Sing Your Life

On his new album, Finland's Wimme abandons ambient techno for ancient chants

Wimme Saari is more than unplugged on Instinct. He's completely unhitched from any kind of instrumental accompaniment. Wimme, as he is most often known, made his name on four previous albums for the Nordic roots label Northside, marrying the joik chants of the Scandinavian Arctic Sámi people (once known as Laplanders) to dance beats and electronics. In fact he had the distinction of combining perhaps the oldest-sounding vocal style on the planet with the least derivative instrumentation in recent memory, thanks to backing from members of the Finnish techno-jazz band RinneRadio.

Although the 34 short a cappella pieces on Instinct feel about as ancient as permafrost, the translations of his lyrics in the liner notes that accompany the disc reveal that these joiks are his own compositions. Concurrently, his approach ends up revealing more about the nature of traditional Sámi chants than a collection of vintage material probably ever could. "I'm gonna make a fire, after waking up to a phone call sometimes before noon," he chants on "Iddesolla" ("Morning Coffee"). And, sure enough, we hear the fire crackling in the background and Wimme sipping on his java in his cabin as he sings. The immediacy is telling. Joiks are not painstakingly composed, nor are their texts passed down through the generations. Instead these freeform chants are primarily the products of instant composition. They acknowledge things and events that the performer experiences in the course of daily life. You might think of them as meditative, or as a way of erasing the distance between the doer and the doing through Finnish Zen methodology.

The joik seems to have originated millennia ago with the spirit possession rituals of Sámi shamans. These songs had a sacred function and used pure vocal sounds as their primary text. While modern practitioners like Wimme and Norway's Mari Boine chant-sing actual lyrics, vocables still play a vital role in Wimme's songs. "Niehkkoája" ("The Dream Stream"), for instance, consists of breathy syllables recorded against the burbling of a stream. The playful and mercifully brief "Ajihan" ("I Stall") repeats a single hummed note, indicating that the singer is between activities, and between joiks as well. "Ruvas" ("The Cold and Frosty Wind") features a whistling imitation of his subject. "Now where did all the words go?" he asks in "Sáneheapmi" ("Speechless"), which immediately follows his wind piece. "I try to put a tonal contour here and there, so that words won't be necessary." That's as good an explanation of the genre as you're likely to get anywhere.

One surprising turn near the end of the disc is the inclusion of seven traditional Christian hymns derived from the Psálbma, the Sámi language Book of Psalms. Through the first half of the Twentieth Century, the dominant conservative Lutheran church in northern Sweden, Norway, and Finland suppressed joiking and its celebration of the spirit within objects and nature as an expression of paganism. In the context of Instinct, Wimme's performance of "Soajaidat Vuollái Govcca" ("Take Me Under Thy Wings") and other pietistic songs either indicates that he doesn't feel a conflict between Christianity and pantheism, or it explains the lack of transcendental expression in his primarily descriptive joiks.

Although his gravelly voiced renditions of the hymns have charm, he is far more effective as a joiker than as a singer. The songs do, however, help break up material that otherwise doesn't exhibit an astonishing amount of variety. Play the three-cut sequence "Rieban" ("The Fox"), "Rievssat" ("The Grouse"), and "Boazu" ("The Reindeer"), for example, and try to determine without looking at the LED display on your CD player where one chant ends and the other begins. As a result, you probably won't come away from Instinct singing any of its songs on your commute to work. But it is difficult to exit a listening session without Wimme's vocals and lapping rhythms echoing in your head afterward, like the memory of waves after a day spent at the beach.

In addition to the music, this enhanced disc includes three QuickTime videos of Wimme's solo chants filmed at an outdoor location. These are less useful than they could have been, since two of the clips present his point of view rather than him in performance. "Ajihan" depicts a bubbling underground stream, while "Ahcci" ("Father") focuses on the bow view of his rickety powerboat as he emits throat singinglike noises to accompany the purring of the engine. "Rieban" does it right. The bandana-wearing vocalist crouches on stark and scrubby Arctic terrain that altogether suits the minimalism of his three-line ode to the straightness of a fox's tail. He is in his element, and his joik brings a sense of intimacy to the wild world that unfurls around him.

 
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