The Joys of Joiking

Reindeer of the Lapland

I’m back!

For those of you who don’t know (or didn’t notice!), after a year of writing every week on the dot, I stopped writing for the last three months. Sure, I’ve had plenty of excuses: moving to a new country, living out of a hotel room for four weeks, being in a small town with no internet café, etc etc, and I must say I quite like living off the grid, but I’ve also missed singing and WRITING about singing!

In the meantime, I’ve been collecting a good number of stories, everything from a spontaneous performance at La Scala (for the tourists in the museum, that is!) to the weeks I spent practicing in a highway underpass, since our hotel room was too small. Today, however, I want to share with you a more recent story, about how I joiked, and how it got me into trouble.

This summer, my husband and I pulled up our ever-deepening roots in Thailand and transplanted ourselves in the flat (strangely similar!) rice-fields of northern Italy. The idea was to see more of the world, to seek a place that would resonate with us, culture and nature-wise, and also for me to try a musical career in Europe, the home of opera. This is no easy task. Retreating from the formidable tasks of auditioning and competing (two things I could do without), I instead started doing what every nervous closet ethnomusicologist does and have spent my time reading up on the musical traditions of the reindeer-herding Sami people on the northern fringes of Scandinavia.

Sami with reindeer

What fascinates me about the Sami people and their music is that, until recent decades, they used no instruments other than the voice and the shamanistic drum. Of all their vocal traditions, the most wonderful and unique is the joik, a song, often but not always improvised, on a subject of the singer’s choice. The singer may sing a single repeated word, many words, or no words at all, and the tune may develop and wander as the joiker explores new tones and textures. The subject may be a person, a place, or an activity, like herding reindeer. The joik becomes its subject, rather than being “about” it; it’s a painting, in real time, of everyday life. As ethnomusicologist Andrew Cronshaw writes, “The joik isn’t a creature of the concert hall; its natural environment is outdoors, sung by a person alone while working or travelling, or perhaps over the usual Sami drink–coffee–at the fireside.”

Since the move to Italy has been a bit tumultuous for me–first with not finding an apartment, and then, once we found one, figuring out how to do common household tasks that I got away with not doing in Thailand–operatic singing, at least for the time being, was out of the question. I decided to try my voice at joiking.

It all started when I was peeling carrots for a cake. The apartment was quiet and peaceful, with the rare autumn sun turning the white tiles gold. I started joiking carrots, starting off tentatively, singing nothing but the word “carrot” in different ways, then, since the ceiling didn’t fall down and the neighbors didn’t start knocking, sang louder and higher and added words. Something like this*:

Carrots, oh carrots! So orange, SO orange…
This is the carrot-peeling song,
La le lai le lai la la!
Peel ‘em right, don’t peel e’m wrong,
Gonna be a big orange carrot cake,
La le lai, la le la,
Peel ‘em fast before it’s too late,
Carrots, caaarrrots, carro-o-o-ts!!!

And it seemed to me like their color was brighter, their fragrance sweeter, and at the very least what would have been a chore became a musical experience. In fact, I was so lost in the throes of my joyful carrot-peeling joik, that I almost didn’t hear the telephone ring. Seeking out the source of the strange ringtone, I turned around and noticed that I had left my kitchen door wide open. Now, in most apartments this would be no big deal, but in ours, being on the ground floor, the kitchen opens directly onto the entrance of our apartment building. Standing there was my neighbor (now on the phone), along with two other Italian women, all peering in curiously over my patio. I smiled sheepishly before shutting the door and retreating back to my kitchen in shame. At least I’m in Italy, I told myself. For all they knew, I was singing some strange avant-garde English composition!

Sometimes I wonder when it happened, when music became all about celebrity and the stage. Music has an illustrious history of self-expression, of belonging to the peasant in the field and the woman at her loom and the sailor on his ship. What better way to pass the quiet hours of the day? As long as I can, and no matter where I am, I shall always sing. I shall joik the laundry and the sunlight in the window and homesickness and the wonders of true love…I might just check that door first before I start.

If you’re curious to hear more, I’ve assembled a YouTube playlist of my favorite Sami music discoveries.

And by the way, here is the best-(and healthiest!)-ever carrot cake recipe. And to go along with it, a good carrot song.

*Please don’t think that I mean to demean the beautiful tradition of joiking by choosing such a silly subject. Joiks come in many forms, including deeply personal and spiritual ones, and I find them freeing and inspiring.

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