I bet that you have never heard about ‘joik’. I haven´t either until I watched the Eurovision Song Contest that took place last week. The band KEiiNO that represented Norway in the annual competition had incorporated the music style ‘joik’ in their entry song called “Spirit in the sky”. But what is joik, what values and identities are connected to it and why and when is it used? I will tell you more here in this blogpost but first let´s have a look at the performance:
Clearly, the song mixes two music styles that are very different from each other. Modern beats with a catchy hook are featured, before the song breaks out into traditional joik performed. There is also a clear separation of roles of the three singers. While singers Alexandra Rotan and Tom Hugo represent the rather trashy elements of a contemporary popsong, singer and joiker Fred Buljo has its own moment in the second half of the song which to me seems very strong and powerful.
Joik is a form of music that has very personal connotations and is performed traditionally by the Sami people that live in Europe´s most northern regions in Norway, Sweden, Finland and parts of Russia. Minority protection and language policies differ in these countries and I will restrict my observations here to the Norwegian case as the band KEiiNO is from Norway. Since its adoption in 1988, Article 110a of the Norwegian Constitution states:
It is the responsibility of the authorities of the State to create conditions enabling the Sami people to preserve and develop its language, culture and way of life.Norwegian Constitution, Article 110a
Nine different Sami languages exist of which six are independent literary languages that are taught in schools in respective areas in the four countries. However, it is important to note that transition from one language to another is gradual, so that neighbouring dialects have always been mutually understandable (Todal, 1998, p.356).
For about 200 years, the Norwegian government has been pushing for ‘Norwegianisation’ towards the Sámi, a policy which lasted up until the 1960s. The goal was to make the Sámi as Norwegian as possible — in language, culture, and in their overall view of themselves. Under the influence of christianity, joiking was condemned as sinful and until the 1950s forbidden to use in Sami area schools.
Today, joik singer Fred Buljo says that he is “very proud of [his] Sami background and culture” (Berglund, 2019). The group wants the whole world to know about their cultural and linguistic heritage. Undoubtedly there is no better place than the Eurovision stage with an estimated 200 million viewers around the world, spectators that themselves might be of indegenous descent or speakers of minority languages. And their performance seemed to connect to the audience and they were the “undisputed people’s choice at Eurovision 2019” (Muldoon, 2019).
Eurovision as a platform for minority languages
While the choice of the song has not been pushed by a certain organization, joiker Fred Buljo has connections to the Sami Parliament of which he was a member, first as a deputy from 2013 to 2016 and then as an MP from 2016 to 2017. Furthermore, honouring traditional languages of indigenous peoples is also on the agenda of the United Nations this year, with Norway’s Sami Parliament receiving NOK 1.1 million to boost exposure of the Sami language (Berglund, 2019). But it is clear that money alone cannot heal those old wounds and facilitate minority language promotion. Certainly, the Eurovision Song Contest is a very suitable platform for the promotion of minority languages. It gives local artists a chance to perform in front of a vast and international audience that can help to revive languages and music styles that otherwise might be forgotten.
Sending a Eurovision entry in a language that has a minority status in the respective country can be a very effective language maintenance strategy. It furthermore also shows that a country is willing to be represented by an act of culture which is not predominant which gives it not only attention but also accepts it as part of the national heritage. By mixing joik with powerful EDM beats “Spirit in the sky” takes the Sami language out of the traditional niche and turns it into something that is very generic and all-audience friendly. While many viewers might have enjoyed this easy-to-listen-to track, it is questionable whether the joik and the values it represents are still recognizable.
Without an explanation of the context, listening to the song might leave people wondering about those “weird sounds”. Also, I am wondering whether the joik performance is still very original or whether is has been commercialized to the extent that there is barely any connection left to the original meaning. According to singer Fred, joiking is something very personal (Berglund, 2019). Furthermore, instances of ‘fake joik’ have been reported drawing on “phonetic similarities to an aural stereotype of joiking” (Pietikäinen, 2013, p.90). While I cannot judge the authenticity of the joik, the Eurovision performance has made me much more aware of the situation of the Sami and I suppose that of the millions of viewers there have been other who have done so as well. Hence, Norway´s Eurovision entry 2019 was not only a good strategy to promote Sami language and culture, it also left many viewers with a melody stuck in their heads… He-lo e loi-la!
Berglund, N. (2019, May 19). Eurovision ‘winners’ credit Sami joik. News in English [News article]. Available at: www.newsinenglish.no(22.05.2019).
Muldon, P. (2019, May 21). KEiiNO’s Tom Hugo: “It is strange that a few people decide half the points”. Wiwibloggs [News article]. Available at: wiwibloggs.com (22.05.2019).
Pietikäinen, S. (2013). Heteroglossic authenticity in Sámi heritage tourism. Multilingualism and the Periphery, 77-94.
Todal, J. (1998). Minorities with a Minority: Language and the School in the Sami Areas of Norway, Language Culture and Curriculum, 11:3, 354-366. Routledge.