Who would have thought that an album of Arctic chanting music would approach the flights of aggressive fancy of free jazz?
It begins with the sounds of some remote natural wonder: a flowing water source babbles, birds sing and, echoing off the mountains, spirited performer Ánde Somby yoiks. This chanting musical tradition, also known as joiking, comes from the Northern European Sámi, native residents of the Arctic Sápmi. You can actually hear a variety of yoik in an unlikely mainstream source: Frode Fjellheim performs the yoik “Eatnamen Vuelie (Song of the Earth)” in the Disney blockbuster Frozen.
Yoiking with the Winged Ones is a completely different animal. Somby comes from a land of reindeer herders and farmers who work in formidable arctic conditions. He takes time between phrases to let the sound echo around the valley. This music almost makes you want to travel for an indigenous concert performance in the midst of what sounds like a gorgeous, icy cold, open-air concert venue.
The album was recorded by Chris Watson, founder of dada post-punkers Cabaret Voltaire. Watson has since become noted for field recordings used for both wildlife documentaries and experimental music. Yoiking, recorded so you hear the natural habitat of the performer, seems to cover both. The album’s tracks may at first sound similar, but repeated listenings of this counterintuitively meditative music reveal its different approaches – some of which are more subtle than others.
Three of the song titles have helpful translations. “Gufihttar (Underworld Fairie)” seems like it could be an invocation of some mythical sprite. “Gadni (Spirit of the Mountain),” which like all the tracks here is accompanied by rushing water and birdsong, is a more robust performance, with slightly more sustained howls. “Neahkkameahttun (From the Other Side)” is the most melodic track, the yoiker’s howls rising and falling and shifting pitch from measure to measure. This abstract music has a structure, phrases forming something like verses alternating with a chorus. Throughout the album, Somby sounds like he’s alone, and the resounding tones of this Arctic entertainer have a poignant undertone of someone calling out into the wild, in the land of the midnight sun where residents don’t get much sunlight at all for part of the year.
“Neahkkameahttun“ ends with a low howling that segues into the album’s final track, “Wolf,” which takes up an entire side on the vinyl edition. Somby spends the first few minutes continuing a low, mournful howling that develops into a strangely blues-inflected voice – it suddenly sounds like a much older man is chanting softly to himself. This low chant continues for about five minutes before Somby abruptly lets out an aggressive, guttural yelp, chanting a series of increasingly agitated variations on this wild (and unexpectedly hummable!) chant for the remainder of the track before finally ending in a brief, soft howl.
The repetition is mesmerizing, and I’ve heard nothing else like it, though it does suggest a vocal equivalent of the repeated riff of avant-garde saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell’s 22-minute “Nonaah.” Who would have thought that an album of Arctic chanting music would approach the flights of aggressive fancy of free jazz? Naturally, Yoiking with the Winged Ones is not for everyone, but if it sounds remotely interesting to you, it’s a musical trip like no other.