Ancient Norwegian Magic From Marja Mortensson at Joe’s Pub
In her North American debut last night at Joe’s Pub, Marja Mortensson and her unorthodox trio delivered an even more unorthodox, often mesmerizing set of songs rarely heard in her native Norway, let alone here. Joined by brilliant tuba player and flugelhornist Daniel Herskedal and colorful yet subtle drummer/percussionist Jakop Jansson, she sang in South Saami, a now-rare variant of an ancient language spoken today by fewer than thirty thousand people.
In that tradition, her songs are called yoiks. If that makes you think, “Yikes!” imagine Bjork if she’d grown up listening to the trans-Siberian throat-singing of Huun-Huur-Tu. It’s a very onomatopoeic word. As Mortensson drew out the vowels in her slowly drifting, starkly hypnotic songs, the timbre of her voice slowly oscillated, stopping short of the keening overtones common to vocal music of the Central Asian steppes.
Much as it’s never safe to play armchair musicologist and equate musical traditions with the terrain where they emerged, it was easy to hear these songs and imagine vast snowy expanses more populated by reindeer than humans. Mortensson comes from a long line of reindeer herders. Although she learned her repertoire from archival recordings that often date back more than a century, she was exposed to the language through her grandmother. Many of the yoiks are wordless: in excellent English, Mortensson explained that someone singing one is supposed to embody the subject of the song.
Unsurprisingly, themes related to the outdoors, nature, climate and the local fauna, i.e. reindeer are the usual focus: the people who came up with them were ecologists before there was such a word. Mortensson also sang one about her grandmother, who came across as resilient and patient but also seems to have a quirky sense of humor.
The melodies were spare and didn’t follow any traditional western harmonic structure, neither major nor minor. Yet many of them were surprisingly anthemic, resolving with an unselfconscious triumph. Rocking a stately, antique green dress with a bright red sash, Mortensson waited until practically the end of the show before she finally went all the way up the scale to literally stunning heights. The rhythm section, such that they were, completely get this music. Herskedal conjured up ghostly harmonics and duotones via what must have been strenuous circular breathing throughout his long, resonant passages. Jansson built long, methodical rises and falls, playing mostly on a couple of big, boomy tom-toms, often using his hands. At the end of the show, he broke out a kalimba; its spiky ripples made a considerable contrast yet blended well with his bandmates’ looming atmospherics>
Mortensson dryly chalked up the music’s disappearance to “colonization.” Clearly, revitalizing this almost-vanished repertoire is a labor of love, but also a bulwark against English-language corporate cultural imperialism. You can’t exactly autotune a yoik.