MARIE BOINE is an artist from Norway with an incredible vocal style (watch the video at the bottom of this article) but her background and culture is far away from A-Ha and Eurovision entries that seems to mark the country’s musical identity.
She was raised in a small village in the far north, where the nights draw in quickly in winter, and daylight is sometimes a 24-hour phenomena during summer.
The region to me and you is Lappland, but to Boine (pronounced Boin-ee) and the rest of her people it is Samiland, or Sapmi, and they are distinct from the Norwegians who mainly live in the south.
At an Artist in Conversation session at WOMAD in New Plymouth with Nick Bollinger, the singer described Samiland as “an area that was used by my people, the Samis, for thousands of years. Then it was colonised by the Swedes, the Finns, the Russians and the Norwegians, and they divided our land in four.”
It is a vast region, with differing landscapes throughout, and little vegetation, so fishing is a necessity. The language of the indigenous people is diverse with nine dialects recognised, and some are very different to the others; some are still alive, some moribund. Most of the estimated two million people living across the region are from the Nordic countries and Russia and the voices heard there now reflect that influx. Samiland, therefore, shares a sad history with the peoples of many countries in Europe (Ireland, northern Scotland, Euskadi etc) and globally where colonisers repressed the traditions and language of the inhabitants.
Those who tried to continue to speak in their own tongue in Samiland were chided.
“They banned the old Shamanistic religion that we had and the language” Boine said. “In the schools we learned the language of the majority culture. As a child the Sami language was only spoken in my village, at home, but when we came to school we were told that we had to forget the language so of course we were in a way brainwashed to feel bad about our culture.”
Boine left her village as a teenager to attend teacher’s college where she first became aware of her people’s history, and that had a major influence on her.
“I started to sing for myself because I wanted to trigger all these feelings of being inferior and I also understood that a large part of my people felt the same way. So everytime I published a song people would come to me and say ‘you are singing about me’. I understood that it was important to write and sing in my own language. But I was told ‘why are you singing this language, it will disappear’.
“In my home we spoke Sami so I grew up with the language but not with the singing, the traditional singing was banned. My parents became very Christian so they believed all the lies that the missionaries and the priests told about our culture being from the devil. So when I started to care about these songs I not only had to fight against the majority people but also my parents because they were convinced that the old songs were from the devil.”
Boinee says she learned the songs from those families who refused to accept the Christian belief and kept the songs alive. She also went to the archives which were kept, somewhat surprisingly, by the colonisers because “maybe they wanted to keep the devil’s songs for themselves.”
Her parents were singing Christian hymns every night which at least gave her an opportunity to develop her vocal techniques but her parents also sang “in the old way, they were using the whale singing”. But as she delved further into her own culture and history she found new ways of singing. Some people thought her technique and timbre was similar to that of Indigenous Americans.
Despite being shy, Boinee battled her lack of self-confidence to perform on stage at the college she was studying at, and then was invited to do concerts, and, later, to perform for radio and television.
“In social situations I was very shy, but on stage, that was my home. I found the medicine in the music, that’s why I love to share this with my audience.”
She released her first album, Jaskatvuođa maŋŋá, or After the Silence, in 1985 and in 1989 her second album, Gula Gula, was picked up by Peter Gabriel’s Real World label. In all, she has recorded 11 studio albums. It would be easy to label Boine as a traditional folk singer, but there is far more to her and her band. They use a variety of instruments, some of them just implements that they managed to find a way of incorporating into their music, and Boine uses yodelling or yoik.