In just about every country of Europe there's a land which, despite its position usually on a far edge, somehow crystallises and most clearly states the essence of the country and its people - a sort of perhaps romantic model, far from the cosmopolitan major cities. In Britain that land is probably the Celtic areas; in the countries of Norden there's a tendency to look north to what is variously called Lapland, Lappi, Samiland, Sameätnam or Sápmi. (The Sámi people don't call themselves Lapps; that name it's thought derives from an archaic Finnish word with connotations of "outcast").
My no means everyone who lives in Sápmi, which reaches down the north-west coast of Norway, across the top of Sweden and, its southern edge veering north of the Arctic Circle, stretches eastward into northern Finland and the Kola peninsula of north-west Russia, is of the Sámi race. Estimates vary, but there are much less than 100,000 people - perhaps 75,000 or fewer - who might reasonably be described in terms of heredity, lifestyle or language as Sámi. They have never been a nation, and speak several mutually non-comprehensible languages of the Finno-Ugrian linguistic group, the most prevalent of them being North Sámi, the one spoken by Mari Boine.
She came to the notice of a British audience when the album Gula Gula was licensed by the Sámi label Idut to Realworld; the Realworld version has some changed instrumentation, and one of the label's most striking sleeves - the yellow eye of a snowy owl. About the same time she was a part of a live worldwide TV musical special, and she came over and played WOMAD. That wasn't the beginning, though.
"I started in the late 70s, beginning of the 80s, and I think I started to sing and make music as a therapy for myself; I never planned to be an artist; sometimes when I think about it it's crazy that I'm here, and I'm touring, and I'm doing what I'm doing.
"I think I realised, at teachers' training school, that I felt that the culture that I came from, the Sámi culture, was not good enough, so I wanted to be Norwegian or European, I wanted to forget the culture. And then this music started to... in a way I had to ask myself "why is this, and what does all this come from?" And after that came a lot of songs. Actually I made my first lyrics to John Lennon's Working Class Hero! At that time I don't think I quite understood what he was singing about, but there was something in the music, and I think also my unconscious me understood, and I wrote a song about how it was for Sámi children to be placed in the Norwegian school and learn to hate their own background."
But that's changed now hasn't it - there are Sámi schools...?
"Yes, there are some Sámi schools, but also there is more room for the Sámi culture in the schools. I think I can see many changes in a good direction. Like - I was working in a school in the Sea Sámi area before I started to sing, and then there were only a few children who learned the language. And now, 15 years later, there are many more children who are learning the language.
But during the nine years I went to the primary school I didn't have anything in my language, or maybe the last year we had just a short course. So the school taught us "that's nothing - you have to become Norwegian, or European". So I was brainwashed - I was very obedient.
"I always wanted to sing, I always loved to sing. As a child I was singing all the time, and my parents were singing all the time, but not the traditional songs because they were very Christian; the Christian Sámis learnt from the missionaries and the priests that the traditional songs were from the Devil, so they didn't teach them to their children, but they were singing the Christian hymns all the time. So I think I got my musical education in this way. And of course the traditional songs were always under the hymns, because it doesn't just disappear, the traditional way of singing."
Central to that traditional way of Sámi song is joiku, using a range of vocal tones, sometimes with words and sometimes without, usually to describe either a person or a place. Few of Mari Boine's songs could be described as in traditional joik form, but it is clearly audible as a fundamental in her music. "I don't know how much is joiku - but it's always there. I don't really bother thinking about it. But I can hear there are influences from joik and there are influences from the Christian hymns, and I like this mixture. Actually we did a premiere in the north of Norway in June , we made this new piece out of six Christian hymns, and then I mixed it with a shamanistic beat, because I like this meeting, when things that you'd expect to be very different, to find the meeting points. I think maybe this will be our new record - we'll see."
The other buzz-word when Sámi music is mentioned is shamanism; the word originates with the Tungus people of Siberia, and what is generally accepted as shamanism is found in many parts of the world, but it does seem to be a word that observers utter whenever a Sámi bangs a drum.
