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Indigenous music rocks northern Norway

Nunavik throat singers join musicians from Brazilian rain forests at Saami celebration


MANNDALEN, NORWAY — The midnight sun, campfire smoke and sounds from around the world blended last week at Riddu Riddu, Norway’s annual indigenous music and culture festival.

Riddu Riddu, or “storm off the sea” in Saami, began as a strictly local event 15 years ago.

Since then, the festival grew from a musical barbecue bash organized by Saami students to an international event where Saami from Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia mix with Inuit, Maori, Ainu, the San, and other indigenous peoples.

During this year’s five-day event, July 11 to 16, joik — the traditional Saami song and the original mainstay of Riddu Riddu — was performed as rap, hard rock, or with New Age, country or South American touches.

Riddu Riddu 2006’s program showcased everything from “polar ska,” “Ainu dub,” “tribal funk” to “ethno-futuristic rock” played by indigenous groups from Norway, Russia, Japan, Brazil, Siberia, South Africa, Greenland and Alaska.

This year’s Riddu Riddu featured acts such as Pamyua, an award-winning Alaskan-Greenlandic band, performing an impromptu throat-singing number with Nunavik’s Maaki Putulik as the Saami crowd went wild.

The world beat of today’s Riddu Riddu sat well with the festival crowd of up to 4,000 people, who say they like change and a chance to hear new music.

A favourite group was Adjágas, made up of young Saami joikers. Its combination of traditional and modern is a winner, said one young Saami.

Throat singers from Nunavut and Nunavik, Taima, Edward Snowball, and Tanya Tagaq Gillis have all played at Riddu Riddu. Spoken word performer Taqralik Partridge was on the 2006 program, but cancelled at the last minute.

Every year, Riddu Riddu features a guest indigenous people. In 2004, the Inuit of Nunavik was the festival’s guest indigenous people.

This year the spotlight was on the Nambiquara people from the Matto Grosso rain forest in Brazil. Nambiquara means “people with ear piercing,” a name given to them 100 years ago when they made first contact with Westerners.

Riddu Riddu’s focus on international and indigenous issues inspired Norway and the Norwegian Saami Parliament to give Riddu Riddu enough money — about $300,000 — to present a music program that’s unique in the circumpolar region.

The money has helped improve the festival site, which now has a large outdoor stage, several smaller traditional Saami “lavvu” tipis, a sod house, Tibetan yurt tent, an “Indiville” indigenous village and a brand-new Saami language and training centre for its offices and film festival. Riddu Riddu also plans to launch a year-round indigenous cultural centre.

Organizers say Riddu Riddu tries to present only the best indigenous acts in the world, mixing the top Saami singer, Mari Boine, and Alaska’s award-winning Pamyua with lesser-known acts.

This year, the Ainu band of Oki Kano and the Siberian group Ayarhaan, which means “the tribe of the creator” or, as Riddu Riddu’s program says “girl power from Yakutia,” took the festival by surprise.

Ayarhaan’s wildly traditional music combines elements of of traditional throat-singing and Jimmy Hendrix. Their home, Yakutia in central Siberia, is a place where temperatures range from -40 C in winter to 30 C in the summer, an extreme sort of place that produces an extreme version of throat singing.

“To survive you have to be strong, so you can hear the strength in the music,” says Albina Degtyareva, the group’s lead singer. “In Yakutia, you can feel and hear the power inside you.”

Her mouth harp, or “khomous,” looks like a pair of scissors with a metal tine sticking through the middle. Yakutians traditionally used the khomous, which was said to have been made by gods and possess a magical voice, to accompany their throat-singing.

But Degtyareva says that 20 years ago, only 10 people in Yakutia knew how to use the khomous. Raised in a small village, with a family where the harp was still played, she was one of only two people in Yakutia who felt confident enough to teach others how to play.

Playing the khomous certainly isn’t easy: you have to learn how to make the separate oo-aa-ay-e sounds and then vary them by using your tongue. At the same time, your hand has to stroke the harp in a certain way, moving it back and forward, “like dancing,” slowly or fast, depending on the desired sound.

It’s the kind of music someone has to teach you personally — and that’s what Degtyareva and her two partners did this year in workshops at Riddu Riddu, showing an interested group of festival-goers how to produce basic sounds on the khomous.

At Riddu Riddu, sharing traditional knowledge of all kinds is as important as music. Anté Mikkel Gaup and 82-year old Ivvar-Niillas led a workshop on Saami joik for the Indigenous Youth Camp. Formerly called the “Arctic Indigenous Youth Camp,” Riddu Riddu’s youth camp has expanded to include all indigenous youth 18 to 30.

Every year Gaup comes to the camp to teach joik: “I do it because I want to show the richness of my culture.”

This year, Riddu Riddu also featured an art exhibition, film festival, plays, poetry, workshops, hikes, seminars and courses in cooking, sports, Saami language and indigenous songs, and a children’s camp.

Riddu Riddu is all about exchanging ideas and making connections. Does its magic work?

Just ask Maaki Putulik, who has now performed three times at Riddu Riddu. She met the Saami father of her baby boy there, and now plans to make Manndalen her home.

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