North Polar Sounds


Come December, people end up thinking about Reindeer and the North Pole. You can’t help it. Everywhere you go, there are cartoon reindeer and fantasy scenes of North Polar workshops. It can all be a bit overwhelming. Being the lapsed anthropologist that I am and having a bit of a mischievous streak, I began wondering about where Santa gets his reindeer. There’s really only one place to go if you want to get reindeer. You really have to visit the Sami reindeer herders who live in the very far north of Norway, Sweden and Finland. They’ve been raising reindeer for generations.

Now if Santa is going to be visiting the Sami (sometimes referred to as Lapps) anyway, he’s probably going to stay for some festivities. It’s the social thing to do and we all know Santa is a very social guy. At these festivities, Santa’s definitely going to hear some yoiks, traditional Sami songs that consist of impressionistic poems and stories sung over a rhythmic, percussion-heavy backing. Santa would definitely be impressed by the power and beauty of these tunes. It would probably inspire him to slip some modern interpretations of yoiks into the Christmas stockings of some of the more musically adventurous boys and girls on his list.


What would Santa bring? It’s a good chance he’d bring the two new releases by Norwegian singer Mari Boine, Remixed and Eight Seasons. Remixed is exactly that; ten electronic music wizards have a go at reworking tunes from Mari’s back catalogue. I often find remix discs a disappointment as they’re rarely an improvement on the original. These remixes are different in that the producers seek to bring out new dimensions in Boine’s music, which they do with amazing fidelity to the originals. The tracks, reworked by the likes of Bill Laswell, Jah Wobble, Biosphere and Those Norwegians, render the tunes dance floor ready without losing the majesty and mystery of the source tracks. Whenever I play tracks from this CD on the radio, I get multiple callers asking where they can get their hands on it.

Eight Seasons is a logical extension of the experimentation on Remixed. Mari recorded these twelve tracks in collaboration with jazz keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft. Boine and Wesseltoft bring electronics and dance beats to Boine’s modern yoiks. While only a few of the songs are sung in English, that’s not an obstacle to enjoying the music. Mari casts a spell when she sings that draws listeners into her world. Once snared, you may be compelled to seek out her back catalog.

Mari Boine isn’t the only yoik singer confronting the modern world. The Finnish singer Wimme also updates traditional Sami ideas with electronics and beats. Singer Wimme Saari provides the shamanistic, otherworldly vocals while techno jazz improvisers Tapani Rinne and Jari Kokkonen set the tunes squarely in the modern world. Matti Wallenius plays an assortment of acoustic stringed instruments tying the far-flung elements into a wondrous whole. Wimme’s latest release, Barru has a more aggressive, experimental take on the yoik that Boine. It’s unlike anything you’re likely to have heard before and it is highly captivating.


On the other side of the world, Pamyua are working similar magic with the traditional sounds of the Yup’ik and Greenland Eskimo. Pamyua are brothers Philip and Steven Blanchett, their cousin Ossie Kairaiuak and Philip’s wife, Karina Moller. The group began when Steven and Philip began improvising soul and gospel harmonies on traditional Yupik songs. The blending of traditions sounded so right that Pamyua were performing weeks later.

Caught in the Act is Pamyua’s most recent offering. The disc is a live recording of the band in their hometown of Anchorage, Alaska. The singers are backed by a hot band who bring the tribal funk to life. The sound ranges from arrangements of traditional chants on “Inngerneg” and “Siku” to the gospel rave-up that ends “Celebrate” to the hip hop of “The Games.” Caught in the Act is a great live album by anyone’s standards. The spirit and energy of the performance are contagious. The outstanding quality of the disc earned it Record of the Year honors at the Native American Music Awards.

So after checking out these sounds, it may be impossible to think of the far north in the same way. Yes, it is a land where it is dark for months at a time. Yes, it’s an area where it is cold and snowy during the long winter months. It is also a region where people live and produce some incredible art and some very fine music. You can find out more about Mari Boine and Wimme at Northside Records and visit Pamyua’s web site to stay current on their activities.

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