Torgeir Vassvik is a Coastal Sámi from the small fishing village of Gamvik at northern tip of Norway, on the Barents Sea. The Sámi, northern Europe’s indigenous people, are known for their unique form of vocalisation, the joik, in which the joiker expresses, indeed inhabits, the essence, of an animal, another person or a place.
Joiking is traditionally unaccompanied, and predominantly wordless. Over the last several decades though, impressive acoustic or electrified approaches have been taken to accompanying it, but it’s not a song with distinct pitches and furthermore it’s hard to do without the joiking’s meaning and feeling being lost, so there’s a risk of reducing it to a mere ethnic vocal colour.
Vassvik, one of the most primal, bold, raw, committed performers you’re likely to see or hear, has evolved ways of keeping it as essentially personal expression, and this third album, the first in which he makes all the sounds himself and has done most of the recording and producing, is the clearest expression of that.
His key instruments in live performance are frame drum and an acoustic guitar stripped down to three strings plus a drone string. But here he adds textures from igil, bass, birbyne, Jew’s-harp, mandolin, rozhok, electronics, stones, bones, wood and more. Several impressionistic instrumentals on dobro or guitar punctuate between the vocal-led tracks.
The throbbing, insistent, shifting-drone pulse of his guitar impels “Easter Joik Báiki,” his wordless, fractured, growling vocal expressing a time at the Sámi Easter Festival in Kautokeino, and a welcome to ‘Báiki’, which means ‘the place’ in the Northern Sámi language. “Den Snikende” is a yearning moan over a bass pattern with other tense sounds from several of his other sound-source instruments.
The track simply named “Joik” is an expression of the essence of an un-named 80-year-old Sámi woman. He mutters and strains over a rending soundscape in “The Bear Man,” a joik for his son Tao that draws on his memory of a dance production in Latvia, “The Bearman,” that he was involved in, “where a young man starts to go beyond the ideas of his father.” “Rosenrot” features crunching steps on snow, and commemorates the fate of Sámi children sent to boarding schools during the Norwegianisation of Sámi language and culture.
“Eggsanking,” vocal over reedy instrumental keening, joiks the beauty of the sounds of the abundant sea-bird life around Gamvik, in 24-hour winter darkness or summer midnight sun. In “The Horse Is Passing By” he joiks, over a deep, irregular drum pulse, his grandfather and the horse he had with which he transported goods from the Hirtigruta boats in Gamvik’s harbour. It’s also a joik to the next generation, Vassvik’s daughter Tuula Sharma Vassvik. The album closer “Tuula” is given over to Tuula’s own composition and wind-blown singing, accompanying herself on pulsing guitarlele in a way that mirrors her father’s own approach to guitar.
“Internered 666,” over a plucked ostinato on mandolin, reflects on the sound of wind blowing through and around a house on Norway’s south coast. Of “Ein Lied,” with bowing Tuvan igil and whistling, he writes, ‘I opened my ears at the seaside, and all the sounds came in, and out’.
The title track, “A Place Behind The Gardens Of The Houses” heaves and surges massively across chiming piano notes. Guttural vocal, a bowed gong and synth evoke the Snowy Owl, a strikingly beautiful northern bird sometimes to be seen and heard around Gamvik.
Vassvik, unconventional even in Sámi music, is a unique and magnetic performer. Like joik itself, his music is a powerful, visceral, totally personal expression of the world around him.
Find the artist online.
Photo: Olga Prass
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Bonus: Live performance from 2019