THE Arctic Philharmonic, a Norwegian professional symphony orchestra, is known for playing pretty standard orchestral fare (upcoming performances include works by Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn). Last month it tried something new. The Orchestral Joik Project, performed in the northern city of Tromsø, featured tonalities that sounded vaguely Middle Eastern, yet the music was completely Scandinavian. In recent years joik, traditional Sami music, has made a remarkable journey from near-oblivion to mainstream repertoire.

The Sami—an indigenous people not related to the Scandinavian tribes that later settled in the northernmost parts of what is now Sweden, Norway and Finland—date back to prehistoric times. They speak a language completely different to other Scandinavian languages. Their music, too, has a decidedly enigmatic reputation. It is completely vocal. It doesn’t use instruments other than drums; its scales differ from the scales used in Western music. To non-Sami, joik sounded mysterious and hypnotising—some thought the devil himself was responsible for its strange sound. Joik had been used by shamans in pre-Christian Scandinavia. 

But by the late Middle Ages, Scandinavian states had begun to edge out the Sami, who had until then lived in relative harmony and isolation; in the process of integrating them into the general population, Scandinavian governments discouraged the Sami’s use of joik. Much like African-American slaves, generations of Sami took refuge in it as a form of resistance and coded language. Some state authorities later banned the music in Sami schools for that reason. For generations, joik languished in obscurity. 

Several years ago, Sami activists began to bring joik to the attention of the wider public. They arranged concerts and uploaded songs to YouTube. Some were veteran performers; others were young and new to it. “Joik is few-tonal rather than poly-tonal, which is what our ears are used to,” says Frode Fjellheim, a classically-trained pianist and composer who has helped to repopularise the music. “That’s why it sounds a bit like Asian music or European folk music. And today we have a new generation of classically trained musicians who can also do folk music.” Mr Fjellheim, who is himself of Sami heritage, developed a new composition style that blended classical orchestral music with joik.

As they heard joik, often for the first time, Scandinavians discovered that they loved the unusual sounds. Some Sami singers—like Mari Boine, considered Norway’s leading world music artist—combined joik with other popular genres and styles. Mr Fjellheim started a joik-jazz group. After those early inroads into the Scandinavian mainstream, it was a relatively small step for some younger singers to compete on national talent shows. In 2014, the Sami singer Jon Henrik Fjällgren won “Sweden’s Got Talent” (“Talang Sverige”). Like many younger joikers, he accompanied himself on the piano—a practice unknown to his forebears even after keyboard instruments were invented. 

The concert by the Arctic Philharmonic last month was yet another leg on the joik’s unexpected journey towards mainstream fame. At the performance, a brainchild of Mr Fjellheim, the Arctic Philharmonic was joined by Ms Boine and several other joik stars—and one of the Norwegian Armed Forces’ bands. 

Indeed, one might argue that the joik’s success has helped revitalise the entire Sami community. In 2016, an ethnomusicology student at Quachita Baptist University in Arkansas presented that very argument in an honours thesis; established academics have called joik a central symbol of the Sami revival. Nothing symbolises that revival more than the fact that Sami culture has now reached Hollywood. The opening tune of “Frozen” (2013), a story based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Snow Queen”, features joik, to which the composer (Mr Fjellheim) has added a famous Scandinavian hymn, “Härlig är jorden”. The mysterious chant of pre-Christian shamans combined with one of Scandinavia’s most-loved hymns introducing a Disney movie: the joik has travelled very far indeed.