Working to Revive Indigenous Culture
The Riddu Riđđu Festival
Written by Liu Yi-Zi, Officer of
Summarizes and translated by Eric Scheihagen, American resident of Taiwan, actively engaged in researching Taiwanese popular music history
Photo: Trond Jaklin, 2007. Blackfire live at Riddu Riddu
The festival began as part of a movement by a group of Sami youth to revive their culture and language. Due to years of mixing with the majority Norwegian-speaking population, government policies favoring assimilation, and simple prejudice, many Sami could not speak the language of their ancestors, knew little about Sami culture, and even were ashamed of their ethnicity. These young people decided to set up a Sami youth organization to spread indigenous culture. In 1991, they organized the first Riddu Riđđu Festival to provide an opportunity for Sami young people to get together and sing Sami songs, speak their ancestral language, and learn about their traditions, and it has been held every year since.
The activities and performances at the Riddu Riđđu Festival in its current form can be divided into two categories. One is musical activities, mainly consisting of two days of performances on the two stages that have been set up (one large and one small). The other category is cultural activities, which encompasses the Indigenous Youth Camp, the Children’s Festival, film showings, plays, workshops, seminars, exhibitions, dance performances and outdoor activities.
The musical activities feature a variety of indigenous artists from around the world. This year for instance, there was a Navajo punk rock band from Arizona and a Maori electronica group from New Zealand, while last year there were performers from Siberia and Africa. Of course Sami music plays a prominent role, especially the traditional form of song called the yoik or joik, which is an improvised, often highly spiritual type of song which some compare to the chanting heard in certain Native American cultures, or to the traditional singing of Taiwanese aboriginals. Sami singers combining yoiking with various modern styles appear every year, such as Mari Boine, perhaps the most prominent of all Sami singers, who mixes yoiking with folk, rock and jazz and who provided the highpoint of last year’s musical performances. Also last year, on the small stage there was a poetry concert with an elderly Sami poet, an Inuit poet from Canada, a poet from Nagaland on the border between India and Burma, and Zhong Yongfeng, a Taiwanese Hakka well known to Taiwanese music fans for his collaborations with Hakka musician Lin Shengxiang. The performances on the small stage and large stage are mostly at separate times and the two stages are not far apart, so it’s possible to see nearly all the performers. The performances may last well past midnight by the clock, though the audience may not even notice, as the sun never down.
Among the many cultural activities, one that is particularly noteworthy is the Indigenous Youth Camp. This provides an opportunity for indigenous youth of different cultures to meet, share their experiences, and learn about each others’ cultures. Half the places are reserved for Sami youth, and the others are filled by young people from indigenous and minority peoples around the world, such as Tuva and Komi from Siberia, Ainu from Japan, Inuit from North America, and Nagas from India. One of the traditions of the camp is yoiking, and each year they also have a featured topic, this year’s being the dance and music of the Komi. The other cultural activities are also centered around Sami traditions and themes, often in conjunction with those of other indigenous groups. There’s a Sami clown theater, Sami religious dancing as well as dancing by other peoples such as the Navajo, and seminars discussing issues and problems faced by the Sami and other indigenous groups.
Of all the people involved in organizing and conducting the festival, only the producer, Henrik Olsen, receives a salary for all the work he does in obtaining funding, putting together the program and coordinating the volunteers. Olsen was one of the original founders of the festival, so he has been deeply involved in it for almost two decades. But he is far from the only person for whom the festival is a big part of life. What is truly amazing about Riddu Riđđu is all the volunteers who put so much work into it. There are around eighty volunteers who work year-round preparing for each year’s festival, and during the festival itself the number of volunteers soars to over three hundred. They include Sami people of all ages, from children to the elderly. Most of them are involved every year, so the Riddu Riđđu Festival is a big annual event for all of them, often becoming an opportunity for family members who normally live and work in different places to get together and share their culture.
Though the village of Olmmaivaggi (Manndalen in Norwegian), the location in Gáivuotna municipality where the Riddu Riđđu Festival is held, may seem like an impossibly remote location for a music festival, and while the cold may also seem like a discouraging factor (even in midsummer, when the sun is always shining, the temperatures average less than 15°C), those who have experienced it say the festival is an unforgettable experience. Not only have the Sami young people who started the Riddu Riđđu Festival done a great deal to restore pride in their ancestral culture and teach their children about it, they have been able to create a unique opportunity for exchanges between different indigenous and minority groups, and have set an example for others to follow.