Sami joik, symphonic music fusion from Finland makes int’l debut in Ottawa

“I hope we can give a special moment to [the audience],” Niillas Holmberg, a Sami joik soloist, said of the National Arts Centre concert. (Marek Sabogal)
A ground-breaking symphonic composition featuring Niillas Holmberg, a Sami joik soloist from Finland, makes its international debut at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on November 2.

“It’s my first time to perform in Canada and I’m really excited and looking forward to it so much,” Holmberg, also a musician and poet, told Eye on the Arctic in a phone interview.

“I hope we can give a special moment to [the audience].”

Luovus: Symphony for Yoik and Chamber Orchestra, by Finnish composer Roope Mäenpää, is one of three pieces of Finnish classical music to be performed by Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra, along with Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52 by Jean Sibelius and Cantus Arcticus: Concerto for Birds and Orchestra by Einojuhani Rautavaara.

Joik (also sometimes written as ‘yoik’ in English) is a musical tradition from the Sami, an Arctic Indigenous people whose homeland stretches through Arctic Norway, Sweden and Finland and on to the Kola Peninsula in Russia.

“Joik is a very specific way of music and a very specific tradition that’s about more than singing, it’s about many other things including communication and expression,” Holmberg said. “People have personal joiks. Animals have joiks. Places have joiks. 

“Musically, [Luovus] a celebration of joik, and is about the balance of creation and relinquishment, both in [art] and in life.” 

‘An adventure for the listener’

Luovus was commissioned by Finnish conductor John Storgårds and had its premier in Finland with the Lapland Chamber Orchestra, where Storgårds was artistic director.

“[Luovus] is quite a rare and special thing,” says Finnish conductor John Storgårds, the principal guest conductor of the National Arts Centre Orchestra. (Curtis Perry/National Arts Centre)
“When Roope composed this piece I was enthusiastic,” Storgårds, now the principal guest conductor of the National Arts Centre Orchestra and chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. said. 

“Niillas is a very charismatic soloist and artist. The composition is quite a rare and special thing and an adventure for everyone, including the listener.”

Joik and symphony in conversation 

Mäenpää and Holmberg know each other from high school and had previously collaborated on contemporary singing and songwriting projects.

“We are living in strange times and everything is so unpeaceful now,” composer Roope Mäenpää said. “I hope this music can give a hopeful and universal moment together.” (Ville Hautakangas)

Holmberg said that laid the groundwork for collaborating on the joik. 

“I would not do this sort of collaboration with anyone,” he said.

“The reason I felt comfortable working with [Roope Mäenpää] was because we’d been working together for fifteen years before creating this piece. I knew that Roope, even though he’s not a Sami himself, was familiar with the joik tradition musically, so I knew this collaboration could work.” 

Mäenpää said there’s great power in having classical music in conversation together with joik.  

“In the joik, there is no beginning and no ending, it’s like the whole world in the joik singing,” he said. “And for me I feel that same way about the symphony, that it contains the whole universe.”

Write to Eilís Quinn at 

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Short NFB film tells story of trailblazing Inuk teacher in Labrador, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Project to educate Finnish students about Sami needs to be permanent: Youth Council, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Sami-led project seeks to revitalize Indigenous education across Europe, Eye on the Arctic

Sweden: Award-winning novel set in Sapmi to get Netflix treatment, Eye on the Arctic

United States: How Inuit culture helped unlock power of classical score for Inupiaq violinist, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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