Voicing Abstraction / Wave #9 PLANETARY CONVERSATION October 2023

Learning from Joik

Elina Waage Mikalsen & Pablo José Ramírez

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Pablo José Ramírez

You are a Sámi artist working primarily in sound and music. When I first learned of your practice, I was intrigued by how you speak of sound as a fundamental and perhaps quotidian aspect of Sámi culture. This made me think of how we assign meaning and value to the sonic in Western cultures, for example, by creating an implicit separation between what we see and hear. However, I know for a fact that in many cultures, these and many other–let's call them sensitive–realms do not have not such clear divisions. Would you tell me a little more about your life growing up in Tromsø and your relationship with sound?

Elina Waage Mikalsen

I grew up both on a small farm outside of Tromsø, and later on the island of Tromsø. I grew up in between cultures, I guess one could say, my mother being Sámi from Olmmáivággi and my father from Bergen in the south of Norway. My mother was my first Sámi language teacher, just after she learned the language from a Sámi language course. Music was a big part of my upbringing, or as part of life maybe. I did listen to Sámi music, but mostly Sámi children's songs, those made to learn the language and the connection between the language and the world. Most of all it was Norwegian and other Western music, joik was not part of my upbringing. The joik had disappeared from the area that my mother is from a long time ago, from all the coastal Sámi areas in Tromsø, due to the church and assimilation of the area, so learning to connect to our distinctly Sámi vocal tradition/storytelling/way of connection is something that I didn't do before adulthood. I guess I must have been a sensitive child, always talking to my surroundings in a way that I think many adults forget, or unlearn at some point. To learn and understand the connection between our joiks, our lands, and ourselves is one of the greater gifts of my life.


Your mention of childhood memories in Tromsø while navigating life between cultures makes me think of how the contemporary modes of Sámi cultural resistance/resilience take place. I'm thinking about how, for instance, your mother learned Sámi as an adult, and then passed it on to you. I believe our generation has a different space of negotiation than our predecessors. We own an unprecedented opportunity (and challenge!) to re-imagine how non-Western/indigenous cultures might co-exist today. Joiks seems to me a powerful place to think about these mutations and differences between generations. Would you tell me a little more about your relationship with joiks, and how that takes distance from the one your mother’s generation had with this practice? But before that, would you please briefly introduce what a joik is for our readers?


Yes, I agree with you. And still, things move so slowly, the eagerness and longing for what is lost and taken away makes me want to be a fluent Sámi speaker yesterday. But about the joiks! Joik is our traditional vocal-sounding expression, being storytelling, a sounding portrait, and a way of remembering and connecting to the land with all its living being. We say that we don’t joik about something, but rather joiking something, the joik being in a more direct relationship to what is joiked. As soon as a joik is made, it belongs to the one joiked. It is a very embodied sound practice, if I can call it that. Let’s say I joik the half island connected to the mainland outside Tromsø where I’m from. It is a very embodied experience to tune in to that sounding portrait of it, how the land has been experienced and moved in before, and then me letting those tones out from my mouth and body. Compared to a more Western way of thinking about sound and music, I think joik sometimes is a more embodied sound tradition. The source of sound is important, it matters and it moves in between everyone taking that joik into their mouth.

The area in which I have my Sámi heritage has been under hard assimilation and colonization from early on. It was easier to get to the Sámi areas by the coast than the ones lying inland. Also, people lived less nomadic lives by the coast. No one really knows when the joik disappeared from these areas, but it is not really a living tradition anymore. Still, some think that the joik did not completely disappear, but rather moved into the Læstadian hymns and psalms, coloring the way of phrasing and how the voice is used when they sing the psalms in these areas. I know joik is a big step for many to learn, and it has been for me too. Am I allowed to learn and do this without growing up with it? I have spent many years getting closer, and the first thing one of my teachers told me was to not perform the joik before it was part of my everyday life. because that is how it has been used. As a language, as a way of saying “I see you” to humans and more-than-humans.

There are not many joiks from our area, mostly joiks from the reindeer-herders that moved in these areas from summer to winter. Still, there are a few, and new ones are being made.
In a project that I have with my friend Viktor Bomstad, we wanted to get to know the psalm-tradition more, since it’s the most vibrant musical tradition from our area. Could we find traces of the joik? As an example, we have looked into the way of singing, how, as the people sing hymns with everything from 10 to 50 verses, there is a delay occurring in the room, the front singers being a bit ahead of the ones in the back. There is a slowness to the phrasing, and often several different pitches. Still, everyone participates.


