Ulla Pirttijärvi, Máttaráhku Askái (In our Foremothers' Arms) (Innovator Series / Warner Music Finland 2002)
Yoiking is a lovely growling singing style that works from the throat. It's less immediately beautiful than standard singing, yet it seems more powerful. I've been fascinated by the sound since first I heard it. Yet I always felt it was missing a certain amount of heart.
I could grasp its wonder on an intellectual level, and appreciate its ability to evoke clear images in the imagination, but I never found those vivid images translating to anything emotive. Even the studio albums by Wimme, who is probably the most popular master of the style, gave me a glimpse of astonishing technical skill, but only hooked me intellectually.
The only time I felt I could discover the heart of the yoik was in a live performance. It did not translate to studio, I thought, and was better used there as it was by Hedningarna, as part of the backing sound.
Ulla Pirttijärvi has all the heart. True, she does use more modern instruments, bringing in synthesizer, and a very noticeable saxophone, among others, to support the yoik, in spite of its origin as an a cappella style. But the songs here, all original to Ulla, wake as wide a range of emotions as they do images in the mind.
There is cradling tenderness in the title track, and the joy of linked hands and dancing in the wedding yoik for Inger-Mari and Sudhir. "Riđđu Badjána (The Storm is Coming)" is full of apprehension and defiance. There is a curious mixture of pride and a sense I can only call history in "Čálkko-Niillas" which caused me to look up the liner notes, and learn that the titular figure was Ulla's great great-grandfather. I can't decide if "Gádjá-Nillá" is regretful or unrequited, I find it reminding me of failed love; whether stillborn or faded over years. But the images are not called by cool sound and technical prowess at choosing the right sound to create the image -- they are born deeper inside.
Perhaps it is because, as the liner notes indicate, the majority of yoiking was recorded inside her own home, and the supporting instrumentation and remainder of the sound was added and mixed in a New York studio. This does give a more immediate, intimate feel to Ulla's own sound, much more like a live performance caught on tape. The sound of her voice is absorbed until you find your breathing trying to match time.
The arrangements -- almost exclusively by producer Frode Fjellheim, and featuring multiple guest musicians - are mostly good, supporting the feel of the voice while never overwhelming it. Some, like the soft xylophone-like notes behind "The Return of the Swan," have a minimalist feel. By contrast, "Riđđu Badjána" is given a full backing sound, caught between rock and jazzy ambience, but Ulla's voice stands forth, and the backing sound just adds to the feel of the clouds crawling in from the horizons. The thunder rolls in the percussion may be excessive to some, but I felt they worked wonderfully.
I do question some choices; the synthesizer's little robotic "burps" in the far background on "New York" are slightly annoying, and the percussion on the wedding yoik, with its middle-eastern sound, builds up the fast aspects of the song more than the gentle ones, where I would have preferred it to do the reverse. However, the sax on the aforementioned "Gádjá-Nillá" strikes a perfect, plaintive note that passes right into the core of the body, stopping breath.
From wind-swept opening to sweet close, this album is superb. The ancient feel of the yoik is here, filled out and supported by what the producers call 'urban sonics,' but not swallowed by them. The deep core comes through, better here than I've ever encountered it outside a live performance.