The Joy of Joiking

28 04 2008

I attended a fascinating lecture today at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst on Sami culture and particularly the importance of the practice of joik singing. Joik is a sort of impromptu mode of vocalization in which musical pieces are composed and shared about various subjects, events, and people important to the lives of the singers. According to the lecturer, Professor Richard Jones-Bamman, of Eastern Connecticut State University, it is a very strong part of Sami cultural identity. We got to hear some samples, and it is quite striking and beautiful. However, I found the cultural implications of the songs to be most interesting. A few points I thought were cool:

When composing a joik, one does not describe it as ‘joiking about my brother’ (for example), but simply ‘joiking my brother.’ It is an act of creation that encompasses something of the spirit of a person or event, not merely a record or textual reference to him, her, or it.

Also, when singing a joik, the singer may choose to jump in anywhere in the song that they wish and finish wherever they feel is appropriate. There is no such thing as singing a ‘whole joik.’ The song is infinite and cyclical. It exists somehow immutably beyond the act of singing it. Therefore a joik as we hear it may be long or short, but this concept means little to the Sami singer. The spirit of the joik is invoked in full every time it is sung.

There is so much I could say in response to this lecture, but I’ll share a story from the Professor in conclusion. He described a beautiful moment where he was on a long car ride with a Sami uncle and nephew. The younger man was driving and his older uncle was in the passenger seat. For the entire, multi-hour car ride, they hardly conversed at all. Rather, they joiked the entire ride, each in turn, sometimes cutting one another off, sometimes picking up the same song, sometimes starting a new one. This act of spontaneous creation and communication beyond words is beautiful and inspiring to me.

More reflections and concrete references to come.




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