This is a tremendous and beautiful account of joik. I'm intrigued by how you explain this practice as an embodied sound tradition that doesn't “represent” something but is “immanent” to a being. Or to put it differently, the joik embraces the living and becomes alive. This is something that has significant repercussions for Western sound and music, which in a way we are not equipped to discuss here, but something I’d like to briefly discuss with you is your research and your sound/music projects. You mentioned a project with Viktor Bomstad around music traditions in Sapmi land. Would you expand a little about how you engage, research, and create work? Particularly, what have you learned through working at the crossroads of ancestral Sámi culture, and contemporary forms of sound and music production?


As part of getting closer to the joik, I was also interested in how the philosophy of the joik can be a framework to think about sound, working with sound, sound art, and music. Or if it even makes sense to do so. I guess I think about my own work as portals into other spaces, spaces that could be this mixture of physical, spiritual, and mental. Often as a way of expressing a feeling, a state of mind, or the connections between things, without saying it with words. I guess that could also relate to the joik, often used instead of words, as a way of expressing an instant feeling of love, grief, joy, or anger, and as a way of communicating this. And then some things should not be put into words, some things are meant to stay knowledgeable to only some, readable to only some. I have been occupied with holes, openings, crevasses, and portals for the last couple of years. So much has gone lost, also the knowledge to read and understand symbols, rites, and other cultural elements of the Sámi culture. Not to mention the oppression of our history, language, and landscape. To me, these holes also become a place to fantasize about how it was or could have been, and imagine the Sámi future.

I guess in my exploration of this meeting between a Sámi way and the contemporary way, I learned about the ethics of sound. To be more careful with what you put into this world, to be aware that not every sound, space, or listening situation is for me, or for me in this moment. To try to enter into a more equal exchange with the surroundings, understanding that I’m listened back to as I listen. This is really a deep-learning situation. When I have been working with archives in different ways it’s also a question of how a sound produced a long time ago is understood today. What do we know about how that sound was recorded, or why it was originally made? These are things that are actively discussed in Sápmi today, as the joiking archive slowly opens to the public ear.


Lastly, Elina, you are a sound artist and a musician. This means you have to navigate through the dynamics and politics of the art world. We know this can be a complicated endeavor, especially when speaking from a sense of place, in your case the legacy of Sámi culture, Tromsø, and your family. Personally, I’ve been quite surprised to witness how lately, art institutions have embraced and promoted indigenous art, sometimes with good intentions but also with missteps, misconceptions, and abrupt curatorial translations. However, things are changing, and as we said at the beginning of this conversation, our predecessors lived in a different world, where hostility was probably less disguised. The inclusion of indigenous cultures at Western art institutions is undoubtedly a step forward but sometimes comes at a high cost. What is your experience with this? Could you give us any examples of projects you are working on that navigate these complicated waters?


I have worked a lot with and within Western art institutions, with different outcomes and experiences. I guess a normal interaction is that we go into the collaboration with somehow good intentions and ambitions. The most common experience is that when it’s over, that’s the end of it. There follows no further commitment, no follow-up. I guess this is the part of working together that I never understood. Art institutions might have the ambition to include Sámi art but don’t follow up with the necessary care and commitment to the Sámi artists involved, or towards the Sámi society, understanding that a meeting like this demands a long-term commitment, a learning process and dealing with one’s own institutions part in nation-state building, oppression, and the writing of Norwegian history.

For almost two years now I have been an artist in residence at Borealis—a festival for experimental music in Bergen, Norway. My interest during the residency is to create a platform for Sámi experimental music, sound art, and listening because I miss this platform for myself, and wanted to create ways of meeting. I want to be able to talk with other Sámis about how we relate to Sámi experimentalism. How do we ethically stretch our sounds and traditions? How do we listen and how are we listened back to? Do we even know our own history? It’s important for us Sámis to talk to each other, avoiding these binary conversations that often happen when Sámi topics are discussed in opposition to a majority society. I’m really interested in what happens when Sámi can meet on Sámi terms.

Working with Borealis has been a different experience, being able to work slower, deeper, and really discussing how the knowledge shared and produced during the residency can stay within the organization after I’m finished with the residency; in five years, in 15 years. How can this experimental festival on the West Coast take a personal responsibility towards the Sámi community and Sámi artists, as a Norwegian festival? I’m not saying we have found the solution, but I think the willingness to make changes and to start taking action on their own is a start. The project points in different directions, both inward through conversations, discussions, reading of texts, programming, etc, through contact with other Sámi artists and musicians, and through a commissioned work for Borealis 2024.


List of sound works:


Rođu Govkkit/Glenner i vier

Doaladit (from Geardu gierdu - Bone pieces)

Sounds from the past, through holes in the veil, reveal the source

Jaskes šukŋa/Undersang

Usskadát - Portal (from Geardu gierdu - Bone pieces)

Biegga, jietna, mikrofuvdna ja mobiilatelefovdna /Wind, voice, microphone and mobile phone

A special thanks to OCA Norway.

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