The destruction of a minority’s music culture
As a comment to Freemuse’s interview with Sámi singer Marie Boine, ‘This music was from the devil’, the Finnish ethnomusicologist and musician Ilpo Saastamoinen shares his insight and personal experiences with the oppression and destruction of Sámi music culture.
By Ilpo Saastamoinen
In her interview, Marie Boine tells the truth. But not the whole truth. The question is to which extent the church can be blamed for imposing the music ban in Sámi land. Was it the church alone? If it was to blame, then how come the yoik culture appears to be the strongest nowadays in the same areas where the church was strong? – I mean in the North Sámi area, generally. The yoik singing culture is dying on the west side, especially the south Sámi area in middle Sweden, and it has already almost totally died out on the east side (the Kola Peninsula, and in particular among the Skolt Sámi & the Ter Sámi people on the Russian Kola Peninsula). On the Russian Kola Peninsula, for instance, the orthodox church did nothing to prevent the leu’dd (luvvjt) singing tradition, but nevertheless it has almost disappeared today.
The church has been only one vehicle in the big big big process of lessening the self-identity of the minorities, the aboriginal people. It began with the extermination of the language, putting the school children to dormitories separating them from their parents for months and refusing their rights to speak their own language in the schools and dormitories, refusing the right to dress in the national dresses, and so on.
If you have lost those rights are you sure you would like to yoik anymore? If you’d like to, then that could only happen along with drinking alcohol and in places where outsiders could not hear it.
At first the men lost the willingness to yoik, because they – out of homes, on the market places – had to be more in contact with the “whites”, while the women who stayed more at home made sure that the grandmothers would teach the tradition to the small children.
The church – in the sect form of Læstadianism – only put the “last seal” to the job, which had been introduced by the state authorities. Only in the Soviet Union side, the state deliberately began to destroy the shamanism and support the drinking of alcohol, which eventually had the same destructive results throughout the whole Siberia. The Orthodox church wasn’t afraid of drinking, but the church stole the everlasting rights of the Sámi to fish salmon in the inherited river areas.
Language is the most important form of the self-identity. We should not forget that every majority performs an oppression on its own minorities.
In the quotation of Andreas Lüderwaldt he uses the name ‘yoik’ about all Sámi music. But among the eastern areas of Sámi land, people know only the terms “leu’dd” or “luvvjt” about their music. Among the Finnish Skolt (Sámi) the famous ethnomusicologist E. Ala-Könni also used the north Sámi term “yoik” when talking about singing the leu’dds, and the north Sámi people themselves do exactly the same, even though leu’dds and yoik music are totally different.
So, every majority maintains censorship procedures – somehow – when treating its own minorities.
I am member of certain national societies in Finland which have annual meetings, and they are normally held in our capital, Helsinki. In order to make my voice and vote represented in the board, I must finance the cost of 100-200 euros to drive to Helsinki (2 x 300 kilometres). I recently attended such a national board meeting where I was the only person from outside of Helsinki participating.
Lovozero culture house in January 1990. Kildin Sámi women
If you are a Sámi from the Karasjok-Kautokeino area, you say that the Sámi living on the Tana river are not yoiking at all, because they sing like the Finnish people. The Teno/Tana Sámi – on their side – say that the reindeer Sámi cannot sing at all – “they can only howl like wolves”.
The oppression of minorities begins right from the cradle. The nearest pre-christian dance for of north aboriginals we can find from the bear-feast rituals of Khantys (a Fenno-Ugric tribe) near Ob river, east from the Ural mountains. We even don’t know today how the dancing of the Sámi was in the past. There are only a few hints about a particular dancing style when the Sámis hold their bear feasts.
Generally, in the Western world, dance music is not considered as a part of ‘fine arts’, because it is regarded as pure entertainment. When I was young some people tried to make me to feel shameful because I was sinfully playing dance music, even jazz music. Today the situation is almost unchanged, because the state school system maintains the conservative way of thinking where a composer such as Beethoven is regarded as being superior to composers of dance music. It means that we place our confidence to certain hierachies which are believed to be “objective” in order to keep a feeling of being “higher”, or more respectable, than others.
To which extent a minority is destroyed does not depend on that how ‘low’ the level of the minority culture is, but on how strong the power is in the majority culture that demolishes it.
In 1888 a Finnish scientist, Dr. E. A. Wainio, published a travel book about Brazil. In the book, he contemplates whether the indegenious people of the Amazon river were real human beings or whether they could be regarded as just another group of apes in the rain forest. He had no power to do more than write about them in a book.
Hitler had more power – and combined it with the same ideology some 50 years later.
