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Some Comments on Yoik

The Italian Giuseppe Acerbi traveled to North Cape in 1799, and, among other things, wrote about yoik in his book Travels through Sweden, Finland, and Lapland, to the North Cape, in the years 1798 and 1799, London 1802 (Vol. II, Chapter VII, pp. 66-68):

The first thing we did was to pay our Lapland attendants. But before we gave them their dismission, we were determined to make an experiment of their talents in another species of knowledge than any in which we had yet tried them. We desired to hear them sing, being anxious to have a specimen of their skill in music. I attempted several times, both by the power of money and of brandy, to make the pastoral Laplander utter his notes, that I might form to myself, if possible, some idea of their music: but the utmost I could accomplish was to extort from them some hideous cries, during the continuance of which I was sometimes obliged to stop my ears with my fingers. It is scarcely credible, though it is perfectly true, that the mountain and wandering Laplanders have not the least idea of any thing connected with harmony, and that they are absolutely incapable of an enjoyment which nature has not entirely forbidden to any other tribe or nation, as far as I have been informed. Artificial music appears to be wholly banished from those forlorn and solitary districts. The only musical accents to be heard in Lapland are those which nature has indiscriminately bestowed on all other countries, without any regard to man, whose pride induces him to believe that everything in the world is made for him alone. The only melody to be heard in Lapland is that with which the birds make the woods re-echo; that of the rivulets rustling over their pebbly beds; that of the winds resounding amidst the branches of trees and the deep gloom of forests; and lastly, that of the majestic fall of rivers over rugged rocks, where the waters break with a crashing noise, and send up their foam to the clouds. But that I may not leave my reader altogether without an idea of Laplandish singing, such as it is, or rather of the vociferation of the wandering Laplanders, I shall present them with two specimens, which I find preserved in my portfolio, among the various notifications of my journey. I put them on paper, while those poor creatures were straining their throats, and the music is to be seen in the Appendix. They were taken down without any regard to time or measure, because they had none; nor are they so long by a third part as the original songs, because there was nothing but a continued repetition of the same notes. The Laplanders, after exhausting their breath, persevered in uttering the same cry in a kind of fainting or fading voice, as long as there was a particle of air in their lungs. Their music, without meaning and without measure, time or rhythmus, was terminated only by the total waste of breath; and the length of the song depended entirely on the largeness of the stomach, and the strength of the lungs. With all my knowledge of the musical art, I was quite reduced to a nonplus amidst those musicians of Lapland; and I envied more than ever the skill of the Abbé Renauld; an advantage which would have stood me in great stead in the circumstances in which I was then placed.

While the Laplanders were uttering cries in the manner just described, they articulated certain words, which induced me to ask our interpreter their meaning, and whether they were any verses or fragments of poetry. But I soon learnt that their genius for poetry did not transcend their turn for music. The words they pronounced in their vociferation were only repetitions of the same expressions over and over again. For example, “A good journey, my good gentlemen – gentlemen – gentlemen – gentlemen – a good journey – journey – journey – my good gentlemen – gentlemen – a good journey – journey – journey – journey,” &c. and so on as long as they were able to fetch any breath: when this was exhausted, the song was ended.

The Norwegian Gustav Peter Blom traveled to the north in 1827 and wrote: “Generally speaking, the Lapps have no sense for music.”

The Dane Sophus Tromholt wrote in 1885 in his book Under the Rays of the Northern Lights (Copenhagen, 1885, p. 184) the following:

“The only, modest surrogate for musical enjoyment that the Lapps know is the so-called yoik, a kind of yodel, which, however, is just as miserable compared to the happy airs that echo from the rocky faces of the Alps, as the wilderness of Finnmark is miserable compared to the glorious nature of the Tyrol. The melody – if you want to call a dull, monotone variation of two to three, at the most four to five tones a melody – and the text are most often improvisations, which, during incessant repetitions, express the mood, the character of nature or people, and so on of the person yoiking. There is as little poetry in the words as there is music in the melody.”

Petrus Læstadius, brother of the better-known Lars Levi, describes a yoik context in this way:

“During the party people are sitting and taking refreshments, then chatting, and, as the nectar of this life begins to affect the senses, the conversation becomes more lively, more amorous; the prose stops, and people begin to converse with song.”

The Sami artist Per Hætta who died in 1967 said it thus:

“For centuries my people have lived in close contact with nature, and that has made an impression on me that I neither can nor wish to erase. The tones have been grasped from the womb of the Finnmark plateau. How many times have I tried to sing a “civilized song” when I was sitting in a reindeer sleigh driving over the tundra, but how miserable and inane it seemed; it was as if it didn’t suit the surroundings. It belonged to an unfamiliar world. – Had I taken a yoik melody instead, well then I wouldn’t have just been waking myself up, but somehow it seemed that every stunted bush, every little rolling hill in the terrain, everything in nature would wake up and want to yoik along. The reindeer would prick its ears and raise its head; it seemed to pick up the pace. The tapping of its hoofs kept the beat. At every pause in the yoiking it was as if nature shouted: “juoigga, juoigga – that is our song, yoik as much as your lungs can take, and we will yoik along.”

Nils-Aslak Valkespää, winner of the Nordic Council’s literary prize in 1991, spoke about yoik in an interview with the yoik researcher Ola Graff:

“When I listen to a yoik it seems as if I am listening to nature in the melodies. I think I can hear the mountain plateau at Kautokeino in the Kautokeino yoiks or the riverbanks at Tana and Karasjok in the yoiks from there. When, for example, I hear a special yoik from Masi it is almost like seeing a picture of the tundra there, few trees, wind, tundra. I know that I experience it that way, but cannot explain why.”

The Abbé, in a note under the article Swan, in that part of Buffon’s work which treats of birds, assures us very gravely, que les cris des cygnes est soumis à un rithme constant et reglé à la mesure à deux tems. Œuvres de Buffon, vol. xxiv, page 25. Edition de Paris, 1783.