Tradition vs. innovation - Johan Sara Jr. renews Sami chanting tradition

Johan Sara Jr.’s unique blend of traditional Sami joik and contemporary elements has solidified his position as a vital, refreshing and genre-defying innovator.

Johan Sara Jr.

“Even if joik is an ancient song tradition, there’s innovation and development within the genre and I’ve found my niche by combining traditional joik with a contemporary form of expression, “ says Sara Jr.

Johan Sara Jr, who was born in Kautokeino, Finnmark in 1963, enjoys a career as a central composer, producer, teacher, arranger, actor and performer of contemporary Sami music. The ancient Sami joik song tradition played a central role in his upbringing, but Sara Jr. was not to join the ranks of performers until he had reached a certain age: “I studied classical guitar at the regional Music Conservatory for three years. During my studies, I decided to take up joiking when I graduated - I wanted joik to be made available to a new and wider audience.”

Johan Sara Jr. has devoted much time to develop his own voice and form of expression. His guitar chops have suffered under his devotion to the renewal of ancient Sami chanting – Sara Jr. has barely touched his six-string since he began his introspective foray into his musical roots. “It took me six years to find and develop an individual form of vocal methodology that I could integrate into joik. I would study singing for three years and took classes that focused on various breathing techniques. Gradually, I managed to develop what I feel is a methodology that’s well applicable to joik. The most vital factor is to distance oneself from the Western-European tradition that’s mainly based on skull resonance and timbre, and instead focus on applying the whole body as a soundboard.”

In many ways, Johan Sara Jr.’s search for his own form of expression has been an inward journey, a search for his own voice and a process that has seen the performer confronting his own identity while digging further into his own persona and cultural references. “I’ve been digging into myself, and through that process I’ve been able to reach deeper into the matter. My approach to singing brings in new respiratory patterns that differ from the norm within the European sonorous tradition. The midriff plays a vital role and in order to bring out the full bodily soundboard-timbre, one must employ a wide range of activities that range from gymnastics and stretching to breathing exercises and relaxation techniques.”

Johan Sara Jr. teaches joik at the Sami University College in Kautokeino and is also frequently employed as a producer, composer, arranger, lecturer, performer and actor on the Sami cultural scene. Sara Jr. has composed works for TV, radio, museums, marching and wind bands, theatre as well as chamber music pieces. He has also been commissioned to produce and compose installation works such as the EXPO 2000 work “Jienat”. Sara Jr. was introduced to a wider international audience in 2000 when he contributed to the Swedish entry in the Eurovision Song Contest.

Johan Sara Jr.’s latest release, “Boska” has already manifested itself as one of the strongest Sami albums that have been released in recent years. With solid assistance from a competent crew of Norwegian musicians, Sara Jr. has created a revitalising album that fuses contemporary influences with the ancient joik tradition. Elements derived from electronica, jazz, world-music as well as pop and rock are mated with Sara Jr’s inimitable vocal style, creating a wholesome and progressive album of grand proportions. The dynamic range showcased on “Boska” is wide, ranging from raw and intense passages to quiet moments of beauty. Underpinning the diverse and varied tunes is Sara’s powerful and near hypnotic voice that’s given a natural and central place in the mix. Exploratory improvisation is contrasted by the carefully programmed loops and the droning vocals, resulting in some quite untraditional arrangements. To sum it up: “Boska” is a must-listen.

Sara Jr’s focus on creating new forms of expression within an ancient tradition has not been without conflicts: “Of course, carrying on a tradition while simultaneously creating new forms of expression can lead to musical as well as ideological conflicts. In retrospect, one can conclude that many experiments weren’t successful, but then again one can’t rule out a project before one has even tried to complete it. Over time, one builds up a certain amount of experience, enabling me to predict what will work out and what will not.”

Selected recordings

Ovcci vuomi ovtta veaiggis (DAT) 1995

Boska (DAT) 2003

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