The idea of inequality of people was a general accepted way of thinking in the Western world in Dr. Wainio’s times. It’s well known that the Argentine hunters received the same financial reward for having killed a Selknam/Ona Indian in their lamb farm fields (in the Fire Land) as if they had shot a fox in the first years of 1900.
Some years ago I personally met the last man who had learned the Livonian (a Fenno-Ugric) language at home. His name was Victor, he lived on the Latvian seashore. He could remember only one song of seamen, but he could sing it in two languages. The last Kammassian woman had no one except God with whom she could share a conversation in her own language.
At places where the church didn’t have enough power to destroy heathenism, it asked the state to help. So in Finland, the state and the church are one. Like in Eliot’s poem: ‘The fire and the rose are one’.
I feel so sad and helpless, because I see this as a symbol of how the different tribes, races and people among the human beings ought to be able to sense how strongly they are related with each other.
Just like at a wedding party where you find out that the different strange people suddenly are perceived as your own relatives, even though you didn’t know them just a few hours ago.
In our Kalevala epos one of the main heroes – Kullervo – slept with a young girl without knowing that she was his sister. When he lateron found out about this, Kullervo killed himself with his sword. When will the dawn come when we’ll be able to see “what we have done to our own rain”…? I feel so shamed about myself being a part of that kind of humanity.
I know how all our musical basic terms are rooted with the terminology of mating times of the animals and fishes. They are basicly the same terms in Indo-European, Fenno-Ugric, possibly Turcic and partly even Semitic languages. This sisterhood of the whole humanity is thus a fact for me, because the kinship, affinity can be seen in the basic musical terms. But we don’t want to know it yet, because we haven’t yet finished with our sister-raping and -robbing duties. Are we – the Westernized people – actually coming straight out of the Kullervo story of the Kalevala epic? For us one sword surely will not be enough.
Patuna village on Tuloma river near Upper Tuloma in Kola Peninsula. From the left: Ekaterina (Katrin) Korkina, a Kildin Sámi from Lovozero, Kola Peninsula, who worked as a guide during ‘The Kola Sámi Musical Tradition Research Project’ in 1994-1997. In the middle: Anastasiya Osipovna Gerasimova, a Skolt Sámi leu’dd singer, in the front of her home. On the right: Anfisa Ivanovna Gerasimova, another Skolt Sámi leu‘dd singer.
I don’t want to visit those places anymore because I see there only hopelessness, suffering and death.
15 years ago in the Kola peninsula they could still sing about how the four sons of one mother were lost in the war. They could not even speak about those times of war, but they could sing those stories, because the singing in itself prevented them from beginning to cry in the midst of the singing.
I will begin to weep when I am reminded about those situations where the personal songs change into laments, and people don’t recognize the term ‘lament singing’, because all the music and the stories inside them are laments near the end – the moment when the singing gets too “difficult” – not technically but because of the outbursting sorrow.
Before I’ll stop (it is getting too difficult for me to write anymore, and the difficulties are surely not technical!) I’ll round off with a quotation from my preface in ‘Son vuäinn’, the Skolt Sámi (of Russian Kola) double-CD:
“Thus, getting acquainted with this kind of song tradition is a demanding task because even the outsider listener may feel frustration in sharing those human destinies. The frustration is caused by inability to effect that past, that history nobody wants to experience himself. It is the more distressing, when one feels not being able to contribute in any way to human conditions of our modern day.
There are, however, moments of sunshine, when I feel that participation to the edition of the present collection may be the most valuable part of my own work. Perhaps there will even be few listeners, who can understand, listening these songs, that the writing of our own cultural history could be rightfully justified to begin from that perpetual singing of Suonikylä or Kolttaköngäs (old eastern Skolt Sámi areas of the Kola peninsula), as well as from the more southern scenery of the Karelian forest wilderness having sheltered the Kalevala epic style of singing.
These traditions have all in common the equally great value as human heritage: there is no universal qualitative measure which would prove the Sapphos of Greek antiquity or their ancient muses – glorified in Europe – as more profound creators of art than these last representatives of our eastern cultural heritage, those female Väinämöinens, humming their silent chants in the last huts of the unknown Patuna village on the unknown Tuloma river, in places our Europe knows nothing about.
They can sing into the swamp a dozen of Kalevalaic Youkahainens of our modern times, who have jumped on the back of galloping modern metropolitan carnival horses. The Egyptians presented us an example of the greatness of the visible art by constructing the pyramids. Here in North were constructed mental artworks, the message of which ascends right to the heavens. These constructions of art are renewed through the minds of human generations, resulting in their immortality.”
Photos: by the author