Written by guestblogger Stéphane Aubinet, a researcher from Belgium.
The yoik first came to me long before I started to do “research” about it, when I was a teenager living in Belgium. I was immediately struck by its immediacy, its roughness, its originality, its wildness. The yoik I heard was chanted without lyrics, only with meaningless syllables, I knew nothing about its practice, and I had no idea that a community called “Sámi” existed. And yet the vocalisation still had a powerfully evocative quality. Listening to it was like watching a distant horizon: even if you do not really know what lurks behind it, the horizon can have a powerful appeal, calling you to explore it.
I say that the yoik “came to me” because it sometimes seems to have a will of its own. I conducted numerous interviews with yoikers from Finnmark and other areas of Sápmi, and one of the leading ideas that I encountered was that the yoik tends to visit humans in startling ways. Some yoikers experience that new yoiks come to them in their dreams, in a way similar to many Native American traditions, where shamans and singers receive songs from spiritual entities. What is striking here is that there does not seem to be a cultural, “mythological” framework dictating that yoiks are supposed to be received during dreams. It is just something that some people experience, something that occurs to them. It is as if the yoik always carried mysterious, inscrutable, unpredictable dimensions. As Nils Aslak Valkeapää once wrote: “the yoiks, no, I do not know, why, where from, they just, come”. I made a similar observation about people who manage to communicate with other animals by yoiking: Why does it work? How can animals understand the yoik? The yoikers I met were humble enough not to go too far in speculations. Witnessing animals responding to your yoik is a more enchanting and more powerful experience than any clever explanation is likely to give us.
I spoke of my encounter with the yoik in terms of horizon; what about the horizons of the yoikers themselves? What sort of call do they follow when they decide to yoik? On several occasions, I was told that “when you yoik the wolf, you must almost become the wolf”. It is common to yoik animals, persons, or places that are not immediately present, things that lie behind the horizon, beyond the reach of our senses. Yoiking then becomes a way of extending the senses, of “stretching” towards the horizon and have a glimpse at what lies behind: a friend is absent, but you can get a glimpse of her by chanting her yoik. Likewise, yoiking the wolf is a way of getting a glimpse at what it is like to be a wolf, to inhabit its skin for a little while. In the old days, this was a risky endeavour: missionaries report several examples of noaidi who went too far in their “stretching” towards spiritual realms and were not able to come back to the world of humans. Apparently, they had developed strategies in order to diminish the risk. For instance, during the trance rituals, the assistance would sometimes yoik continuously, so that the noaidi could hear them and follow the yoik back to his body when his mission among the spirits was complete. Here, the yoik served both as a way of stretching towards something else (the spiritual world) and remaining anchored in one’s position, finding the way home, keeping one’s feet. This is still what “modern” yoikers do, I think, when they perform on stage and in recording studios, when they experiment with other musical genres: the yoik enables them to stretch towards a horizon – the indigenous diaspora, global politics, the musical market, etc. – and, simultaneously, to remain firmly anchored in their Sáminess, ensuring that they do not get stuck on the other side.
In the tribe of musicologists and ethnologists, many have been impressed by the yoik’s imitative quality. The yoik of the raven, for example, must “sound like the raven”. This is indeed a common idea: yoiks are soundscapes, sonic pictures of what they evoke. In order to create a new yoik for a person, you should be very familiar with that person. You must capture her essence. Sometimes, you need a starting point: the yoik can depart from an imitation of that person’s ways of walking, from her appearance, her character, the yoiks of her relatives, or from some anecdote of her life. What matters is that something of the person is captured: an opening. The whole person can be considered as a yoik, as an ongoing circle: where you choose to enter the circle is secondary, what matters is that you join in its movement. From there, the melodic “starting point” (for instance, an irregular rhythm evoking the person’s clumsy way of walking) is developed, turned into a consistent melody, a circle that captures the person’s essence. It is as if the circle of the yoik and the circle of the person were one and the same: you are both a person-of-bone-and-flesh and a melody, and both of these are circular. Creating a yoik is therefore a gesture of growth: by yoiking your friend, you make her grow into a melody: you extend her existence. The same goes for animals: if you start yoiking hares, there is suddenly “more hare” in the world, the hare enjoys a more intense existence.
