The music sounds ancient. Holy. The drumbeat is ritualistic; the guitar has a chime-like quality; and the trumpet has the breath of a wood flute. Sonically, this is all somewhat eerie, yet deeply alluring — even before Mari Boine begins to sing. Her voice is a wail, a plea. If you didn’t know what you were listening to, you might mistake this music for the post-punk and gothic rock made by groups like Dead Can Dance or This Mortal Coil. Or maybe you’d hear an even harder edge.
“I listened a lot to Patti Smith before I started to sing. She was very important to me as a woman,” Boine says. “Because first it was only men who were the rock idols, and then she comes as a strong woman. She was important [to me], and [so was] Buffy Sainte-Marie.”
Boine, 62, is an indigenous Sámi who grew up in a remote farming community in Norway, near the Finnish border. The Sámi people of the Arctic Circle were colonized by Europeans beginning in the 17th century, with international borders splitting the Sámi population into four countries: Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Russia. Like many Sámi, Boine grew up ashamed of her background. She spoke Sámi and Norwegian, and as a child attended a Laestadian Lutheran church with her parents. When she was in her 20s and joined her first band, Boine started writing songs in her native tongue, in the traditional form of joik (pronounced “yoik”). Joik lyrics are meant to evoke a person, animal, or place — not to tell stories about or describe these subjects. Instead, the songs gather feelings and emotions that are attributable to them.
“I started to write songs as a therapy because I found myself being a person who really didn’t like my own heritage, my own culture. I wanted to become Norwegian or European,” she says. “And then all these songs started to come and things totally changed inside of me. People came to me and said, ‘You are singing about me,’ and I realized that my songs were not only my songs — that lots of my people could relate.”
Under colonization, the joik was considered to be from the devil, and Sámi were prohibited from singing the music. Boine said that this is an idea that came from Europeans who were frightened of Sámi spiritual practices. “My people have shamanistic rituals. The joik was a huge part of the rituals. There were people drumming for the shaman in order for him or her to travel to another consciousness.”
Boine plays at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, Oct. 15, the day after Santa Fe celebrates Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Boine has won many awards, including the Nordic Council Music Prize in 2003. In 2012, she was appointed as an artist with national funding — an extremely high honor in Norway. Her breakthrough album was Gula Gula, in 1989, released by Peter Gabriel’s music label, Real World Records.
Boine’s music is inseparable from her indigenous heritage because just singing in her native language is a political act. She has been performing for about 40 years, approximately the same time span that Sámi people have been working to reclaim their heritage and revitalize their language. Although people of Boine’s parents’ generation tried to assimilate into Norwegian society, their children pushed back. “My people now are much stronger. Artists and politicians have been fighting for our culture and talking about colonization, what it does to you. My songs have been about healing the wounds that colonization leaves in you. Now there is an uprising. It’s wonderful to see how it’s flourishing among the young people.”
Boine’s musical influences include rock, folk, and jazz, but the joik is always present. There is no single proper way to write or play this musical form because it has evolved over time. Traditionally, the joik was meant to bring on a trance, Boine says, but that’s not its sole purpose today. “They say the joik is a way of remembering. It talks not to your head but to the rest of you — to your emotions, to your heart.”
On her most recent album, See the Woman (2017), Boine sings in English for the first time. She says she’s always wanted to make an album in English but thought the songs would be more effective if the lyrics came from writers who spoke English as their mother tongue. So she sourced her lyrics from many other poets. The album is about her experience of being a woman and a way for her to meet herself, she says, as the woman behind the songs.
“This CD is kind of my story, but told through other people’s lyrics.”
One of the songs is based on “This is My Heart” by U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, which appeared in Harjo’s book A Map to the Next World in 2001. A 1992 poem by John Trudell, the late poet and Indians of All Tribes spokesman, is the album’s title song, which begins:
She has a young face
an old face
She carries herself well
In all ages
She survives all man has done
Boine calls Harjo and Trudell her indigenous sister and brother in the United States. She says the story of the Sámi people is not unique because indigenous people have had their religious practices prohibited, their languages forbidden, and their lands stolen and divided up, all over the world. “Somebody just said, ‘Okay, we divide it here, and you take that part.’ They didn’t care or see how it affected the people. For us, the border was not real. Our relatives were on the other side.” ◀
▼ Mari Boine
▼ Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.
▼ 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 15
▼ Tickets $25-$35; 505-988-1234, lensic.org/events/boine