World Music News Wire #27
Tundra Songs and Musical Saws beyond the Arctic Circle: Norway’s Jienat Has You Surrounded with Arctic Echoes
“We could be banging on mammoth skulls and logs millennia ago,” modestly exclaims Norwegian multi-instrumentalist and recording engineer Andreas Fliflet behind Jienat. “The feeling would be the same.” Yet if Jienat got their hands on them, bone and wood would resound in full-on, crystal-clear surround sound to the beat of samba, reggae, or candombe.
Recorded in an old parish hall 600 miles north of the Arctic Circle, in a quaint church on a Finnish island, on the cobbled streets of Bahia, Brazil, Mira puts age-old sounds in a cutting-edge frame, thanks to Fliflet’s musical curiosity, instinct for found elements, and skill with his portable multi-microphone rig. To maintain the high audio quality of the album, Mira includes an audio-only Blu-Ray disc, as well as a standard CD/high-definition SACD, the first world music recording to use this format and recording approach.
Drawing on everything from Sámi (Laplander) joiking (a form of chant-like singing from an indigenous people in Scandinavia) and Finnish-style musical saw to Afro-Uruguayan rhythms and Argentine vendors’ cries, the band Jienat (“voices” in Sámi) imagines how the world might echo on the streets of Hammerfest, the world’s northern-most town.
“The influences are obvious: West Africa, Sámi culture, Bahia,” Fliflet explains. “We’re not playing Brazilian music or joiking, however. This is our music, Arctic world music.” Having played with everyone from Afropop diva Angelique Kidjo to passionate Sámi singer Mari Boine, Fliflet comes by his omnivorous interests honestly.
His music purposefully relies on purely acoustic sounds, to reflect the back-to-the-future spirit Fliflet finds intriguing, and to avoid the often time-stamped quality of electronic instruments. Yet he doesn’t shy away from technology. Fliflet used a sophisticated portable studio—small enough to fit under the seat of an airplane, powerful enough to record in surround sound—to capture unique sonic moments. These range from black market vendors in front of his in-law’s Argentine home (“Radio Belgrano”) to a beautiful balafon in a hallway in northern Norway (“Adama”).
“I’m presenting sounds that aren’t thought of as music in a musical context,” Fliflet reflects. “As far as I’m concerned, everything is musical raw material. It’s just the context that makes us think if it’s music or not. It’s not unlike Warhol’s soup can or Duchamp’s Fountain.”
To do the final mix of these recordings he turned to Lindberg Lyd in Oslo, one of the most innovative surround sound studios in the world. He attempted sonic acrobatics that left engineers shaking their heads in wonder and dismay. “The rhythm on ‘Fredrik Albert’ is stolen from Uruguayan candombe. We recorded it on the equivalent of about six hundred standard mono tracks,” he recalls with a smile. “It crashed the mainframe computer in the studio in Oslo, and the recording software programmers in Switzerland had to give up some vacation time to create a new version of the software. No one had been crazy enough to try that before.”
Though not originally from the Far North, Fliflet became fascinated by life on the tundra as a boy, when he won a drawing contest and got to spend a week in a Sámi summer camp. While living in a peat-covered shelter among the reindeer herds, he recalls being amazed by “seeing fresh bear tracks in midsummer snow, hearing adults joiking at midnight when the sun was still up, and tasting reindeer jerky and Sámi flatbreads.”
This first experience led to a life-long connection to the once denigrated languages and culture of the Arctic nomads. Together with Sámi singer Marit Hætta Øverli, Fliflet started Jienat in the late 1990s, as a response to the formulaic production and predictable arrangements on many Sámi recordings. Øverli and Fliflet wanted to get away from squeezing the joik into a jazz or pop template and started imagining what acoustic accompaniments would work harmoniously with vocal traditions.
This experimentation shines on tracks like “Andreas/André,” an acoustic mashup of two joiks, the first performed by Øverli. The second, “André,” is in Kildin Sámi, a language now spoken by just a few hundred people in far northwestern Russia. Composed for Fliflet and his frequent collaborator, percussionist André Ferrari, they reflect the uniquely Sámi understanding of this type of song. “People may dedicate a joik to a place, person, or mood,” explains Fliflet. “When they’re joiking, they’re not joiking about a person, say, but actually joiking that person. As Sámi multi-media artist Nils-Aslak Valkeapää explained it ‘A joik is not about. A joik is.’”
Just as Øverli honored her long-time friend, Fliflet pays tribute to loved ones, such as his Finnish-born mother, for whom he composed “Tudeer,” a pensive ballad for the musical saw he picked up at a Boston hardware store. “It had to be a ballad,” Fliflet laughs. “You can’t cover a fast bebop tune on the saw. It’s like a weird form of singing.”
Mira also conveys Fliflet’s wry love for his chosen Arctic home, for its crazy weather, white nights, rusty Russian trawlers, and herds of errant reindeer (a fence runs around Hammerfest to keep them out of the streets). “It fascinates me to contrast the tiny languages and the small remote places with the big ones, the old sounds with new processes,” Fliflet muses. “While the recording technique is cutting edge, there is really nothing essential in the music that could not have been done 5,000 years ago—or 5,000 years from now.”