Yoiking, a Sami musical expression

Yoik is the native Sami musical expression which is reminiscent of singing. It has layers of meaning as it holds identity markers and was traditionally very significant in how social interaction took place within Sami communities (and still is to a certain extent). It also had more practical purposes, such as calming reindeer.

a black drawn symbol with a circle in the center with lines going through it from different directions.
Cover from the book The Sun, My Father by Nils-Aslak Valkeapää. Picture: Wikimedia Commons.

Yoik is the native Sami musical expression, sharing features with other indigenous music. The essential parts of yoik are melody and rhythm, though there could be words, gestures and facial expressions. A Sami could yoik other Sami, animals or nature itself. A yoik was not a song about someone or something per se; you might think of a yoiker conjuring up, say, his loved one who was far away or a menacing wolf, so that for those hearing the yoik it was literally there in the flesh. A person’s yoik referred to that person, even after death. Hence, a link to memory: as long as someone or an animal was remembered, they were still close.

In the small hunting or herding communities yoik was an identity marker, like a photo carried in a wallet. When a young person began to play a role in the community they received a yoik that followed them throughout life and reaffirmed kinship with other group members. Sami often yoiked alone. Kristoffer Sjulsson, a Sami from Vapsten Sami village in Sweden, reports:

“A little Sami girl sat a long while, evening after evening, and sang. The only word in the song [yoik] was vjelha [vielle], brother. That word reminded her of father and mother, sisters and the little brother who was living far away in the south. These memories inspired her and her song that was melodious and beautiful, [and] expressed an intimate longing for those absent.”

The English word ‘yoik’ is both noun and verb, i.e. one yoiks a yoik (Norwegian: joik/joike; Swedish: jojk/jojka; Finnish: joiku/joikata). The Sami verb juoigat is the verb in all Sami languages; however, the yoiks in various areas of Samiland differ. In the northwest they are called luohti, moving south vuolle and vueliea and to the east leu’dd. In the luohti the most common intervals were the fourth, fifth and octave. The leu’dd often had a narrative text with much variation. The vuolle (Lule Sami) had very few words. South Sami vuelie reminds one of the leu’dd where words were preeminent. All but the luohti have mostly died out.

Yoik is closely tied to Sami culture past and present, nomadic reindeer hunting and herding in the arctic environment. Johan Turi wrote:

“The yoik is not just music. [Its] functions are much broader than that. They are routes to social contact.”

Yoiks were used to calm reindeer and keep predators away. Under the old worldview yoik and drums helped the noaidi (shaman) attain a state of ecstasy and travel to other realms. When Lutheran missionaries attacked shamanism in the 18th and 19th centuries, they banned yoiking. Under the harsh assimilation from ca. 1850 until relatively recently yoiking suffered more and was on the verge of disappearing totally.

Revitalisation of the yoik in from 1960s

In 1968 the multi-artist Nils-Aslak Valkeapää singlehandedly revitalized the yoik. He recorded yoiks adding sounds of nature such as reindeer bells or dogs barking, and if there was any text he yoiked in Sami. His fellow Sami, downtrodden for so long, took great pride in his achievement. He encouraged other Sami to yoik. As yoik became popular the intimate connection within the local community was lost. In the ensuing decades yoik has become prominent in world and folk music with many yoikers participating in music festivals, making CDs and fusing yoik with other music genres.

Further reading:

  • H. Gaski, ‘The Secretive Text: Yoik Lyrics as Literature and Tradition.’ In J. Pentikäinen, ed..  Sami Folkloristics, (Turku: NFF Publications, 2000) pp.191-214.
  • H. Gaski, ed., In the Shadow of the Midnight Sun. (Kárášjohka: Davvi Girji, 1997).
  • H. Laitinen, ‘The Many Faces of the Yoik.’ Finnish Music Quarterly, Issue 4, April 2003.