"Yes, I feel that... I also was afraid of the word shamanism, and I see this stereotype. But I was thinking that I want to fill this word with meaning, because I think through my music I learn to understand, a bit of it, and to get in touch with the spirituality that was in our culture before. And this is... I think you can find elements of the shamanistic tradition, of shamanistic music, in my music - the beat, the spirituality. And also I think it's possible for people... it's a kind of... this trance, or this good feeling that I'd call it, it's a way.. if you go there you can get new energy, but it's not something you just play with. For me, I want to have this down-to-earth relationship with the shamanism, because this is what my people had, and also other people who had this religion. I don't want to let it be something mysterious, not able to be caught, not able to be understood. I think there are some very healing parts in this religion, and I think I learned something about this in my music but I can't express it in words, I am expressing it in my music."
The only way to really experience her music is live. Her figure in the centre of the band's spacious sound becomes magnetic, the intense bright focus, wheeling dance, arm movements evocative of a gliding bird.
"I'm a live musician, I love the concert and what happens between the audience and us on stage. It's not possible to catch this on a record - you have to experience it live. I think people can feel something... they are together. There is a spirituality.
"I feel very good when I do this" (she spreads her arms) "and also, I can feel, the voice opens even more. It's also - this music we're doing, it's touching so deep, that if I was just standing still, that also affects the audience, so I think the movements are - I don't know - it feels like they have to be there. I didn't always do it; it came, the more the music was developing. The first years I was standing still!"
Often on stage she wears a shawl, which almost becomes the bird's feathers as she dances, but at a show at Näsåker's Urkult festival in northern Sweden some of the audience passed up the Sámi flag, multicoloured with a circular motif, and she wore that. I wondered about the connections between flag-waving and nationalism.
"I don't actually like the flag thing. But sometimes it is... like I was doing in Näsåker... I don't want to wave the flag but it was nice to dance with it!
"You have to find this balance, and I know... in the beginning I was very angry, when I started to sing, and I was singing protest songs, and I... I don't say that was wrong - you need to go through that - but then you come to a point where... And there are groups in Sámiland also that are very nationalistic, but then I feel that if I go with them it's... I don't like nationalism, because it's always lifting somebody up and saying 'we are better than you are', and that's not what I want; that's the same thing as the oppressors do, the colonisers. You have to find a balance, you have to find your pride; you have to be proud, but you shouldn't grow so big that you feel like you are better than others. But I think this is always a problem when there has been oppression and then there is... what do you call it... when you fight to get back your dignity and your pride and your identity - then in every movement there are some groups that go too far.
"But I would say about this flag, when I was dancing with it in Sweden... sometimes I think the flag is a good thing, because it's like a language that the "master race" understands."
At the Boine concerts I've seen in Norden there has been a substantial number of Sámi in the audience. Though primarily expressing herself, which is all any artist can ultimately do, the fact that she has become widely-known, and has been outspoken about the position of Sámi language and culture, means she has come to be perceived, as has Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, as a figurehead of the Sámi people not only to outsiders but also to other Sámis. How do they take what she does?
"Some of my lyrics, I think, they liked. But then I feel - I've been thinking a lot about this - I feel that at a point I was very westernised, or made very intellectual. So I think my lyrics are about this fight between the nature, traditional part in me and the intellectual western part in me. And I think sometimes some Sámis think... they don't understand this fight because maybe they... I feel there are some groups who are very assimilated and very much colonised, and they identify themselves with my lyrics because they know this fight, they know this identity fight that is inside you; and others, they can't, they just say 'But what is the problem? We don't understand your problem!' And maybe the last songs, I feel that my last songs are more spiritual, so maybe they are starting to get what I'm talking about. But I sometimes feel that they... because many Sámis are saying 'why don't you sing your first songs, they were more...' I don't know, maybe my lyrics are too deep for many people! Or maybe I'm going towards the spiritual, shamanistic part that... in a way... they don't have an intellectual approach to this, but this is deep inside them, so they don't understand when you're approaching this with words. I don't know how to explain this, but I have been thinking a lot about it, because there are many Sámis who like my first songs but don't like what I'm doing now."
