NORWAY: Gula Gula - Mari Boine
Updated: Dec 23, 2020
Thought of as a utopia of tolerance, Boine's anger at the treatment of the Sámi people serves to uncover Scandinavia's darkest secret...
Listening to the first 19 seconds of this album, to the uninitiated, it might appear that Boine is rather bizarrely engaging in some kind of shamanistic chanting – something that many would not equate with Scandinavian culture. Yet, this unfamiliar noise that the title-track kicks off with is neither Native American as it might sound nor is it there just for show. This form of expression, known as yoiking, has much resonance for people of Boine’s unique and special Sámi culture (an indigenous group who are thought to be the first people to settle on the land after the Ice Age that many of them still reside), as it was banned in the process of their Christianisation. The Sámi are a group who are few in number nowadays in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, however, their culture is full of hidden riches which Boine impeccably manages to display, whilst also offering up raw emotion as a response to their continual persecution that they continue to suffer with today.
“Her musical journey was a process of personal catharsis for her as her lyrics would touch on themes of confusion about the shame she felt, but equally for others with Sámi roots listening, it must empower them as they can hear their culture being represented by someone with undeniable talent.”
Having listened to other Sámi albums before hearing Gula Gula, I must admit I did not immediately click with the sound of yoiking. As someone who was unaccustomed to it, and having previously not heard it done in a way as beautiful as Boine does, I felt it was somewhat jarring, perhaps like Swiss yodelling or Mongolian throat-singing. Despite the fact that I authentically grew to love it, so much so that my favourite song on the record is exclusively yoiking (Du Lahka), it should be appreciated regardless of one’s enjoyment of the sound on an auditory level. This is because Boine’s decision to include it in this album, and proudly sing in the fashion that their predecessors did before they were censored and silenced, is incredibly brave. She honours the sacrifices many have made to preserve their culture. What’s more, the yoik she sings has a deeply spiritual sound. Despite the fact the pentatonic sound has no lyrics, each one is typically supposed to represent a person or a place. Whilst I am, of course, unaware of the exact meaning of the non-lexical singing used in Boine’s yoiking, for me it evokes images of her ancestors herding reindeer.
It has been suggested that the Sámi have been herding reindeer in this region since the year 800. Although reindeer herding certainly does not define them in their identity (for instance, Boine’s family did not herd reindeer in her youth, though they took care of other animals), the reindeer still plays a big part in their identity and thus many of them fear about future generations’ connection with reindeer herding. This is because their culture has been diluted across Scandinavia due to the brutal assimilation policies that countries like Norway have implemented. Reindeer are their main source of income and food; as a consequence they of course feel with over a millennia of experience behind them they are best placed to protect the species, much like indigenous groups in the Amazon feel about the rainforest. For example, Sámi in Finland are of course concerned by the fact that mining companies, who own one eighth of the country, are going to continue to contaminate reindeer feeding grounds as well as the water from which the Sámi themselves drink.
The Sámi are often treated like second-class citizens in the nations where they reside, with their culture rapidly escaping their grasp. Their language is under threat, with northern Sámi dialects, in particular, considered to be endangered. This is part of the reason why it is so pertinent that Boine predominantly sings in Sámi. In her early days Boine was singing exclusively in Norwegian, Swedish and English and then when she started to question herself and ask why she is ashamed of her own language, all of these Sámi songs erupted from within. Her musical journey was a process of personal catharsis for her as her lyrics would touch on themes of confusion about the shame she felt, but equally for others with Sámi roots listening, it must empower them as they can hear their culture being represented by someone with undeniable talent.
This shame that Boine used to feel, of course was misplaced and that emotion that she internalised turned into anger at the brainwashing she received that led her and many other Sámi to resent their own background. Listening to the album it is obvious that this rage became a source of music. Having grown up never hearing the traditional Sámi singing because it was banned by the Christian rule, Boine in an act of apparent rebellion, reminiscent of her forefathers’ actions in the 1852 Kautokeino riots, sings so loudly so that no one listening fails to take notice of her. This is most apparent on songs like Balu Badjel Go Vuoittán which starts off with an almost mystical tone, before Boine lets rip as her powerful vocals penetrate the ears and souls of those listening as well as throughout the entirely of It Sat Duolmma Mu.
Although sporting her rather stunning native attire, Gatki, with much pride in the album cover, which gives the expression that it is an exclusively Sámi record, the kinship that the Sámi feel towards other persecuted indigenous groups is acknowledged by Boine in this album in her use of a wise-range of instrumentation. In the one, Norwegian language song Oppskrift for Herrefolk (Recipe for a Master Race), there is a slight Andean twinge that can be heard due to the inclusion of the charango. This nod to her oppressed indigenous cousins in far-flung countries such as Bolivia, grows with in Duinne which features panpipes. The album also includes the Nigerian udu in several tracks, while the Turkish baglama, the Greek bouzouki and the West African talking drum feature in the aforementioned It Sat Duolmma Mu. The decision in the album’s composition to make the music fit into the world music genre as opposed to being exclusively Sámi folk, seems a wise one as Sámi culture is being exposed to the world on Boine’s terms, rather than shipping her onto display out at some kind of token Norwegian showcase.
Gula Gula, despite its world music feel, is still hard to categorise nonetheless. It spans over a variety of genres and tones. Eadnán Bákti, in which her vocals are stripped back alongside a piano is not too dissimilar from a beautiful lullaby whilst several songs later Oarbbis Leat has an overtly seductive and cinematic quality to it. Despite the disparate styles, the album most certainly works on its own terms. Boine proves that it is possible to make modern music that carries the message of the importance of keeping one’s heritage. She perfectly navigates the balance between entering the modern day in which Sámi children are not forced by their parents to continue herding reindeer, as they have other options, whilst at the same time honouring their beautiful traditions that are tinged with the sadness and pain of the discrimination they face from the moment Sámi children enter the education system. Boine’s record forces us as a society to think again before we wipe away the beauty and trauma from the narrative of our collective stories that make us who we are today.