Friday, August 15, 2008

With the Lapps in the High Mountains

The wonderful environmental literary magazine Orion has just published two excerpts from my translation from the Danish of Emilie Demant Hatt's book about her 1907-8 travels with the Sami in Lapland: With the Lapps in the High Mountains.

You can read them online at

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Book Reviews of Cold Subjects

Here is a selection of my reviews for the Seattle Times about ice and snow, reindeer, and Northern places:

"The Future of Ice"
by Gretel Ehrlich

"Ice: The Nature, the History and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance"by Mariana GosnellKnopf, 560 pp., $30
"Ice": Brrrr! A tale with thrills, chills

"The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia"by Piers VitebskyHoughton Mifflin, 464 pp., $28

"The Sami People: Traditions in Transition"by Veli-Pekka Lehtola, translated by Linna Weber Muller-WilleUniversity of Alaska Press, 144 pp., $27.95

"In a Far Country: The True Story of a Mission, a Marriage, a Murder and the Remarkable Reindeer Rescue of 1898"by John TaliaferroPublicAffairs, 400 pp., $26.95

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Karl Tirén, Joik Collector

I was in Stockholm recently and had the opportunity to visit the collections of the Music Museum with the director Hans Riben, who kindly showed me the original wax cylinders from an old gramophone recording machine. They were what the musician Karl Tirén used to make his recordings of Sami joiks nearly a hundred years ago.

Karl Tirén (1869-1955) was a railway inspector based in Northern Sweden. He came from an artistic family — his brother was the artist, Johan Tirén, who painted landscapes of Lapland­­ — and Karl Tirén was an accomplished violinist and violin maker. He was, like many musicians of the time, greatly interested in Sweden’s long heritage of folk music, much of it played on the fiddle as country dance music. But Tirén was also, unlike most Swedish musicians, intrigued by another Swedish tradition in music, an even older tradition, which was the joik music of the Sami.

Around 1909, Tirén began a long project of collecting joiks or jojka as they’re called in Swedish, from the Sami verb, juiogat, meaning to sing a folk song. Although a variety of enthusiastic amateur ethnologists were at the time photographing and documenting in one way or another the culture of the Sami, no one had yet began to listen seriously to their joiks. At first Tirén tried to transcribe the joiks he heard through a notation system that he could then play on the violin, but soon he realized that the words or repeated sounds and the vocal style of the joik were just as or more important than the melody.

Tirén decided to use a form of recording in the field that was not well known in Sweden outside anthropological circles. In fact he borrowed his recording equipment from the Natural History Museum’s ethnographic department. Tirén was instructed in working with the wax cylinders and clock-work mechanism of the recorder by Yngve Laurell. Laurell had spent time at the Berlin Phonogram Archive in order to practice the techniques of recording in the field; he was to use his knowledge in Australia among the aboriginal peoples there.

Supported by some small grants from the Folk Music Society, Tirén set off in the winter of 1913 to the markets of Arvidsjaur and Arjeplog to make his first recordings. That May a selection of the best recordings were played at a program sponsored by the Natural History Museum, titled “Exotic Phonogram and Gramophone Concerts.” In June Tirén was again up in Lapland, traveling from Abisko over to the Norwegian coast, and then back into Swedish Jämtland. He made recordings again the following winter and summer of 1914. Again in 1915 he made some group recordings at the wedding of his Sami friend Maria Persson, who had been a primary source of information about the joik and who’d facilitated his travels and introductions to Sami communities.

The recordings Tirén made always begin with his announcing the name of the performer, the title of the piece, and then a short tone, which was used to calibrate the speed of the recording when it was re-played (given the spring-drive mechanism in the phonograph, the speed could vary). Each cylinder could hold two joiks, about two minutes worth of singing. Tirén’s method of collecting was democratic and comprehensive; he recorded joiking by children, very old people, men and women. In contrast, when the Swedish Broadcasting Company undertook to collect joiks in the fifties, they searched for the oldest Sami singers they could find and attempted a chronological system that was not necessarily representative of a community. Tirén included everyone who wanted to sing.

The wax cylinders were transferred digitally in the 1980s, and a selection of Tirén’s gramophone recordings from 1913-15 is available on the CD, Samiska Röster. Unsurprisingly, they have a scratchy, authentic sound, but the enthusiasm and joy come through beautifully, as well as the skill in mimicking animal sounds. Many are joiks to the memory of other people. The cylinders themselves are fragile and are never played now; they are in the collection of the Swedish Music Museum, in their original cardboard tubes with Tirén’s inscriptions on the outside.

