The below editorial features the opinions and views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of #escYOUnited as a whole, Eurovision or the EBU.
Tom Hugo asks you to stay with him through the night. Alexandra Rotan asks if you have seen her spirit, lost in the night. And like a spritz of gasoline on an open flame, Fred-Rene Øvergård Buljo, more commonly known as Fred Buljo, interjects with “He lå e loi la,” and thrusts one of Eurovision 2019’s most distinct bangers, KEiiNO’s “Spirit In The Sky,” into overdrive.
And with that chant, the Sámi language is officially introduced as a language sung at Eurovision. But “Spirit In The Sky” is by no means the first time the Sámi people have graced either a Eurovision final or a national selection. Today, we’ll look at the Sámi who have come before Fred Buljo and KEiiNO – or even in the same year in the case of one artist – and assess the impact that they have had on Eurovision.
But first, a quick overview of the first Sámi language lyrics used at Eurovision…
KEiiNO – “Spirit In The Sky” (2019)
Norway’s KEiiNO is a supergroup formed especially for Eurovision 2019. The idea began when Tom Hugo Hermansen (formally known as Tom Hugo) composed a song with his husband Alex Olsson about the struggle for equality. But rather than sticking to a celebratory revelry specifically for gay rights, Hugo, a 39-year-old relative veteran of Norway’s pop scene, wanted to add to both a female, more youthful, and ethnic element to the composition so that it would be a pumped-up positive advertisement for modern Norway.
As such, Hugo reached out to 31-year-old Sámi rapper Fred Kuljo, who fronts the group Duolva Duottar. Kuljo has also served as a Member of Parliament for the Sámi Parliament of Norway from 2013 to 2016, and is famous for his yoiking, the traditional Sámi chanting, which occasionally mimics the sound of nature or animals such as reindeer. Representing the younger end of the millennial set is Alexandra Rotan, a 22-year-old singer who attempted to enter Eurovision in 2018 with Stella Mwangwi and “You Got Me,” which came in third to Alexander Rybak’s second tilt at Eurovision with “That’s How You Write a Song.”
Norway’s loss in 2018 is Norway’s gain in 2019, and Hugo, Kuljo, and Rotan formed KEiiNO. The odd band name actually comes from Kuljo’s hometown of Kautokeino, with the suffix -keino meaning “the road to.” Kuljo said the song is the road that led Hugo, Rotan, and Kuljo together in a diverse, multi-generational pop band with Sámi flourishes. And though not by the landslide the hype said would occur, KEiiNO did win Melodi Grand Prix 2019, and is currently one of the Top Ten ranked entries in ESC United’s “Expert” Panel.
But KEiiNO were close to not being the only Sámi entry at Eurovision 2019.
Jon Henrik Fjällgren – “Norrsken” (2019)
Whereas “Spirit In The Sky” is a dance track with Sámi touches, Sweden’s Jon Henrik Fjällgren’s “Norrsken” is Sámi folk with modern production values. Fjällgren brings to mind American folk such as Gordon Lightfoot that influenced the Greenlandic and Canadian First Nation rock renaissance of the 1970s.
“Norrsken” was not Fjällgren’s first tilt at Melodifestivalen. He came in second at Melodifestivalen 2015 with the stunning “Jag är fri (Manne leam frijje).” He did not fare better at Melodifestivalen 2017 with his New Age-ish duet with Aninia called “En värld full av strider (Eatneme gusnie jeenh dåaroeh),” but in his interview with ESC United in 2019 he was circumspect about the time saying that his head was not in the right space at the time.
However, the Colombian born Fjällgren who was adopted and raised by Sámi parents, and became a renowned yoiker (more on the first yoiker at Eurovision to follow), is still young and has a large fanbase, and future participation in a Eurovision final is certain if he continues to create beautiful compositions such as “Norrsken.” The song only came in 3rd to John Lundvik and the shock teenage upstart Bishara (the talented crooning kid who looks like the teenage villain from Robocop 2).
