In February I had the good fortune to be invited to the winter market in Jokkmokk, Sweden to give a slideshow and talk on Emilie Demant Hatt. I stayed for the whole three days of the festival, which has taken place for over 400 years. The winter market is a place where the Sami people have congregated to trade goods and gossip, to meet friends and sweethearts, to joik and attend church services. Now that the winter market is connected with the museum Ájtte and events and exhibits have spread out through the town to the schools, churches, and community centers, there are more opportunities to see films, hear lectures, admire Sami handicraft, and listen to music.
I’ve long been deeply drawn to joik music, whether in its pure form of vocalization or accompanied by drums, guitars, and electronic keyboards. This February I went to a couple of evening concerts by well-known Sami singers, but I have to say that the most riveting joiking I heard was on a CD by a young Sami woman, Sara Ajnnak, which was playing in the shop of the Viltok Sisters as background music.
Sara Ajnnak is from Västerbotten, based in Gargnäs, near Sorselse in the middle of Southern Sápmi. She comes from a herding family and knows her way around a snowmobile. After high school she studied the theater arts, but realized she didn’t want to be an actor, and turned to singing and eventually writing her own songs.The language her people would have spoken up to a couple of generations ago was Ume Sami, now one of the languages that’s halfway to extinction. Yet it lives on in the words of joiks once recorded and saved in archives. It’s to these archives that Sara turned when she was looking to connect with her past and find a way to joik from her heart.
On her website she writes (in Swedish, this is my translation):
For a long time I only knew half of myself. I felt I was missing a part of myself and couldn’t really be me. My Sami identity was tattered, the language I should know wasn’t there, but I was searching inside for myself. Out of frustration, I found my way to the joik and there I discovered a piece of the puzzle to my identity. It wasn’t easy, the joik had long since disappeared from my geographical area. I spent hours in archives, while the evenings were devoted to imitating the sound recordings from the early 1900s.
It really was both anger and frustration that led me to the joik and eventually the stage's spotlight. My joik career took off and I traveled around Sápmi to various venues as a traditional joiker. But I still felt tattered inside, and searched for more puzzle pieces to become whole.
I grew up in a reindeer herding family in Västerbotten [a northern province in Sweden]. From childhood I’ve taught myself to relate to the grandeur of nature's changing reality. Life in reindeer husbandry has affected and affects me constantly. My life has been about trying to survive, and the joik has been a release where I was able to let out my feelings. In the candlelight, my pen has run quickly; reflections on life turned into lyrics.
When I started my journey to regain my language, I grew as a person. Now I could for the first time stand up and say the words that have long been forgotten in my family. Step by step, I grew as a person and took my language with me up onto the stage.
My history and path into the music hasn’t been straightforward, but has been characterized by low self-confidence, hard work and language barriers. It took more than 34 years before I dared to believe in myself and my ability as an artist. In September of 2014 my first album Suojggat came out and I finally felt at home. I felt pretty soon after I released my debut album that music was my valve, allowing me to freely create from an emotional place and making room for me to tell my own story. I felt that the stories and perspectives from my geographic area in Sápmi were missing and through writing and creating music, my soul also became whole.
Sara Ajnnak has two CDs, Suojggat and Ráhtjat, with songs that are both soulful and danceable, to a bouncy electronic beat. In a music video of her letting her voice ring out in a wintery world (a video with some beautiful slow-motion filming of a reindeer separation, as well), Ajnnak joiks in Sami of women’s empowerment and equal rights. The lyrics show up at the end of the video, in English:
I raise my voice/ To free up my mind/ Stand up for myself/ Sisterhood