Going beyond the music program, Borealis touched on Sámi culture, becoming a platform to rethink how to talk about one’s identity.

Sometimes 15 minutes is enough, sometimes 15 seconds. Issát Sámmol plays a quarter of an hour. He is a joiker and composer who created juoigganas – his two-stringed joik instrument – six years ago. That’s how long it takes him to play the concert that opens the evening at Bergen Kjøtt on Saturday. It is a former meat factory located in the north of the city. Now, a cultural center with gallery space, a concert hall, and recording studios where, among other things, the Girl in Red recorded her album.

Issát Sámmol’s performance at Borealis stands out for its indigenous, raw, and performance-free music. His sincerity is palpable, resonating through his raw joik, accompanied by two-string music designed to match the tonal scale of traditional Sámi joik. The accompanying female vocalist further enhances the emotional depth of his performance. In between songs, Sámmol’s unpretentious jokes add a touch of authenticity to his performance, making it a standout in this year’s program that focused on Sámi culture.

The “elevator music” concerts, lasting a mere fifteen seconds, starkly contrast the other festival performances. As I walk through the city, alternating between a fishing village and a mountain resort when the De Syv Fjell massif emerges between the buildings. The series offers a unique perspective on muzak, designed initially to make elevator rides more pleasant. At Borealis, these concerts transform the mundane elevator ride into a brief but memorable experience, with small performative appearances and sound interventions. 

Sometimes, the experience lasts longer – like listening to music in Laugaren, a DIY sauna, and beautiful architecture. When the room is steaming and hotter, a specially selected playlist works differently. Ellen Arkbro’s ‘ For organ and brass’, which I know very well in the rising steam, sounds completely different.

This year’s Borealis program was meticulously crafted by artistic director Peter Meanwell and composer and sound artist Elina Waage Mikalsen, who is currently on a two-year residency. Their vision was to spotlight Sámi culture, a community spanning northern Norway, Finland, and Russia territories. Long marginalized, the Sámi community has recently gained visibility in the public debate, mainly due to the protests over wind turbines in Fosen, encroaching on the reindeer’s ancient pastures, a symbol of this community. 

I start each day with discussions. These concern Sámi culture, yoiking, and experimenting with this aesthetic. Is it enough to use the yoik, as Maja Ratkie on “Avant Joik” once brilliantly did, or should traditional instruments be used? Perhaps this music should focus on what Sámi culture draws attention to, turning towards nature, not as a colonizer as capitalism often reduces it to.

Ánndaris Rimpi points out that Sámi music is essential for improvisation and how sound affects the body. “In Christian culture, man is the lord of nature, whereas in Sámi culture, s/he is part of nature: culture is the subject, not the object,” he says. At the festival, he presents the ‘Birástiddje beljustallam’ composition at the Lydgalleriet Sound Gallery. Sámi culture inspired him in the form of duration and stretch, which are close to the idea of deep listening, after which, as he pointed out, the installation is meant to give the impression of being out of town. “My rooms are Sámi, and my roots are 80s synthesizer world,” he says. We listen to his music lying down on unfolded reindeer skins, influencing the experience. 

Sámi culture balances the duality of Western culture embedded in cities, something we often forget when living in overcrowded, noisy, and hustling metropolises. “Western culture separates the body from the mind – in Sámi, they are one,” Ellen Marie Bråthen Steen says. Jalvvi Niillas Holmberg tells how he yoiked his ancestors and people related to him along the Deatnu River, where he comes from, to experience a transformed landscape. “Colonisation as a process is not about land, but about changing people,” he pointed out. “It starts with language.” 

The discussions were thought-provoking about music’s role in claiming cultural relevance, how indigenous culture is perceived, and what can be done with it today, in the third decade of the 21st century. An emanation of the Sámi lifestyle is a trip to Jiennagoahti, a small hut nestled in the hills of Bergen, a dozen minutes from the top stop of the Fløibanen funicular. Built of wood and covered with turf, the goahti is a traditional Sámi house structure. Here it’s a sound gallery but without ‘gallery’ as the artist Elin Már Øyen Vister, one of the curators of this urban, tells me later. It is just a few square meters long, with a door on one side, a massive window on the other, small wall shelves, a fireplace, and two loudspeakers. 

We sit on reindeer skins and listen to Margrethe Pettersen’s sound installation. The sound of the water, the field recordings, and the rhythmic intervals put us into an unobvious trance; the fireplace makes us get warmer and warmer, we drink tea, and an unusual state of trance and unreality is created. At one point, I lose the sense that I’m in a mountain hut, as its design and the jingling of the water make me feel like I’m drifting in a lifeboat somewhere in the middle of the sea. Time loses its meaning. At first, I count the minutes, and then I want everything to last as long as possible. Perhaps this is what Sámi culture is about?

