Rehearsal 6/8 done. Most of the program is in promising shape, but we didn’t touch the Bodin today. Depending on the way you choose to look at it, either things are coming along fine, or then there are clouds on the horizon. I am an optimist and think all will be good. Take me up on that tomorrow.
Besides the Bodin suite, there are two major new works on the program: Paul John Rudoi’s At every instant and Jan Sandström’s Biegga luohte. The latter opens the cultural appropriation can of worms in an interesting way. In the program notes, my words on this piece begin with:
“A concert music piece by a middle-aged white classical composer featuring an indigenous song-form with a Christian indigenous text and a landscape of sounds from the north, including dogs and reindeer: patent material for a discussion on cultural appropriation, do you not think? I think you need to know the whole story.”
Before I go into the whole story, a few words about background. First of all, in the ten-odd weeks that I have lived in Canada, I have been amazed to have been asked many times about the Sámi, the indigenous population spread across the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. I really don’t remember this ever happening in Europe. The explanation is naturally the heightened awareness of the plight of the indigenous Canadian peoples. This awareness has been nurtured strongly by the ongoing Truth and Reconciliation process initiated in 2007. The topic of colonialism, the rights of the indigenous peoples and reconciliation pop up almost on a daily basis.
There seems to be an understanding that the battle for the rights of the Sámi people to their language(s) and traditional lands is compatible to those of the so-called First Nations here. And I have been surprised to find that there has been quite a close collaboration for decades between the indigenous activists of Canada and the Sámi. Sometimes you have to travel far to see close.
For those of you who aren’t aware of the Sámi, I’ll just sketch the situation quickly. The Sámi consist of ca. 100,000 people living in the northern parts of the Nordic countries and Russia. They speak ten different sámi languages, all related to the Finno-Ugric languages (such as Finnish and Estonian). The languages were suppressed until the 1980s, even forbidden by law in some of the countries, and all are to some extent in danger of extinction. Even though the history of the Sámi differs substantially from that of the Canadian First Nations, the Sámi have endured a very similar colonialist approach, be the topic religion, language, culture or lands. It was rather depressing to read that strongest assimilation attempts were made post-war until the late 1970s. Residential schools were set up to assimilate the Sámi into the main population and indigenous language and culture were dissuaded or even forbidden. Many steps have been taken since the 1980s to improve the situation (language rights, some political local rights), but much remains to be done.
The central Sámi vocal musical expression is the joik (luohti; vuolle) that bears resemblance to the chanting of some Northern American indigenous peoples. There is no set form for a joik and they often consist of only a few words. There are no rhymes, no definite structure. Joiks are a very spiritual and personal form and can even be the property of one person, almost like a second name. It is often said that you don’t joik about something (a person, an element of nature), you yoik it – bring it into being through the song.
After all this, you will see the need for an argument why Biegga luohte is not crass cultural appropriation. First of all, it fulfills the ‘not about us without us’ criterion often spoken here. It has come into being through the co-operation of the composer, who lives and works in Northern Sweden in the area considered to be the Swedish centre of Sámi culture, and an indigenous Sámi singer, Johan Märak. The joik at the heart of the piece is written by Märak and was performed by him both in the premiere and a subsequent recording. The other, choral elements can be seen as a reflection of the joik, the landscape, the local animals (ptarmagans and dogs) and even shamanistic music (the drum). This is a choral piece deeply embedded in the land and culture of the Sámi.
And it is ultimately a good, energetic choral piece, filled with interesting sounds and dramatic turns. I still think that if someone wants to take objection, it is totally possible. All I can say is that this piece has made me learn more about the Sámi and try to understand to the difference between cultural influences and cultural appropriation. For me it is important to present it as choral art reflective of a culture, not a trip into ethnic music. And using it as a means to promote awareness of the Sámi and their culture.
If you want to get a picture of the piece and the approaches one can choose, there is an interesting array of versions on Spotify. Seek the piece by using Biegga luo (there are different spellings of luohte / luothe). They vary from the original with Johan Märak (Musikhögskolans kammarkör Piteå) to a very ‘ethno’ interpretation (Vokal Nord) and at the other end a fairly classical version (Swedish Radio Choir).