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Sami, Yoik, and the Age Old Art of Story Telling


Dear Jim,

It's difficult to write about the weekend that we had.

So much happened, but in some ways there is little to say.

We travel as a group off the island to the main land where we have been invited to an event at the Sami Centre of Contemporary Art.

We drive through changing countryside - trees begin to appear, and autumn seems to have begun as everything is blushing golden.

We pass reindeer, many of them, and of course sheep.

We arrive at a picturesque little camping ground that sits above the town of Karasjok.

We cook over an open fire in a strange sort of tent/building that is necessary for summer in Finnmark.

It is not a traditional building, but seems to be mimicking the Sami lavvu, a large tent with an open top that acts as a chimney.

We are joined by a Sami yoiker.

Yoiking is like a Sami way of singing or chanting.

It remind me a lot of the didgeridoo in some ways.

It is spiritual, and tells stories of the land.

It embodies natural forces, voices from deep within the earth, the animals, the fire, the wind.

The yoiker doesn't imitate these things, they embody them.

Almost as if they are possessed.

There is something about sitting around a fire and telling stories.

I think about how we gather.

How we come back to this.

I remember when I was in high school, probably about 14 or 15 years old, my drama teacher sat us down and asked us to share something funny or interesting that had happened that week. We did so without difficulty, taking turns in recounting whatever we deemed entertaining.

Once we were done, he told us this was how it all began, with simple stories, around a fire.

(We of course didn't have a fire in the classroom, but that was beside the point)

And yes, it is obvious and commonly recognised that this is where stories began, but at the time, I was mind-blown.

And that's when I decided I wanted to tell stories.

I didn't realise at the time - I thought I wanted to be a film star until I discovered about 4 years later that I didn't like people looking at me.

I think I was focused on film because that was what I saw as the only real platform for story telling.

And it is a great one.

I still regularly experience the magic of film.

But there is something entirely engaging about the fire.

The next day was the exhibition opening.

There was a magical drum.

And a still, grey forest of space.

And a wonderful dinner.

And yoiking.

All the yoiking.

At the dinner table, 30 or so people, calling out into the night.

Their voices building, growing, surrounding you.

And then some shy lights.

And into a real lavvu.

A giant tent with a roaring fire in the centre.

Gathering around it, seated on heavy reindeer skins.

In a space that we would never normally be invited to, but somehow we have the privilege of belonging for one night.

There is the story telling.

And the fire.

And yoiking.

And laughs.

And more stories.

And drunken yoiking.

And arguments.

And history.

And the stars and soft lights.

I saw Daniel Kitson perform earlier this year, at the Arts Centre in Melbourne, to an audience of hundreds.

And all he did was sit in a chair on stage and tell a story.

Of course, he is a brilliant story teller and has mastered his craft - with a huge amount of work no doubt.

But it was story telling in its purest form.

Without frills or special effects or anything unnecessary.

In the same theatre, at the end of last year, I saw Lapage's 887 - great story telling, but relying heavily on fancy props and sets, and tricks of technology. It was very impressive, and visually stunning - I would never take that away from the piece.

But seeing Kitson hold an audience with nothing but a notebook and a spotlight was like being around a fire again.

And maybe that's all you need.

Stories - voices.

A fire.

And a wide open sky above.


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© Alisa Tanaka-King 2020