However, one metal band has been priming the pump for Sámi music for two decades, and in one of the most head-slappingly daft moments in Finland’s many face-plants at Eurovision at the selection phase, the titans of Sámi folk metal were rejected early on…
Korpiklaani – “Metsälle (Off To The Hunt)” (2012)
Google the metal festivals hitting Europe this summer. Have a gander at the top billing. Other than Eluveitie (more on their Eurovision connection in another article), no other folk-metal band dominates the European metal summer more than Finland’s spectacularly fun Korpiklaani. Name a drink, they’ve done a song encouraging you to down it. From their magnificent evening to morning and morning to evening “Beer Beer,” or their bizarre quality control of promising that the “Vodka” they serve is as pure as it was thousands of years ago, no other metal band on Earth is as primed to take the second Eurovision win for the genre and for Finland as Korpiklaani.
So you’d think that when Korpiklaani came a-knocking in 2011 for Eurovision 2012, Finland would answer. But no, we end up with a Natalie Merchant knock-off ballad in Pernilla’s “När Jag Blundar,” which did not qualify for the final in Baku, Azerbaijan. It’s not that the ballad itself was necessarily bad, it just did not stand out enough to do the business. Korpiklaani did not even make it to the national final with their entry “Metsälle (Off To The Hunt).” In a country with as rich a pool of musical talent as Finland, it boggles the mind the quality of acts they send to Eurovision. Never mind the top tier of Finnish metal such as Nightwish or Children of Bodom, their B-tier bands such as Wolfheart or Mors Principium Est goes toe-to-toe with their American, British, and Swedish counterparts.
It’s bad enough Finland did not select a metal band in its prime (just wait 20 years after their prime like Darude and his corporate EDM for Finland to take notice, I suppose), but Korpiklaani frontman Jonne Järvelä had been flying the Sámi flag for years, first as guitarist for Sámi folk group Angelin tytöt, then for Shaman, the folk group that decided to add elements of metal to their accordion and fiddle dominated sound and morphed into Korpiklaani (it’s usually the other way around in folk metal, with metal bands gradually adding folk instruments to their sound). Järvelä is also famous for his yoiking, which he will still do in several Korpiklaani songs to this day.
Though their impact on Eurovision was slight, to say the least, Korpiklaani has brought attention to the Sámi and because of Järvelä, in the 2000s their culture is known to metal fans from Europe to the United States to Mexico.
However, the first popular culture introduction to the Sámi to the world at large comes from Norway’s entry to Eurovision 1980…
Sverre Kjelsberg and Mattis Hætta – “Sámiid Ædnan” (1980)
Mattis Hætta is officially the first Sámi to have performed at Eurovision. And he is the first ever yoiker at Eurovision. However, there are no Sámi lyrics in this song, which is why “Spirit In The Sky” gets that honor. But there is a rich history behind this song, even though it did not do that well at Eurovision 1980 (they came in 16th out of 19 in Johnny Logan’s first and lesser win with “What’s Another Year”).
Eurovision 1980 brought the Sámi into the European mainstream. Kjelsberg and Hætta were, in the obtuse way that performers do to skirt the political content rules at Eurovision, trying to bring awareness to a protest against a hydroelectric dam project in Northern Norway (oddly enough in Kautokeino). Essentially the Norwegian government was trying to displace several Sámi villages, reindeer grazing land, and wild salmon spawning rivers to build the Alta-Kautokeino waterway.
The Norwegian government was met with local resistance from the Sámi from the project’s conception in 1970. But by 1979, when Norway was selecting its entrant for Eurovision 1980, demonstrations in Oslo against the project spread from being a local affair to one of a tyrannical government bullying an ethnic minority. And Kjelsberg and Hætta’s appearance at Eurovision 1980 only spread the protests across Europe and to North America.
