A Conversation with Mari Boine, Indigenous Artist from Samiland in the Arctic

Mari Boine

By Anita Stewart, Rock At Night Pittsburgh



Mari Boine. Photo by Gregor Hohenberg

Mari Boine is a world renowned Sami musician from Norway and Samiland. She calls her genre of music “music of the heart and soul.” She is doing a quick tour through the US with a date in Canada this month (Oct 2019). For those of you that don’t know about the Sami people–per the United Nations, they are the only existing indigenous people of Europe and their lands and waters extend from the upper reaches of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola peninsula of northwest Russia in the Arctic Circle area. There are so many parallels of the Sami people to North America’s First Nations that dissertations and countless books could be written on just that topic alone. The Sami are a very musical people as well.

One of the ambassadors and cultural representatives of her people, Mari Boine is a world music artist and has been recording and touring for decades. After being raised in a strict Christian background, her awareness of her spiritual roots and the connection to music came to her after a period of years. She now brings a shamanic element to her world sound that bridges the lines between many different genres to include folk, gypsy, jazz, rock and even Middle Eastern. She has received countless awards and currently serves as a Professor of Musicology at Nesna University in Norway. Her credits would be impossible to list here. She is touring here in the United States and Canada right now. Rock at Night is honored to be able to have a bit of time to speak with her.

Mari Boine

RAN: Thank you very much for taking the time to join us! So we’re honored to be able to have a little bit of time to speak with you and welcome to Rock At Night! My very first question. Many people can’t put your music into a specific genre. It has elements of indigenous and shamanistic rhythms and chants from Norse folk to jazz to world beat, classical and more. To me it sounds like Middle Eastern or Gypsy and there’s definitely pop and rock elements in there. What do you like to call it and why?

MARI BOINE: I am afraid that I can’t name it either. I would call it music from the heart and soul.  I would call it music from the heart and soul that’s what it is for me and it’s also for me healing music and I created from all of the influence that I have had over the years.

RAN: Is the spiritual very much included in that?

MARI BOINE: Yes, you know I’ve always been a been a spiritual person since I was a child and spirituality is a big part of it–actually we are all spiritual beings but sometimes we are taken away from the real us, the real us inside us.

RAN: Now music is a very important art form to the Sami people who are nomadic; in the past going from place to place herding reindeer and now going from the city out to the tundra and back again, so they have always been able to take their art with them when they travel. Express a bit about what that nomadic culture means to you and how it influences your art.

Mari Boine. Photo by Gregor Hohenberg

MARI BOINE: First of all, my people have been working close to nature and with nature for generations. Nowadays there’s only maybe 30 percent of my people who are living the nomadic life. I think the nomadic way of moving is inside us. And this means to follow the nature, follow the seasons and to let nature guide the way. When you work with the reindeer, you follow the reindeer. In the springtime, the reindeer start to move from inland to the coasts, and the reindeer herder has to follow when the time is right. It’s not when they decide; it’s very much to give yourself to the nature.

RAN: You have eight seasons in your culture as well, there’s not four like here, but eight. And it is pretty dependent on the ice and the snow and exactly what is happening since the summer season is so short. It is very interesting to study the culture. My next question goes kind of right into that. How do you attach your musical art to nature and I wanted to ask you about the musical expression of “yoiking” which most people in the US have never heard about and they don’t even know what that is. What’s your connection spiritual or otherwise to that art form and what makes it different from doing regular vocalization or just singing?

MARI BOINE: When we do the yoik, we don’t sing about–we become the feelings, we go inside the feelings and we ARE the feelings that we want to express, when we do the yoik; the yoik is pentatonic–it’s not always a song with words–they have small, short sentences, but they have sounds, like: (Mari vocalizes a short yoik right here). Like that!

RAN: Beautiful! It sounds beautiful!

MARI BOINE: Yes, beautiful! And originally it was a part of the shamanistic rituals. So people around the Shamans were singing and drumming. The Shaman would go into a trance and he would travel into another state of consciousness, to get the healing power or decide what to do in the society or in the community. Every child had his or her yoik when he or she was born and this yoik could change over the years when they got older, became a grown up. So it follows you and is kind of a signature–it is your story. Now we have personal yoiks, it is like your name, each person has their own yoik.

RAN: That’s incredible! It’s always about a person, place or thing is what I read about.

Mari Boine

MARI BOINE: We also have some for the landscape; they say it is a way of remembering your ancestors, the landscape you left, because Sami people had to move, they were nomadic. And also when we were colonized, when they started to dam the rivers and the lakes, Sami people had to move to other districts with their reindeer, so this was a way of remembering.

RAN: So in a lot of traditions, an oral tradition is used; like storytelling from one generation to the next. It was a way to pass on information.

MARI BOINE: Yes, exactly!

RAN: That is beautiful and the yoik is beautiful when it is sung! My next question: was there a spiritual awakening in your youth to take you from a strict Christian upbringing in the Church to having a Shamanistic approach to what you sing and play? Did this happen to you through dream-time, a study of your ancestors or some kind of life event that was a catalyst for this awakening?