Somewhat quintessentially, the central theme, Sámi culture, and how to present this in the form of a musical performance is a concert ‘Stáinnarbánit – Wolffish teeth’ by the co-curator Elina Waage Mikalsen. It’s instead a musical performance. In addition to the artist handling the electronics and vocals, it consists of weaving performed by Márjá Karlsen, but also the sound of table-top, domestic instruments such as the kettle, pouring coffee, and joik of Jalvvi Niillas Holmberg. Although necessary, the music itself is not the most important thing here, as the whole is made up of a sound performance using everyday objects to create a sound-sphere of culture, a fascinating story about often ordinary things that form its essence when put together. “I grew up listening to the sounds of the coffee grinder and how it boils,” Holmberg says afterward, pointing out how the sonosphere of home and space influences our everyday culture and traditions.

However, the concerts that – apart from Issát Sámmol – have stuck in my memory the most are those unrelated to Sámi culture. “Celeste” – the opening concert by Kim Myhr in the foyer of Åsane Kulturhus for dozens of musicians playing twelve-string guitars creates a kind of sound concert installation – the acoustically resonant sounds of the instruments (without a sound system) like a fog spread through the hall, creating a unique musical shell. The interweaving sound of the instruments makes a distinctive aura of lightness, polyphony, and multi-layered playing.

The closing concert occurred in the hall next door in the same building. ALT, conducted by Signe Emmeluth for nine alto saxophones, is the most substantial sound experience at the festival. Minimalist playing, punctuated wailing, improvised phrasing, polyphonies – this mini-orchestra found its way perfectly, also in terms of the concert’s drama and narrative. An undeniable flavor is added to the concert by choreographic elements to enhance the sound and generate additional resonance in the space by moving the saxophones appropriately. AI technology is also used to add sound effects to the sound system. Once they were accompanied by reverb, they played strictly acoustically – the varying tones and timbres of the instruments built this subdued playing against a background of silence to ecstatic rapture – a unique experience.

The most potent example of how to convey one’s identity through music is a concert by the duo Maya Al Khaldi and Sarouna. Their “Other World” is a poignant electronic set based only on traditional Palestinian songs. Everyone attending the concert was given translations on a piece of paper beforehand so we could know what they were singing about. But, even without that, the emotional charge in the songs and how they were performed are poignant and also one of those most vital moments – a rhythmic, trance-like concert that was very lyrical and song-like at the same time.

The concert occurred at Kunsthall Bergen, where I was also the day before the festival and at the end before I ended up at the ‘Listening to the Fosen’ discussion. This was a kind of introduction to what had been going on in the city all week, a conversation about Sámi, protest, the need to orchestrate culture, and the role of art.

Katarina Dorothea Isaksen says that art can show our sorrow, but sometimes, the only way to express it is through music. Sámi culture deconstructs Norwegianness – joiking is a form of protest, an emotional release, and empathy. I was also there on Sunday when I saw Sissel Mutuale Bergh’s film ‘Elmie’ at the Earth Works exhibition. It was about the protests in Fosen, their origins, and people’s survival. There is a powerful passage about the wind, which “the reindeer must have in their noses because it tells them of the danger”, and from which the windmill turbines “make a slave”. 

This magical and non-capitalist approach to nature was an essential touch in Bergen. I decided to fill in the gaps by looking for the book ‘Sámi Peoples of the North’. I looked for it in one of the leading bookshops in town. The saleswoman who went to see if the book was there checked it, but not in the history or ethnography section, but in the mythologies section, next to the books on the Vikings. It’s sold out, so I bought it later via the Internet.

This placement made me feel as if this Sámi topic was instead situated in myths. Borealis brought it to light, showing the importance of nurturing distinctiveness and how art can do this—showing how a music festival can be a platform to talk about non-artistic themes. I continue listening to Sámi’s music, creating a playlist we discussed during the festival and meetings.

Borealis acted more powerfully than if we were aesthetically impressed by a concert or a piece of music. The program’s construction – sometimes strictly artistic, sometimes debatable – engaged the audience in a non-artistic theme, showing how they treat art to talk about identity. Festivals do this very shallowly, and Borealis decided to go deeper. This reflection on locality, identity, and how to fight for it was my best lesson for this year’s festival.

There is a surprise on the last day. Viktor Bomstad performs a program called ‘Mosku’ in a pool at the quays in Bergen. As families with children gather in the water on a sunny Sunday, the musician starts with a steady gongs sound but ends with prolonged phrases of screams and growling, combining them with noise music. A chilling tale bordering on horror isn’t probably what some of the audience expected. “Perhaps for him, the story he tells was healing, but not for us,” says someone near me. The concert and the situation stuck firmly in my mind. But isn’t art there to rouse us from our state of mind? This subliminal and non-obvious story about culture and identity works most powerfully – a kind of information, subversion, or resistance.