Sámi singer releases CD in waning language
By Jaana Laitinen
Pálgáh, a new CD by Inari Sámi singer Aune Kuuva, contains what is perhaps the rarest music in the world.
She has composed the songs and written the lyrics in the language of the Inari Sámi people in the eastern part of Finnish Lapland. It is apparently the only recording in a language that is teetering on the brink of extinction.
The musical traditions of the Sámi (Lapp) people in the Inari region are also in danger of disappearing.
"Song lyrics have been preserved, but there are no other recordings", Aune Kuuva says.
"This recording has the value that if the language disappears, it will become a collectors’ item. I would not want that to happen. According to experts, it is the oldest language spoken in Finland."
Aune is an Inari Sámi, one of the fewer than 1,000 who are left. They are a minority among the Sámi minority, and they live along the shores of Lake Inari and in Nellim, near the Russian border.
"There are some of us here as well", Kuuva says, waving her head as she sits in the breakfast room in her hotel on Helsinki’s Annankatu. In September she was in the Finnish capital putting the final touches of her new songs with Petri Rautio, who does the arrangements for her recordings.
"My neighbour’s son also lives somewhere around here", she says.
With local people leaving their villages and getting dispersed around the world, the number of people speaking the Inari variant of the Sámi language has declined to about 300.
Many of those who do speak the language do not always have a perfect command of it. Kuuva explains:
"I speak it probably better than anyone else. I learned it as a child, and lost it. Then I woke up and got the skill back."
Kuuva’s CD does not have any of the traditional Sámi joiks.
"We are not joik people. If I wanted to, I would learn it, but it is a kind of music that does not do very much for me."
Kuuva says that the Inari Sámi are natural singers and storytellers. The melody is important for them.
"The ministers at church used to say that the Inari Sámi are really good at singing hymns."
Kuuva’s songs are sensitive images of nature and people, replete with metaphors and mysticism. With detailed observations she brings out different aspects of human life. As one of her songs puts it, underneath the trees, in the shade under a rock, only the strongest flower will grow.
"Mysticism and metaphors are my favourite topics. I metaphorically combine the cycle of life with the life of nature and that of people. One of the songs, Sáára Máárjá, has become a small hit up north". The recording was sponsored, and it is being sold by the Association for the Inari Sámi language.
Kuuva grew up in a small village near Nellim on the eastern shore of Lake Inari. The closest neighbour lived four kilometres away. A teacher by the name of Taimi travelled around the villages with a harmonium, teaching the children Finnish.
"The harmonium enchanted me. It was the first time that I had heard music played on an instrument."
Later she saw a gramophone for the first time. Her brother had won it in a card game at a logging camp.
"Whenever Dad was away the gramophone would play. I was enchanted by the Koster Waltz. Once I accidentally sang it when my father was around, and the gramophone had to go."
"However, at school I could sing all I wanted. The adults at the boarding school encouraged us and took us to competitions." Kuuva was the best singer in the school.
"Everybody won something. There were many talented pupils."
As an adult Kuuva got married, had children, and went to work in a store. She wrote songs as a hobby. She also performed in many places - even at the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival.
However, her husband did not like her musical pursuits, and consequently the songs were left in her drawer for long periods of time. Kuuva still took part in music courses now and then.
Now, divorced and retired, she has the time to work on compositions that had been filed away. That was the origin of the music on the Pálgáh CD, and there is enough for another one, too.
She never sold her songs to others, even though there would have been plenty of takers.
One of her compositions was used without her permission.
"I want these songs to be performed in Inari Sámi."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 13.10.2004