Songs of Experience: Mari Boine's Musical Rebellion Plays On

Sami singer-songwriter Mari Boine.
Sami singer-songwriter Mari Boine. DL Media Music
For Sami singer-songwriter Mari Boine, the personal is political. It’s also spiritual, generational, historical and musical.

The Sami people are a traditionally semi-nomadic Finno-Urgic indigenous group native to the northern regions of Scandinavia who have suffered centuries of colonial repression. Beginning in the 1600s, the Swedish government took interest in claiming the northern territories, offering settlers substantial tax and military service exemptions for moving northward, effectively taking over Sami land.

By the 1700s, the Sami people were forcibly converted to a strict interpretation of Lutheranism spearheaded by Swedish Sami minister Lars Levi Laestadius. The group’s traditional shamanistic religion was suppressed along with the language, traditional dress, music and culture, often by way of educating Sami children in missionary- and state-run boarding schools. Territory once considered free for movement and grazing reindeer was seized by state governments without compensation.

Sweden only recognized the existence of the Sami nation in 1989, and apologized formally for state-committed violence in 1998. But formal recognition didn’t mark the end of issues affecting the group: mining, logging, military activities, climate change, dam building and oil extraction continually threaten the Sami people’s livelihood, autonomy and territorial sovereignty.

Boine was born and raised in Sami territory under Norwegian control, just a short distance from the Finnish border. For work, her parents fished and maintained a small farm. They were pietistic Laestadian Christians and forbade secular music in their home. Even so, her mother and father sang hymns and psalms constantly; at congregational meetings, she witnessed the trance-like powers of singing religious songs and chants in groups. It left an impression.

Granted, her parents could only keep the secular world at bay to a certain extent. They couldn’t stop Boine from taking piano lessons at school, but they forbade her and her sister from attending concerts and school plays. In her early teens, Boine discovered the Monkees, Doris Day, the Beatles and Elvis by way of her cousins’ record collection. She adored Patti Smith and Buffy Sainte-Marie. But it wasn’t a guiltless pursuit.

“I always felt so sinful when I came home because I had been listening to the devil’s music,” she says.

“The missionaries really convinced people that music was from the devil, especially that traditional music was from the devil. Dancing was from the devil; to laugh too much was from the devil. Some parents are very fanatic, and I was unlucky enough to have parents like that,” she says. “I don’t want to say that they were only negative. But with the sin and the guilt and the no music, no dance, it really gave me a lot of scars as a musical child.”

And it wasn't the kind of generational shame she just grew out of naturally. Boine’s parents never discussed the family’s Sami identity or heritage — “I didn’t have a strong Sami identity, even if we were [speaking] Sami, we were Sami, we were living close to nature,” she recalls — and when Boine had her first child, she instinctively spoke Norwegian to him.

While enrolled in teacher’s training college, she started reading about Sami history for the first time. It blindsided her — she hadn’t realized she was part of a colonized people — and then it awakened a rebellious rage within her. She started playing in a band and singing yoik, a wordless and pentatonic Sami vocal style similar to yodeling (and, of course, derided as devil’s music by missionaries). The songs, whether she liked it or not, started to pour out of her.

“I like to say there was a wise old woman who started to whisper songs in my ear. She also said, ‘You have to go on stage,’ and I said, ‘No, that’s not me, find somebody else.’ And she said, ‘It’s you. You have no choice.’ And that’s how it happened,” she says.

Early in the process, she rewrote John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” in Sami to reflect her own people’s struggles. She sang in English, Norwegian and Swedish, but Sami remained paramount.

"When you sing in your mother tongue, you can go much deeper and it’s naturally there," she says. When you sing in another language, you have to find the meeting point between your intellect and your feeling.”

She released her debut, Jaskatvouda Manna, in 1986, but broke through commercially with 1989’s Gula Gula, released on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label.

Her artful mixture of traditional yoik with rhythmic jazz, pop song structures and rock instrumentation drew international accolades, and she was invited to perform at the 1996 Lillehammer Olympics. Boine summarily refused, informing organizers she had no desire to be their “token ethnic ornament.”

In the two-odd decades since, Boine has amassed an impressive multilingual catalogue and cemented her place as arguably the most high-profile Sami person in the world, though such status isn’t without its pitfalls.

“I tried to find the balance between being an ambassador and a normal artist. As an indigenous artist, you are never free from that responsibility, because there’s so much work to do, so much healing to do. You always have to explain and explain and explain for the majority of society,” she says. “But I want to be out there. I don’t just want to be something exotic that is found in remote villages.”

In fact, Boine, who makes her Denver debut on Thursday, October 17, at Red Rocks, is anything but. She’s working on her next album — this one will be entirely in Sami, a departure from her last record, 2017’s all-English See the Woman — and writing songs about her parents and the positive memories of her childhood.

Youth, in fact, is at the forefront of her thinking lately: She has two grandchildren, deep admiration for teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, and full faith in the next generation.

“I see myself as one of the elders now. I feel what we have to do is to support the young people, to give them hope,” she says. “I’m trying to write songs to encourage the young people to still hope, to still believe.”

Mari Boine plays at 7 p.m. Thursday, October 17, at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison. Tickets are $38.50 to $60 and available at
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Elle Carroll is a writer and photographer based in Denver. She has written for Westword since 2016.
Contact: Elle Carroll