The Sami vocal expression known as the joik is probably the oldest living musical tradition in Europe. Some scholars think that this unique way of chanting can be traced back as far as the Stone Age. This is disputed, but the similarities with other arctic indigenous peoples’ musical traditions are unmistakable, and this suggests roots that date back to times when Sami, Eskimo, American Indian and Siberian peoples were close.
The most important aspect of a joik is not its form but its function and originally the most important purpose was coming into contact with the supernatural. Thus it is essentially a shamanistic invocation. But the joik also relates to more everyday things as a means of reminiscence or of “making present”. To fathom this one must understand that a joik is not about something, one does not e.g. joik about a person, but rather joiks the person. A personal joik is like a name by being a confirmation of identity.
The same kind of invocation is true regarding joiks of places, of elements, of animals, nature and narratives; joiking is a way of opening the mind to the thing itself, and of experiencing unity. For a Sámi person it makes little sense to conceive joiking in terms of subject and object. A joik is very often improvised and something that appears only semi-intentionally, as a response and as a kind of field of free association.
The function of a joik entails that its form is not rigid and that normal musical or narrative structures do not really apply. A joik never begins or ends, it is something that one catches on to and voices spontaneously.
However, as the joik has become more of a musical expression and perhaps less of a spiritual tool, the form has become more emphasised, not least in combination with musical instruments. In general one can say that the vocal technique makes use predominantly of the lower register of vocal range. The vocal chords are tight and the sound compressed. The tonality is simple from a western musical point of view, with repeated and limited motions. The rhythm varies from regular patterns to abrupt changes. Originally words were not important, since the melody, the rhythm and the hypnotic repetitions were meaningful in themselves. But nowadays this has changed and words are more prominent, because in later years the joik is more often blended with other genres and musical elements. A range of Sámi musicians and artists have masterfully merged the ancient tradition with modern musical genres and zeitgeisty elements and production. The special otherworldly, trance-inducing and dreamlike qualities of the joik have won these artists fans around the world, and the status of the joik is, if anything, on the rise.