Indeed, the eminent domain issues from government bullying local townspeople as well as the opaque methodology for gauging the benefits of the project in Norway created outrage across the political spectrum – the left wing were outraged that an ethnic minority was being unjustly trampled on, and the right wing were outraged that the private property rights of the Sámi were being violated to satisfy the whims of government bureaucrats with an agenda that had no clear net social benefits.
Though the dam was finally finished in 1986, the scale of the project was dialed down thanks to the international attention this song brought. Indeed, Kuljo’s childhood residence would probably have been underwater had it not been for the activism and awareness behind this song. And Europeans who had long sneered at Americans and Australians for how they treated their first nations got a reality check of how they treated minorities in their own neighborhood.
And on that dark note, let’s do a run-through of the other Sámi singers or Sámi references that helped pave the way for “Spirit In The Sky”…
Nora Brockstedt – “Voi Voi” (1960)
Norway’s Nora Brockstedt came in 4th at Eurovision 1960 with a booty call song. Essentially, “Voi Voi” is a song within a song where Nora relates a tale told to her by a Sámi girl about how she looks forward to spending time with her boyfriend on a Saturday. Before she arrives at his house, the Sámi girl yells “Voi Voi” to summon him, which is apparently Sámi for “Hey!” Why it’s a song in the third person, who knows? Probably works better than the 1960 equivalent in Brighouse, West Yorkshire, where “Voi Voi” is “Oi Oi,” and the protagonist is threatening to throw a brick through her boyfriend’s window unless he takes her for a pint at the pub at the end of Crows’ Tree Lane.
Roger Pontare – “When Spirits Are Calling My Name” (2000)
“Let me be the native son with freedom in my heart!” Indeed. This song rules, though. No Sámi lyrics, but a sprinkle of yoiking and a big serving of schlager, that this was only 7th for Sweden at Eurovision 2000 is sad. Sweden from this era is a highlight, certainly more so than the corporate pop we get these days. This is as fun as “Spirit In The Sky.”
Marie Bergman & Roger Pontare – “Stjärnorna” (1994)
Roger Pontare’s first outing for Sweden was a duet with Marie Bergnan. There is no Sámi influence in it whatsoever apart from what Pontare was wearing. Going more Sámi worked as his solo effort in 2000 was 7th, and this generic ballad ended up in 13th. Pontare finished 6th of 8 in the 2018 Petra Mede (everyone’s favorite Swedish host) hosted reality show “Stjärnornas stjärna.” Not sure whether Pontare or Mede’s humor would be the most awkward.
Elin and the Woods – “First Step in Faith” (2017)
The self-proclaimed Arctic pixie, who is Sámi despite channeling Bjork, tried out for Melodi Grand Prix 2017 with “First Step in Faith.” The 39-year-old has a long tradition with blending the avant garde with her Sámi heritage, and with Norway’s expanded format for 2020, Elin Kåven has a good shot at least winning the Northern region next year should she choose to enter.
Solju – “Hold Your Colours” (2015)
Solju came in 4th at Finland’s Uuden Musiikin Kilpailu 2015 with a song and a video that bridged the Sámi tradition and the modern. This was the year Finland decided to send Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät, the three punk rockers with developmental disabilities, but without much fanfare or support that doomed the group to Semi-Final oblivion. More muddled thinking by Finland. You have to wonder if their sending Lordi in 2006 was a fluke, because history suggests that Finland either selects badly or promotes badly, or both. Solju was the best that year with a modern Sámi track with a neat concept.
Agnete – “Icebreaker” (2016)
Agnete Johnsen is ethnically Sami, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that from this generic pop track. Agnete made it to Eurovision 2016 in Stockholm, Sweden, but failed to make it out of Semi-Final 2. Her background is much more interesting than her song – her father is a renowned children’s literature author. Another youthful act, she has the time and the talent to try again for Eurovision.
If #YOU know of any Sámi artist we missed in this list, please let us know in the comments, on social media, or in our forum.