From their base in Norway’s Tromsø, the innovative and vibrant trio Vajas has created quite a stir since its stage debut two years ago. An impromptu gig spawned a long string of domestic and international appearances and now a debut album is in the making.
Vajas’ integral identity is shaped by the trio’s three distinct personalities. These include keyboardist and programmer Nils Johansen, who is in charge of the group’s electronic framework. Johansen is widely regarded as one of Norway’s true electronica pioneers as a member of influential duo Bel Canto, a band that spearheaded the club scene’s birth in the mid-80s. Joiker Ánde Somby is a senior scientific officer at the University of Tromsø’s Faculty of Law, specialising in indigenous peoples’ civil rights. His Vajas role is that of the joiker, the chanter and the outfit’s vital front-man on stage. Classically trained violinist Kristin Mellem has contributed to a wide range of ensembles and projects, ranging from intimate duo settings to concerts with the Tromsø Symphony Orchestra. In addition to an active career as a violinist, she is also a composer and producer.
The main pillar of Vajas’ fusion of electronica and traditional styles is the Sámi vocal tradition of the joik. Joik, which is believed to be one of the oldest forms of music in Europe, is a traditional form of chanting that is practised by the indigenous peoples of Lapland, which includes the northernmost areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Once an important part of the Sámi people’s religious practices, the vocal style was branded taboo by authorities and the church when Lapland was colonized. The ban on joiking has since been lifted and joiking has now regained its important role in the Sámi community as a means to preserve the people’s rich history. Performers and composers such as Mari Boine and Niko Valkeapää have fused the traditional vocal style with contemporary influences, bringing joik to a wider audience – and now Vajas is set to carry the torch with its blending of electronic music and joik.
The Vajas story is a relatively short one. An impromptu gig in 2003 kick-started the collaboration between the three. Violinist Kristin Mellem explains, saying, “We started out before we even knew that we were a band. We got together to write a few tunes for a hastily arranged performance at a conference up here in Tromsø and the immediate response was formidable. I think we struck a chord with the audience with our quite unique identity – this package with Arctic joik coupled with weird and creative ideas was something that the open-minded Tromsø audience could relate to.”
A forgotten song
Although Vajas has its roots firmly planted in northern Norway, the outfit is intent on crossing borders in order to reach out to a wider international audience. The trio has played festivals in such far-away locations as Taiwan, Morocco and the Czech Republic, encountering enthusiastic and diverse audiences along their way.
Ánde comments on this autumn’s U.S. tour (which will see Vajas playing gigs in New York, Seattle and Washington, D.C.), saying, “It’s incredibly exciting. I think we’ve struck a nerve here – we seem to be making tunes that manage to capture the audience. It seems as though we’re able to communicate directly to the audiences’ hearts. Sometimes I feel that it’s as if we’re performing a forgotten song that people long to hear again.”
From Arizona to Tromsø
Naturally, most people tend to associate joiks with Lapland. So it may come as a surprise to learn that Vajas’ tunes were conceived far from the vast Arctic wilderness of Northern Norway. Says Johansen on the origin of the ensemble’s joiks: “The basis of our repertoire is made up of a set of joiks that were written by Ánde while on a trip to the Arizona desert some years ago.” Using four different joik techniques called javcat, deaddilit, geaidit and livdit, Somby improvised 19 tunes in the sweltering heat of the Pima Desert. These joiks were then recorded to his portable digital device and have since then formed the foundation for Vajas’ performances and recordings. “It’s been a real challenge to penetrate into the matter, to understand the lyrics and contribute to, rather than embellish the joiks,” says Johansen. “It’s been a tonal as well as a rhythmical challenge to accompany and arrange the joiks in a manner that treats the joiks with respect while retaining the original energy and lyrical content.”
When asked to elaborate on the themes of his joiks, Ánde says, “Parts of our repertoire are about vision – to be able to open up your eyes and see and take in your surroundings. One of our songs is about reading the currents of a stream – what messages can these currents convey to us? What can they explain us about our own identity – our own currents? Another tune is about a shamanistic experience involving a Sámi sacrifice stone – how you need to approach the site with humbleness and the right form of sensibility which in turn can result in intense experiences. All of our songs are original compositions that share the same form of expression and aesthetics as traditional joiks, but are set in a contemporary setting. Traditionally, joiks have often been closely associated with individuals. Some of the lyrics have been quite juicy and bordering on the offensive – and will not always be relevant for a contemporary audience with no links to the persons mentioned. Compared with traditional joiks, we have altered our lyrics to make them more relevant for a wider audience. We want to have juicy lyrics but we want to avoid insulting people,” he laughs.
Vajas’ debut album, titled ‘Sacred Stone’, is due to be finalised during the next couple of months, meaning that long and laborious hours are to be spent in the studio while simultaneously preparing the launch of the record, as well as subsequent tours and promotional events. An EP which features material from the forthcoming album is also due for release this autumn. In addition to their two upcoming releases, the ensemble is planning to tour extensively in Norway and Europe next year, while the US audience get a chance to experience Vajas live in October with the trio’s gigs in New York, Seattle, Tacoma and Washington DC.
Fusing traditional vocal styles with modern production techniques can be challenging – and not all attempts are successful. Johansen comments on the challenges faced throughout the composition, arrangement and production phases of the band’s new album, saying “Since almost everything is possible these days, there are also many pitfalls one can fall into. You definitely do not want to end up with bleak ‘cut n’ paste’ clichés where the ethnic stuff is mated with shallow production. The tunes must come to life, and it is super important to build a bridge between the joik, the lyrics and the overall production. We want the album to be up-beat, rhythmic and vital – not bland and watered-out.”
Although Vajas is a relatively fresh act, interest from various record labels has started to grow. Says Kristin Mellem: “We’ve had great interest from international as well as domestic record labels wanting to release our first album, but we still haven’t decided on anything.”
The Sámi maxim
Throughout his career as an academic, Ánde has maintained a strong focus on minority rights. How does he balance his artistic and academic careers? “On a personal level, I feel that the pendulum movement between the academic and artistic worlds works just great,” Ánde says. “I feel that my life is lived in accordance with the ancient Sámi maxim of utilising different sides of your persona – to make full use of yourself as a human being.”
But how has the traditional Sámi milieu reacted to Vajas’ fusion of ancient vocal traditions and modern production techniques? Says Ánde on the reactions from his own people: “We’ve been met with fantastic responses from the traditionalist scene. For many years, the traditional form of joik has been frozen in a form of expression that has locked it to a status as a museum piece rather than a vital vocal style. But things are happening now; new acts are popping up all the time and there is a lot of innovation going on among the young and vital joikers – people are not afraid of experimenting and bringing in new ideas. In the grand picture, Vajas is just a small stream in a giant spring flood of innovation.”
The trio’s choice of name, Vajas, reveals a thing or two about the ensemble’s ambitions for the future. Ánde explains: “’Vajas’ means echo – that particular kind of echo that doesn’t abate – the one which lingers in the air indefinitely. It is our crystal clear intent not to abate – we’ll endure!”