Tirén continued to collect joiks for a few more years but spent more time transcribing his recordings and writing about what he had heard. He produced a beautiful book about joiking, published in 1942 in the Acta Lapponica series. The book was translated and published only in German, as was the case with all the early Acta Lapponica volumes, German being the scholarly language of the time.

Although this master work, Die Lappische Volkmusik, has never appeared in Swedish, there is a book available in second-hand shops and in Swedish libraries about Karl Tirén by Gunnar Ternhag: Joiksamlaren Karl Tirén (Umeå, 2000).

Copies of the CD, Samiska Röster (Sami Voices) may be ordered directly from the shop of the Swedish Music Museum at (

A librarian friend in Sweden, Carl-Henrik Berg, who takes a great interest in Swedish tourism (see his website with many links ) gave me a copy of a 1912 travel essay by Maria Himmelstrand, which was published in the Swedish Tourist Society’s yearbook. In the section I’ve translated below, Maria, a self-described modern woman, and her two girlfriends are traveling by train up in Lapland and run into Karl Tirén.

From “Wandering in Lapland” by Maria Himmelstrand

In Abisko we met the station inspector Karl Tirén, painter, musician, inventor, mountain climber, a person known all over Norbotten. If we mentioned his name among Lapps and settlers, their eyes lit up and the words rushed out: Someone had heard him play the violin; another had even played the violin with him; a third had walked — no, run with him in the mountains. He was a man who jumped off a train going full speed, who sprang into bogs and dashed over mountains and swamps straight to Kebnekaise [Lapland’s highest mountain], scorning all paths. “And they say, Miss, that he can put a spell on the violin.”

That part about the violin is the most remarkable thing to the Lapps. As is known, Tirén has made a singular invention. He has, after twenty years of work, succeeded in producing a liquid with which he prepares wood for violins. With this wood they immediately have a full warm tone, that usually only exceptional violins have after many years of assiduous and skillful use. Along with this he constructs violins.

During the summer, Tirén wanders on a mission for the folk music society among the Lapps to study and note down their national melodies and songs, and he told us a variety of interesting things about that. For us, who were going to travel into the interior of Lapland, it was of course doubly interesting to get a glimpse into one aspect of the Lapps’ spiritual life. Among other things he described his first visit to a Lapp camp. The Lapps were, to begin with, quite reserved. They were very unwilling even to confess that they had their own songs with their own melodies, partly from distrust and partly from religious reasons. A large number of Lapps in Norrbotten are in fact strict Læstadians [evangelical Lutherans]. A significant portion of their verses are old pagan songs and such devilish abominations they don’t want anyone to hear about.

Then Tirén told them about a dream he’d had that came true. With these simple words and in all secrecy they opened up to the mystery of the dream. They began to interpret it, came out with one supernatural experience after the next, and at the end verses and melodies flowed from their lips. And so, as early as that first Lapp camp, he made a rich harvest of old original songs. And the remarkable thing was that until recent times it was considered that the Lapps lacked a national music, even musical talent.

They were extraordinary melodies that Mr. Tirén sang for us, small, short stanzas often only within a range of 4-5 tones. The rhythm was singular, quite unlike our usual musical rhythms; it would probably have been very difficult to devise any sort of accurate classification of the measures. There were formal stanzas to the spirits of the air, earth, and water. There were humorous stanzas. There were tonal pictures from surrounding nature. “How the reindeer runs” was a quick little melody, where the rhythm really brilliantly expresses a reindeer herd’s swift, light, measured race over the snow. “How the white snow flakes fall,” was a masterpiece about the melancholy mood of nature.

One time Tirén came to a Lapp camp, where the Lapps were markedly reserved. Then an old granny had spoken up and strongly rebuked them. “It’s shameful,” she’d said, “that my family’s young men forget their father’s songs!” And the granny was plainly a figure of authority, because after that the Lapps didn’t need any encouragement to recite one song after the next. Among the Lapps Mr. Tirén has found magnificent voices, really gifted singers, both women and men.

