Mari Boine, Sámi cultural ambassador
One of Norway’s top artists talks about music, language, and her indigenous heritage
Norway’s Sámi musician Mari Boine has risen from her humble Lappland beginnings to become one of the country’s most decorated artists, having won several Spellemann prizes and the Nordic Council’s music prize and been knighted in the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav.
Described in press as “an unofficial Sámi cultural ambassador,” Boine expresses herself through politically charged songs, describing her frustration with the treatment and suppression of the Sámi people. Her music has a distinct melancholic sound with elements of jazz, rock, and her signature yodeling “yoik” voice. Since the release of her breakthrough album Gula, Gula in 1989, Boine has recorded 14 albums, writing most of her own music and lyrics, and performed concerts all over the world.
Boine has now set her sights on the U.S. music scene with work on her first English-language album titled See the woman. I spoke with Boine on Skype about her upbringing, her songwriting process, and influences from American poets. These are edited excerpts from this conversation.
Julia Andersen: What was it like growing up in Lappland? When did you start singing?
Mari Boine: My parents were very musical actually. I always sang, ever since I was little girl, but my parents were religious, and I was only allowed to sing very religious songs and religious hymns.
JA: Why was singing in Sámi considered “devil’s work”? Did you choose to sing in your native language as a rebellion against your parents?
MB: I formed a band with friends of mine in college, and initially, we were singing in Swedish, Norwegian, English, and a little later, I decided to try singing in Sámi. While in college, I learned the history of Sámis, that we were colonized, and I just had a very strong reaction to what I have learned. I became very angry to our repression, to the fact that we were told that there was something wrong with our language and our culture. And it resulted in a sort of a volcano, in an explosion of songs that just came to me.
JA: Could you talk about your songwriting process? How do you adapt poems from other languages to your music?
MB: My songwriting process changed. It used to be that first the melody would come and then the words, all in one box [Laughter]. Especially when I was young, then all songs just came to me; it was very easy to compose. It is different now. Now I search for words, and it comes in different ways, in different languages. I borrow lines from different poets, translate them, and adapt them into my songs.
JA: Three songs on your new album See the woman (“Chasing myself into reality,” “See the woman,” and “This is my heart”) were written by Native American poets John Trudell and Joy Harjo. Can you talk to me about the connection you have to indigenous poets?
MB: We share so much in common with Native Americans. I find that our histories are very similar: we were colonized in the same way as Native Americans, and we share a very strong spiritual connection to nature. Shamans have similar chants and rituals to Sámis, and even the baby cribs look very much alike. There is just a lot that I connect with.
JA: You started writing songs for See the woman as early as 2004. Why was it important for you to make an English-language album?
MB: I wanted to challenge myself. I like challenges. When I work, I don’t think: “Oh, it’s going to be a success!” Actually, I still don’t know if people like it. [Laughter]
In the beginning, when I started singing in Sámi, I did it to express myself, and it felt right to me. At the same time, it was like stepping on thin ice. I did not know how people would respond or if anyone would like it. Slowly people started liking it. It is the same with my English-language album. It was much harder to write, but I wanted to challenge myself. My goal was to tell stories and create lyrics that more people can understand and relate to.
JA: How do you feel about being described as “unofficial Sámi cultural ambassador”?
MB: The label can definitely be limiting, and I don’t want to impose it on myself. When I was recording the album, I was asking myself: “Who am I? What is behind this famous woman?” I am not just Sámi; I am a woman with different sides to me and I wanted people to see that.
JA: Do you find your connection to Sámi heritage is still as strong as it was when you were a child?
MB: Yes. I actually still live up north in the area where I grew up. I moved back four years ago, and my kids live nearby. I get my alone time here, and when I don’t want to be alone, I spend time with my grandkids. I have a lot of freedom to do what I like. There is a lot of space here and beautiful nature… Sometimes it gets very dark here, you know. There is very little light during winter, but in the summer, it is very beautiful.
JA: Are you satisfied with what the Norwegian government is currently doing to help heal the prejudiced attitude against Sámis among the Norwegian population?
MB: For a while, they have been doing a really good job, but in the past five, six years, the moods have changed. They discovered minerals here, and now they want to drill, which, unfortunately, is not very good for the reindeer people. It is a constant struggle for Sámis; it is a constant fight. And now, it is getting much harder not just for Sámis, but for minorities all over the world. World is changing.
JA: Any plans to come with concerts to the U.S.? What is the next chapter for you?
MB: I definitely would love to tour the U.S. and Canada. This is something we are working on.
Mari Boine’s first English-language album See the woman is available for purchase on Apple Music and Amazon.
Julia Andersen is a freelance writer based in New York. She is a Columbia University graduate and has a particular affection for Scandinavian films.
This article originally appeared in the July 14, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.