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Sápmi - Nordic Choral Music
Erik Westberg Vocal Ensemble/Erik Westberg
rec. 2018-21, Studio Acusticum, Piteå; Hortlax Church, Sweden
Sung texts with English and Swedish translations

“Sápmi” may not be a household word – not even in Scandinavia – but it is allegedly a very old word. Linguists state that it is at least 2000 years old. The meaning is “Sami person” and “the land of the Sami people. This land covers a large area in the northernmost part of Europe, and there exist no political borderlines, even though technically speaking Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia (the Kola Peninsula) are involved. Within this area nine Sami languages are spoken, and the specific Sami culture has been preserved through generations and centuries. The Sami music heritage, the improvised yoik, has also interested and fascinated, and Swedish composer Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, more than 100 years ago wrote a symphony based on authentic yoiks. We needn’t go into the yoik in depth, but today we have singers and composers who strive to create new music based on the tradition, and this fascinating disc is devoted to their efforts.

There have been forerunners, however, and one of those is Jan Sandström, who is represented here as well. But ten years ago Channel Classics issued two discs with the Swedish Radio Choir, titled “Nordic Sounds”, and the second volume (review) contained three pieces by Sandström, based on compositions by Johan Märak, who also appears here as poet as well as composer. This many-faceted pioneer grew up north of the Arctic Circle and worked from an early age as a logdriver, lumberjack, hunter, fisherman and reindeer herder before he in 1954 began studying at the then newly started Sami Folk High School and graduated as both a deacon and a priest. He was an advocate for Sami issues in the Church of Sweden and strived convince non-Samis that the yoik was sinful. He passed away in 2019, aged 91. In the opening number on this disc we meet Johan Märak in both capacities. But it is Jan Sandström who is the composer of Jiegŋáffo based on Märak’s yoik and poem. Jiegŋáffo is a mountain with a glacier, and reindeers love to go there to cool down on hot summer days. Märak’s poem is about this. Sandström, who was born in the north of Sweden – even though he grew up in Stockholm – has this music in his blood, and he has created a rhythmically incisive work with tremendous power. It is hypnotically repetitive – the yoik motifs are fairly short – and sometimes he adds percussion. One gets an image of the nåjd, the Sami schaman, and his magic drum. Alto Cecilia Grönfelt, member of the choir is a fascinating soloist.

She returns in the other Sandström composition, Miessi (The Reindeer Calf) with the same winning constellation: yoik and lyrics by Johan Märak. And the rhythmic intensity is just as engrossing.

Between these two pieces we encounter an important present day yoiker: Norwegian Frode Fjellheim. He points out that a yoik seldom has traditional lyrics. The yoiker uses syllables with no linguistic meaning, so the voice is used as an instrument. Fjellheim combines the choir with his own solo yoiking and keyboard playing in A Sister from the North, based on an old yoik recording, and his own Bidám Vuolle (Pite-Yoik). In the latter piece he also adds percussion. The keyboard may be a foreign bird in this connection, but it works eminently well. Fjellheim’s music is more lyrical than Sandström’s but just as valid.

A stranger acquaintance is Kristine Boussard’s Min Eallin¸which is accompanied by accordion and percussion and is partly spoken. It is sometimes rather chaotic, and the lyrics were written by seven different Sami poets, the youngest only eight years old. The texts were originally published in 1991in a collection of Sami poetry titled Min Eallin. The work was commissioned by Erik Westberg. Kristin Boussard explains in the liner notes: “The first part is about the spiritual connection to nature and the innocence of childhood. W also get to know the different gods of Sami culture. The second part deals with a period in Swedish history when the government forced the Sami people to denounce their religion and way of life. The lyrics in the final part are about the people who choose to leave Sami culture in order to join mainstream society, and the fear of being forgotten experienced by those left behind.” Thus it is a socio-historical overview of great importance to understand the Sami culture at large.

The background of Mia Makaroff’s Spes (Hope) is the conflict between the Christian church and the Sami animism and shamanism, which has led to violence and destruction – even though both religions basically want peace. A key sentence in this prayer is the final words: “A person’s wisdom/brightens their face/and changes its hard appearance.” The music is lyrical and beautiful – and hopeful!

The three-movement suite SUV DEHTE is a joint effort between singer/songwriter Katarina Barruk and Jan Sandström. The latter also arranged all three movements. Ms Barruk is today an internationally established artist throughout Europe with roots in both the world of pop and her native folk music. She is an expressive singer with great personality. In particular the last movement shivers with emotions. In the interlude we also hear Virve Karén’s beautiful soprano.

Frode Fjellheim gets the last words with two beautiful songs. The Swan is based on a yoik performed in 1911 by Kristina Johansson. Soloist here is Cecilia Grönfelt. My Altar is the Mountain that Shines is his own setting of a text by Rawdna Carita Eira, where Fjellheim is the soloist. It is a catchy melody that I had to repeat twice before I ended the listening session. I returned to the whole disc the next day with the same sense of total satisfaction that I got the first time. The individual numbers spoke to me with the same lustre as before, but most of all it was the totality, the sum of the parts lifted me to the Elysian fields. I do urge readers to allow themselves the pleasure to be transported to a faraway country without borderlines and a cultural and musical life of its own. Few will regret that journey and many will hopefully want to revisit the land many times. The quality of the recording from Studio Acusticum Piteå, and the excellence of the singing from Erik Westberg Vocal Ensemble can be taken for granted. A wholly fascinating disc!

Göran Forsling
Jan Sandström (b. 1954): 1. Jiegryáffo (2013/2019) [6:36]
Frode Fjellheim (b. 1959): 2. A Sister from the North (2007) [7:16]
Frode Fjellheim: 3. Bidóm Vuolle (Pite-Yoik) (2019) [4:10]
Kristin Boussard (b. 1988): 4. Min Eallin (2014) [8:48]
Jan Sandström: 5. Miessi (The Reindeer Calf) (2021) [3:03]
Mia Makaroff (b. 1970): Spes (Hope) (2014) [4:32]
Katarina Barruk (b. 1994) (7 & 9) and Jan Sandström (8): SUV DEHTE (Due to Her) (2018)
7. Evelina [5:23]
8. Interlude [3:50]
9. Miärralándda [6:33]
Frode Fjellheim: 10. Njoktje (The Swan) (2015) [4:46]
Frode Fjellheim: 11. Mov aalhtere vaerine tjuavka (2017) [3:17]

Published: October 28, 2022

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