We move to talking about how the music is constructed.
"It's worked out in rehearsal, or when I make the melody I tape it on a walkman and then I bring that to the musicians. Sometimes we improvise with three of us and then we bring in the rest of the band. Other times I take the melody to the whole band. And we also tape the rehearsals. But I can't write it down - I know some chords, but I need the musicians. I think in this band it's a nice mixture; three of us - Roger, Carlos and me - don't have an education in music, and Helge, Gjermund and Hege do."
It seems to me that one of the reasons the Boine band's music is so distinctive, that it opens itself up and lets those subtle Sámi influences build on one another, is that despite the presence of South American quena and charango player Carlos Quispe, and violinist Hege Rimestad's study with Indian master L.Subramaniam, external cultural references are drawn in and somehow absorbed without causing the imagery to swing across the world and out of focus. Nevertheless, any musician listening to music in the late 20th century's globalising culture is picking up influences...
"I don't know! It's a mixture. I think if you ask the musicians, they know much more clearly about who they are influenced by. In a way... it's like I've never thought about 'this is this kind of music and that is that kind'; everything is a whole, and I'm consuming it, and then it's mixed inside me to something new. Sometimes I feel I'm like a child! I like to take care of this child's way of approaching things because I think that's what makes the music as it is. I don't want to know too much, I don't want to be too much aware of where things come from, because then you start... it's more a censorship. I very much use intuition, I don't think first, I just follow a feeling, and it has a wisdom that is much more wise than the intellectual wisdom. So it's not that I sit and think 'I should do this', but I follow this feeling, then afterwards I can see also with my intellect, I can see a course - 'yes, now I understand with my intellect what this is'
"The first years we were working together in this band, every time they went in a direction that was wrong for me I was so... I didn't know how to express to them, that 'I can't go there'. And then I think after - because four of us have been working together for eight years - and after eight years you know more about each other, and they know which direction I can't go. And it has to do with this feeling in your stomach. If I go in the wrong direction it's like it's screaming inside me 'no, no!'"
At the Näsåker show, outdoors and between showers, it had seemed to me that the band had
played a gig modified for the conditions - more strong groove and a dropping of some of the subtleties, such as drummer Helge Norbakken's water percussion; indoor shows a couple of years earlier at Umeå and London's Union Chapel had involved, and entirely and magnificently justified, a long rigorous soundcheck, which isn't usually possible at outdoor festivals. I wondered whether the show had simply been adjusted to fit the circumstances, or perhaps has the approach changed recently?
"I don't like to play outdoors, because often at outdoor concerts you lose the small details. And also, I think that - yes, we have a discussion about this - I would like to have the water still there, and the glass, but... you'd have to ask Helge about it!"
At the moment it seems that some joik-rooted music fits into the current "ambient/trance" trend, much of which seems to involve so much pan-cultural sampling that there seems little spirit or identity. In Boine's music, though, music and identity are inseparable. "I think that this music couldn't be if I didn't have my background, if I hadn't gone through what I went through. I can see there is this trend to look for this trance, but then I think in all of what they call trends there is always somebody who is searching for the real thing. And I think it's interesting and it's good that the young people are searching for this, because it also says something about them opening up for something new. I like it that the young people are searching. And I was thinking about this, that they make trance music with machines, so I think 'OK maybe they have to approach this with machines because the way they have been brought up was with a lot of machine sounds'."
"Yes, and maybe they need this distance, that has always been there as they grew up. I'm always looking for this... I don't say 'what the young people are doing is bullshit'... I try to understand why they are doing the things they are doing. But everything turns into trends..."