How can humans have this creative power within themselves? One answer lies perhaps in their interiority. What do we find inside a person? According to some yoikers, what we find inside is… the same as what we find outside! In short, we all have a wolf, a bear, a raven, rivers and valleys, people and weather inside of us. The yoik can be described as a way of feeling this continuity, this immediacy: when yoiking the valley, you feel the valley resound within you. The poet and noaidi Ailo Gaup wrote that yoiking the animals inside us can be a way of nurturing them, getting to know them better. By yoiking the wolf, we can assimilate the animal’s power and learn how to behave with our own wolfness. What we get out of this is “more strings to play on”, more depths inside the person, a more developped body and personality. Perhaps everyone, anywhere, has these animals inside, knowingly or not. Humans have co-evolved with other species: what we are today is due to our cohabitation with wolves, reindeer, mountains, grass, oceans, trees, and so on. The environment is part of us because we have always been part of the environment. The yoik constantly reminds this: that we humans grow from a more-than-human web of life from which we cannot break free (why would anyone want to break free?). The yoik, unlike many other musical practices in Europe, always nurtures roots in this environment: whatever you yoik, the melody has roots in an animal, a place, a person. You always know where its power comes from. We cannot say the same about a quatuor by Beethoven or a song by Elvis Presley: these expressions may be beautiful and powerful, but their roots in the more-than-human environment are obscure.
It is as if these musics grew from a world poorer in undomesticated presences. And yet if we looked closely enough, we would see that all musics are ultimately dependent on the wider web of life. At their deepest levels, all musics have roots in a soil. Might some musicians have forgotten it? Surely, if this is the case, this oblivion has been spectacularly productive in terms of musical creativity: it is not inherently bad. But some yoikers have not forgotten their debt to the wider world and keep nurturing an earthly creativity.
I like to speak of “echo” to describe how the yoik relates to the past. This is an important aspect of its practice. As many yoikers explained to me, the yoik is emotionally powerful not least because it can call back distant memories to the present. Thus if you have fond childhood memories related to a particular mountain, you can still yoik that mountain and bring back these memories to life, as if you were physically back in time. In Ancient Greek mythology, Echo is described by the writer Longus as the daughter of a nymph with prodigious musical skills. When she dies, torn to pieces by mad shepherds, the music of her remains are preserved by Gaia, the Earth, and you can still hear her singing whenever you converse with an echoing valley. There is something similar occuring in the yoik tradition. Once something has occured, it does not simply disappear from presence. It remains concealed in the folds of the earth, or in the folds of human interiority (remember: they can be one and the same realm). You can still feel these memories with your voice. How? By projecting a yoik and hearing the past yoiking back at you. In this, the yoik resembles dreaming. Few persons in the world can yoik, but everyone can dream, and dreams call past memories to presence with the same intensity as the yoik does: for the time of a dream/yoik, it is as if we were there. The intellectual elites in Europe have longed argued that dreams are chimeras, falseness, deception. They liked to distinguish themselves from children and indigenous peoples who “believe” that dreams are for real. But might it not be the contrary? It is perhaps because over-educated people have banished dreams from what they consider to be “reality” that they could build their modern philosophies, disconnected from the wild presences yoiking inside of us.
Some psychologists say that we only dream of activities that appeared early in human evolution. For instance, we often dream of walking, singing, or having sex, but almost never of writing, doing arithmetics, or using computers. If yoiks often come during dreams, it could be due to its distant origins, its “primordial” status. But why is it primordial? We cannot date when it appeared, there is no written text testifying of the yoik’s emergence. But this does not matter. The yoik’s primordiality is not necessarily chronological: it is, first and foremost, ontological. It is primordial because its roots in the environment are deep. I occasionally heard a powerful idea about this: even if the yoik disappeared, it could always be retrieved later, because it directly stems from the Earth. I also heard of a Sámi myth saying that if we dig up to the centre or the Earth, what we would find is a beating reindeer heart. According to the myth, as long as the Sámi can feel the heartbeat when putting their ears to the ground, they can rest assured that their future is secured. It may be that the yoik will go on as long as “earthbeats” still sound beneath our feet.
Of course, it is not the only primordial way of singing in the world: the yoik is perhaps only one “variation” of an original singing practice encountered in countless places: countless musical variations stemming from the same vital energy.
If the yoik has “more power than dynamite”, it is perhaps partly because it opens a startling experience of the world, one that we do not necessarily sense while we are not yoiking. It makes the living world more living, it reveals some of its hidden colours and tones, it makes the landscape more beautiful and the flow of time deeper. I do not master this craft, I have merely tried to observe it from afar, to get a glimpse of it, and what I write here has no pretension to be universally true. But I feel entitled to say that the yoik came to me, because through my work in research, it invited me to a philosophical journey that I found enchanting and still yoiks in me.