MARI BOINE: I would say that the spiritual awakening happened over years. I grew up with a very great Laestadian and Lutheran parents who believed what the missionaries and the priests had been preaching for generations up there–that our our heritage, old religion was from the devil so they had to forget all about it and this is what they taught the children. And always, that the yoik was really, really, the worst thing. So we had to be kept away from that.  And I grew up with the Christian hymns and hearing the stories from the Bible. Or with the hearing them from the Bible and the story from the Bible. And when I started to dig into my own culture, the Sami culture that was kept away from us, then I realized that we had Shamanistic heritage and through my music I started to dig in to this and I discovered these wonderful songs and the healing, Shamanistic beat. And it was through these I discovered spirituality. I guess I was always a spiritual child, but I was taken away from that. And the more I worked with my music, the more I discovered the old spiritual ways. And this gave me and in a way healed me and gave me the strength that I have today.

RAN: A lot of artists like you have to really reawakened many of the Sami people to their past that was largely forgotten. It was almost like the culture and the history came back and took you and claimed you and it was able to help and really this has been the real reawakening of the Sami people as a as a whole which is quite amazing! Is that how you see it?

Mari Boine. Photo by Gregor Hohenberg

MARI BOINE: Yeah, I actually I like to think that there was a wise old woman who started to whisper the songs in my ear. And took me on a journey and in a way and showed me again the old ways. And through this I was healed and I could share with my own people that this was our heritage that was taken away from us. That this was not from the devil as they told us. They demonized something very beautiful and for a while some of my own people were afraid. They were especially afraid when I started to use the drum because these people were told for generations that this was from the devil and the Shamans were burned and their drums were also burned and people were punished. So of course, my people were scared, there was fear, and maybe they didn’t even know. Maybe they had forgotten what it is from. Of course, when people start to take these things up again there is fear. But I think there are still people who don’t appreciate the fact that this has been brought back. But many, many people, not only Samis, I feel, I travel all over the world with this music and there is a longing in people everywhere for this and for this connection to the earth. And we are everywhere forced to forget and leave and that is why we are going so wrong with the nature and a lot of things.

RAN: Now on October 17th, you close your tour in the US with an opening performance supporting another band from Norway, Wardruna, the Viking band. You’ll be performing at Red Rocks outside of Denver and Boulder, Colorado. Red Rocks is probably one of the best outdoor music venues here in the States. Quite incredible there! How did the show get planned and are you really excited about it?

MARI BOINE: I am really excited about and I’m looking forward to go there and do the show and to play with Wardruna.  I think my agent is sitting here and I think she had some part in it and that invitation came from Wardruna and I’m forever grateful that they invited me. Because I met them a few times so I love them, yes. Kind of in the same musical work. I’ve seen photos from Red Rocks–WOW! I’m really looking forward to this.

RAN: Your latest album “See the Woman” was sung entirely in English and has more of a classic ballad and soft pop, even folk sound. What inspired this album and how hard was it to express yourself in a language that was not your mother tongue?

MARI BOINE: I think this album was a challenge for myself. I wanted to do something that I was not sure about and if I could do. But it was an old dream like when you are young when you do you dream about becoming a pop singer. I just wanted to do it. Because I’ve been singing in my in my own native language for 30 years. Now we have a lot of young Sami singers singing in our native tongue. So I thought, OK, now I can do something else also and of course it’s a different thing to sing the language that is not your mother tongue. Your language and your feelings are tied together with your words. It’s it’s a more intellectual approach with language that is not your own, so for me it was interesting to find the missing points between the expression and the language that I had learned. For me it was an interesting research and challenge.

RAN: You and I were born the same year, so we are two women of a certain age that might think about retirement, taking activity down a notch or two. Is the rocking chair for you? If not, what’s next? And where do you see yourself in five years? And what would you like to do besides music?

Mari Boine. Photo by Gregor Hohenberg

MARI BOINE: No, the rocking chair is not for me. I would like to work in Film and creating documentaries. Lately I have been doing dubbing. This allows me to play certain roles. I love acting. Directing is a secret dream. I really think I will share my music until I drop. This is a healing gift that is meant to be shared. I heard that Miriam Makeba passed away while she was on stage. I expect to share my music for as long as I can and perhaps drop–in 30 years. When I am home I love to be in nature. Where I live there are only twenty houses and reindeer, elk, rabbits around the house. In the autumn I pick berries. I love to be by the water–the sea or the river. And I go salmon fishing.

RAN: What’s playing in the car or your music app right now?

MARI BOINE: My sons bring me music that I would not otherwise listen to. There is a young woman from Australia, Tones and I, that I like. I really love her voice. Piano music helps me to relax. I also like Olaf Arnalds, a pianist from Iceland.

RAN: Advice to young artists just getting started?

MARI BOINE: Make sure that you learn to play at least one instrument so you can be independent. Especially girls. And that you know how to do the programming so you can record yourself. And to be honest with yourself, follow your intuition and follow your heart–not what is expected of you.

Thank you for joining us!

Ms. Boine will finish her tour with a performance at Red Rocks outside of Boulder and Denver in Colorado along with Wardruna, the Viking/Norse band on October 17th, 2019. Check out her music on the music sharing sites such as Spotify and on her socials linked below.


Anita Stewart
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