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Zen and the Art of the Yoik

By Jeanette Messano

Zen and the Art is a new monthly installation in which writer Jeanette Messano interviews an artist with an unusual art, talent or interest. Check back here each month for a new exploration of an artist’s work! 

What is a yoik? For the first monthly installation of Zen and the Art, we find out!

Stephanie Helleckson, Choral Director of Blue Sage Center for the Arts in Paonia, is completely intrigued by the history and application of the Yoik. When I asked her to tell me more about the art form she was happy to oblige. 

Stephanie: “I can give Cullan (her boyfriend) a break! He’s probably tired of hearing about it.”

Jeanette: “So, what exactly is a Yoik?”

Stephanie: “The Yoik is a singing style of  the ‘Laplanders’-only that is not their name for themselves. They are called ‘Laplanders’ by the Western Culture. They call themselves Sámi.

The Sámi are indigenous people living in northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. 

They are well known for their semi-nomadic reindeer herding and beautiful, brightly-colored clothing.”

“The Yoik is a sound made with one’s voice, with no instruments other than the occasional drum. There is no actual speech used during ‘call’, just vocal sounds. The Yoik is the essence of something. It is the thing. It evokes the actual item or entity that it is calling to. The Yoik of a certain person is that person. The Yoik of a tree is that tree.”

Jeanette: “Can you give me an example of what it sounds like?”

Stephanie: “A good example of a Yoik is the Yoik of the Wind. It is by Sofia Jannok. During the Yoik you can hear the different kinds of winds she is calling. Sometimes you hear the soft winds, sometimes you know it’s a strong wind”

Stephanie: “There is some controversy attached to that video, though. While the video is called the ‘Yoik of the Wind’, what she is performing is the personal Yoik of a reindeer farmer.”

 

Another great example of the Yoik that many people have experienced is the opening number in the movie, Frozen. The choir is singing The Yoik of the Earth.”

Stephanie: “This is also an example of the culture being watered down, however, because Disney muddied the Yoik by pairing it with a musical piece called Vuelie. While beautiful to hear, Disney received some backlash for their misrepresentation of the Sámi people. The second movie, Frozen II was created highlighting the struggles and destruction of indigenous communities- something the Sámi people have endured for centuries.”

 

Jeanette: The Yoik is kind of difficult to understand since it is such a different concept to me. It’s description almost sounds like a magic spell. When Westerners came around and “discovered” the Sámi, did they try to stop them from yoiking?

 

Stephanie: “It is very different from what we usually know of in our society. In Western culture our music will often evoke a feeling and this is the closest we can really come to describing what the Yoik does. It’s so much more than a pretty sound. In fact, when the Sámi people were discovered by the Western explorers, the sounds they made weren’t even considered singing. It was even described as being painful to hear. It involves a lot of sounds that are strange.”

 

“It was banned for a while, not because it hurt people’s ears. It was banned along with a lot of the rest of their culture when Westerners started moving up North.”

 

The Yoik is a skill that contains both beauty and mystery. It is as bright and colorful as the Sámi people that have mastered the art. 

 

Thank you to Stephanie Helleckson for introducing us to this ancient artform.

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About the Author

Jeanette Messano is a graphic designer, a writer, a business owner, a mother, and an artist. She owns and operates JEM Graphics and founded the Mind Travelers online magazine. She loves life and-of course- an interesting story.