Mari’s magic music

The Norwegian singer Mari Boine has helped to renew the proud musical traditions of the far north. The Nordic Council has recognised this by awarding Mari Boine the Nordic Council’s Music Prize 2003 for her music and lyrics.

Mari Boine

By Anders Beyer

When you hear the word yoik certain associations immediately spring to mind: music from the ‘Northern Cap’ of Scandinavia, the folk music of the Sámi culture in Norway, Finland and Sweden. We can read historical accounts of this highly distinctive musical culture with long-standing traditions high up under the roof of the North. But the tradition is also being renewed: over the last few decades young generations of musicians and composers have emerged and successfully recharged the Sámi musical culture by making it a sounding-board for radically new experiments.

On of the pathfinders in the new Sámi music is the Norwegian singer Mari Boine. It isn’t so often that Danes have a chance to experience Boine in Denmark. The last time this writer had the pleasure was in 1996 during the culture capital year at the festival Voices of the World, where Boine had surrounded herself with some of the musicians who together live up to Boine’s requirements of merging the various stylistic idioms into a brand new kind of expression.

The bassist plays potent rock and funk, but also plays with poetic sensitivity on a beautiful-sounding stringed instrument that recalls the Finnish kantele; the violinist plays an electric violin, with a classical technique but a rugged folk sound; the flute player plays empathically with the modern Sámi sounds, but actually comes from Peru; the drummer plays on a set of drums that is no longer a drum kit but a vast arsenal of different percussion instruments; the guitarist plays jazz and rock guitar of an acidic persuasion and acoustic guitar, but also produces sounds by stroking the strings with a violin bow; the singer sings Sámi songs, but they don’t quite sound like it.

Take a deep breath and read that again. For it’s worth thinking about – the fact that meaningful music can be made with such a variety of components. But Mari Boine can do it. The next thing you wonder about is the reason for the huge success that Mari Boine, Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, Angelin Tytöt, Johan Anders Baer and other artists who are inspired by the yoik have enjoyed. Not that their music hasn’t deserved it, for it has. But it is intriguing to look at the backgrounds against which new areas of music suddenly shoot up. In recent years we have seen an interest in ethnic music, in exotic idioms, growing up alongside global ecological awareness. Is this a search for roots? Is it a desire to find the pristine, unspoiled areas or at least ‘pure’ uncosmeticized areas that bear the marks of credibility and substance?

Substance there certainly is in Mari Boine’s world. On stage she has so much charisma and energy that you surrender unconditionally. But the seduction is also rooted in respect for the purely musical side of things. The vitality of her songs in highly varied instrumentations and interpretations leaves scope for the finest nuances. Nowhere does one find a ‘muddy’ soundscape in Boine’s music. And then she is surrounded by musicians with a God-given ability to listen and play together. They know when to stand out in the forefront of the tonal landscape as soloists and when to supply faithful backing.

Past and present Then and now
To get a better idea of the yoik as given expression by Boine, we have to look it as a historical idiom. The earliest yoik-singing was unaccompanied, and in the older part of the Sámi musical tradition we find only the drum as an accompanying instrument. And indeed the drum’s basic pulse is also central to Boine’s music, as its solid rooting in the tradition – reinforced by the hypnotic repetitions of the other instruments and supplemented with filigrees and inventive fills by guitar and flutes in particular.

Two technical terms are characteristic of Boine’s music: ostinato and pentatonic. The former is a musical basis in a figure repeated throughout the number; one can then play variations and solos over the recurring pattern. The latter is a five-note scale used in many folk tunes, which the yoik often uses as its basic scale.

The repeated patterns with the powerful electric bass and insistent beat of the bass drum give the music an element of ritual – we are almost participants in a cultic rite. For the traditional listener who looks for development, this must be sought in the variations within the very fixed musical framework – for example when, after a long monotone circling around the same figures, the pattern is suddenly broken by a completely new chord progression, and the body of the music abruptly shifts.

All this can be heard and felt at Mari Boine’s concerts. I remember the Copenhagen concert as one long set lasting two and a half hours, where we sat spellbound and wept and laughed along with this Mari Boine, who has trenchant attitudes to political awareness, to ecology – and to musical practice. And you have to respect her uncompromising view of her own art as well as her criticism of the world’s lack of awareness of ethnic minorities. In fact Mari Boine challenged the then Norwegian Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, to give the Sámi population an apology on behalf of the Norwegian state for the way it has treated the Sámi. And Boine also refused to appear at the opening of the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. She wouldn’t accept being used as exotic decoration. On the other hand she agreed to sing at the wedding of Crown Prince Haakon and his Mette Marit – the first lady of Sámi music does what she feels like.

Language and culture as sounding-board
It will be understood that Mari Boine’s music just won’t be assigned to any particular genre pigeonhole. The Sámi yoik is the starting-point; the rest must be described as a little of this and a little of that. You can easily find stylistic links with things like African rhythms, world music, rock-funk. But saying this produces the wrong kind of associations – with some kind of musical layer-cake. When you want to grasp the essence of Mari Boine’s music and describe it, language becomes slightly clumsy and generalizing – it’s as hard as repairing a watch wearing mittens. And that is precisely why her art is so relevant; it points out new paths in the musical landscape.

One thing is certain: Mari Boine hangs on to her Sámi tradition with clenched fists. Her language and culture are the very sounding-board of the artist’s music: garnished with strong political and personal texts that often take their point of departure in the close family, in wholly personal experiences, in ecological awareness, or in problems of the Sámi community. But for Boine the musical language of the tradition is at the same time a springboard towards something outside the tradition, a norm-shattering music without borders. Her lyrics have a poetic quality that helps to bear up the expression much of the way. Boine has great sensitivity to the art of stringing words together and when all this gels on stage she can be subtly poetic and madly provocative at the same time.

Boine has worked with musicians from various camps: years ago she made music in the project World of music, art and dance, which was created by the Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour. She has also represented the Sámi people in Peter Gabriel’s big production A week in the real world. No matter how many different places she leaves her artistic mark she does so with music that keeps a firm grip on her own culture’s root network. This means that cultural identity is a sine qua non in all that she does – you can clearly feel how proud she is of belonging to the culture from which she comes.

Through music she gained the courage to swim against the current, and to create a perspective on her own spiritual background. Revolt and indignation found expression in an artistic output that has emerged today as one of the strongest representatives of Norwegian music worth listening to. Mari Boine’s voice has understandably found its way to countries outside the North, just as Sámi music is in general gaining an ever-wider hearing abroad. Sámi culture up under the roof of the North – that is, in northern Finland, Sweden and Norway – will no longer be regarded as a picturesque ethnic curiosity.

Selected discography:

Eight Seasons, 2001
Remixed, 2001
Gula Gula, 2003 (remixed)
Eallin, 1996
Leahkastin, 1994
Goaskinviellja Eagle Brother, 1993

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