Can Lapps 'yoik' their way to world's cultural stage?

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The Lapps are making a two-pronged assault in a bid to get wider recognition of their culture. Their first weapon is the yoik. The second is "the snow play."

Both may seem a little bizarre to people not familiar with the ways of this racial minority of some 34,000 living high above the Arctic Circle in Sweden, Norway, Finland, and the Soviet Union.

The yoik is the Lapp way of singing -- a cross between conventional song and recitation, with a certain je ne sais quoim all of its own.

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Asbjorn Nesheim, professor of Lappish studies at the University of Oslo, describes it thus: "The yoik consists as a rule of a brief text which is repeated over and over again, until it is suddenly cut short."

Ailo Gaup, a Lapp activist who alternates between his home reindeer-grazing tract near Kautokeino in the far north of Norway and the more sophisticated environment of Oslo, the capital, where he works as a journalist, has the unique distinction of having brought the yoik into the 20th century.

He has composed the first-ever yoik rock opera.

It is titled "Min Duoddariid," which means "My Country" in Lappish. It caused quite a stir when it was premiered recently at Harstad, one of the ports chosen for development as part of Norway's North Sea oil program.

Ailo is also involved in "the snow play." The aim of this is, quite literally , to take theater out into the cold. To be precise, into temperatures that may range from -20 degrees C. to -35 degrees C.

A Lapp theater group, Dal-Vadis, of which ailo is a prominent member, plans to put on a play in the open in Jokkmokk in Swedish Lappland next February. Maj Doris Rimpi, who is organizing the event, admits that there are problems.

The principal one will be to keep the audience from freezing to death. To do this the action will be set in a Lapp encampment so that when frostbite starts to set in the public can simply take refuge in a kata,m a mobile Lapp home similar to a wigwam where other members of Dal-Vadis will be telling stories, demonstrating handicrafts, or yoiking.

The play will depict scenes from Lapp life in winter and has a ready-made audience in the hundreds of Lapps who pour into Jokkmokk during February for the town's winter market.

But to return to the yoik. In Ailo's home village school director Johan Oskal has caused by certain amount of controversy by banning yoiking in school hours. "Yoiking has nothing to do with culture," said the Kautokeino school chief. "In fact, it is unmusical."

Yoiks have always attracted criticism.

Christian missionaries to the far north 100 years ago heard yoiks chanted "to the beating of the witch doctor's drum" and condemned them as the work of the devil.

Of course, they didn't understand the words. If they had, they might not have been so hasty.

Traditional yoiks are remarkably innocent, if somewhat obscure to anyone who is not a Lapp. Most are purely pastoral.

One such is sung by Mattias Kuoljok of Jokkmokk and has been handed down orally over several generations. It contains these lines: I still am singing of Ultevism Singing of Ultevis's high hillsm And the grunting of the doesm And the tinkling of the bellsm Are all part of my songm May they grunt, the does of Ultevism May the Ultevis herdsm Scrape the velvet from their hornsm On the willow bushes of Ultevis . . . na, na, na.m

Apart perhaps from the "na, na, na" the stark Arctic symbolism can have little meaning for most of the world's population, who, after all, don't herd reindeer and couldn't even if they wanted to.

But Israel Ruong, assistant professor of Lappish language and Lappish ethnology at Sweden's Uppsala University, thinks the yoik hs something to teach the modern world.

"In yoiking there is always great depth of feeling, which is intensified by repetition and by varying the order of the words. Closely related words are used more or less deliberately in order to give emotional nuances and associations so that even when the poem is handed down by word of mouth, yoiking has a strong element of improvisation," he says.

One yoik entitled "Samiid Aednan" (it means Lappland) became the Norwegian entry in last year's Eurovision Song Contest.

It was yoiked in Lappish for millions of bemused TV viewers all over Europe by Mattis Haetta, who teaches the art of yoiking at Lulea University in the far north of Sweden.

"All Europe is going to be yoiking soon," he said.

That was before the contest. "Samiid Aednan" went the way of all Norwegian entries in the contest. It vanished almost without a trace.

But it did become a kind of anthem for environmental activists campaigning to preserve "Europe's last wilderness" by stopping the damming of the Alta River in north Norway.

Its lyrics made an interesting point. They said yoiking was more powerful than gun- powder because a yoik never ends. It was a slight exaggeration, but some of them can be e xtremely long. . . .

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