and herself, in a language that goes straight to the heart and soul of the listener. If you’ve never heard her, you’re missing out on something extraordinary.

A final note: her official website is still under construction as I write this – but she has a page on MySpace (link below), where you can hear song samples as well as read biographical and other information about her. There’s also a really well-done video there called ‘Eagle talk’ that I recommend watching – I’m not sure who produced it, but it integrates several images and spiritual beliefs from Native American culture, echoes of which I’ve long heard in the ‘heartbeat’ of Sámi music.
(note: Radiant warmth is a compilation, and a good introduction to her work)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That sounds fascinating! I can hardly wait to listen to the CD! Thanks! -fan of Dobet Gnahoré