Excerpted from Svenska Turistföreningens Årsskrift 1913
English translation copyright© 2008 by Barbara Sjoholm

Friday, January 18, 2008

What is joiking or yoiking? And how can you hear it?

Ursula Länsman, member of the Sámi Band Angelit, describes it very well.

"A yoik is not merely a description; it attempts to capture its subject in its entirety: it's like a holographic, multi-dimensional living image, a replica, not just a flat photograph or simple visual memory. It is not about something, it is that something. It does not begin and it does not end. A yoik does not need to have words — its narrative is in its power, it can tell a life story in song. The singer can tell the story through words, melody, rhythm, expressions or gestures."

In one of the earliest published Sami texts, Johan Turi describes it as "the art of recalling other people." But in the past the Sami also joiked animals, landscapes, and weather. The earliest joiking was unaccompanied voice, but in the last twenty or thirty years it's been backed by many different instruments and performed in a variety of styles. There's even Sami rapping now.

Ande Somby is a Norwegian Sami lawyer and musician. He writes about joiking in this article on the Web.

Although I described the general idea behind joiking in The Palace of the Snow Queen and mentioned two powerful modern singers––Mari Boine from Norway and Wimme from Finland––who've taken the traditional form to new places, my descriptions aren't the same as experiencing the sound of the joik. Here are some links to sites where you can learn more and hear samples:

Arran has a comprehensive list of Sami musicians, both traditional and contemporary, including their web sites and Myspace pages where you can listen to streaming mp3 tracks and download.

Another possibility to hear joiking on-line is at Amazon: Folk Music In Sweden, Vols. 21, 22, 23: A Presentation Of Saami Folk Music

Although this 3-volume collection of traditional acoustic joik is not available for purchase, the nearly 200 songs, on everything from reindeer to weather to love, and sung by a rich variety of male and female voices, is there for the listening. It's a great introduction to the form.

On Amazon, you can listen to samples from the albums of Mari Boine and Wimme too. Better yet, you can go to the website of NorthSide, an independent music company based in Minneapolis. Their focus is Scandinavian folk and new music, and they have an awesome deal: three collection of Nordic music from all over Scandinavia, which includes some cuts by Sami singers. Nordic Roots 1, 2, 3. each only $5. They also carry the full discography of Boine and Wimme.

The History of the Snowman

Since my travel book The Palace of the Snow Queen was published last October, some readers and reviewers have said things along the lines of, "I have to admit that Lapland is not the first country that comes to mind in my quest for good travel literature," and "That's one place I'm never going." In the Seattle Times, Lynda V. Mapes wrote, "This is the coldest I've ever been reading a book, but it was worth it." I'm glad she qualified that.

Okay, so I haven't converted everyone to my fascination with the far north of Scandinavia. On the other hand I have heard from a lot of people who love the northern climes and who have stories to tell about Scandinavian forebears and Sami relatives who emigrated to Poulsbo, Washington and Nome, Alaska, and who harbor fantasies of their own about ice hotels and dark, starry nights brushed by the northern lights. People who for mysterious reasons don't mind the cold and who are drawn to the cultures and landscapes of the far north, whether watery or icy.

One reader recently wrote me, "I go on my trips alone because no one I know can afford to go and also no one I know wants to go to the north. They want the tropics and warm beaches." A woman after my own heart, she had recently returned from not only Lapland, but St. Petersburg, and Tallin in Estonia. She wrote she'd also been to Iceland, the Faroe Island, the Orkneys and all those other cool (and cold and wet) places I'd traveled to myself in writing The Pirate Queen a few years ago.

One of my favorite Christmas presents this year was a lively little book by humorist Bob Eckstein (whose cartoons appear in The New Yorker). The History of the Snowman: from the Ice Age to the Flea Market (Simon & Schuster, 2007). I love books about topics that are hiding in plain sight. It turns out there's a lot to say about snowmen as cultural icons, and this eclectic book is by turns hilarious and erudite, with chapters such as, "Early Belgian Expressionism," "Early American Snowmen in the Seventeenth Century," and "The Dean Martin Years." He sniffs out some of the earliest representations of snow people in art and ponders why snowmen also are seen to have a sinister side ("Number of movies with snowman in the title: 22. Number of those in which the snowman is the killer: 6").
Copiously illustrated with color ads, postcards, magazine covers, and with as many black and white illustrations, including a great selection of the best of the snowman New Yorker cartoons.