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FRIHUMSAM-Fri hum og sam

Dovdna: An Inquiry into Lullabies and Sámi Children’s Yoiks

Alternative title: Dovdna: En Studie av Vuggesanger og Samiske Barnejoik

Awarded: NOK 3.9 mill.

Project Number:


Project Period:

2021 - 2024


Partner countries:

This will study the "affective" quality of lullabies by focusing on the Sámi singing practice called "dovdna", a particular genre of melodies designed for infants. Based on an ethnographic fieldwork among the indigenous Sámi in Northern Norway, it will explore how lullabies establish affective relationships with the past, the present, the future, and the non-human. In the Sámi tradition, the yoik consists of short melodies referring to people, animals, or places. While it constitutes today a key resource for Sámi identity, the specific genre called dovdna remains poorly documented. As dovdna are characterised by softness, it contrasts with the somewhat stereotypical perception of the yoik often conveyed by the media. Yet, it constitutes a significant part of Sámi musical culture. Although dovdna are generally used as lullabies, they are also meant to describe the infant and evoke its future adult life through melodic motions, sometimes enriched with words. In contrast to most lullabies sung elsewhere on the planet, dovdna are sung not only by women, but also by men, and they present some similarities with yoiks evoking small animals. Due to its specificities, the study of dovdna offers a promising starting point for taking a novel perspective on the human activity of lulling infants with the voice, an activity that has interested various philosophers since Plato and remains considered as magical in various cultures. The aim is thus to take the dovdna tradition seriously and derive anthropological insights about wider areas of concern, away from reifying and folkloric representations of Sámi culture. The project will address how dovdna and lullabies affect singers and infants in their relationship to the past, the present, the future, and the non-human, in particular animals. It will adopt a "sensitive" approach and critically reflect on modern dichotomies such as nature/culture, in a way respective of Sámi understandings of their own yoiking practice.

This project proposes an interdisciplinary investigation about lullabies. Lullabies are one of the most widespread musical traditions, present in nearly all human cultures. The starting point of my inquiry would be an ethnographic fieldwork among the Sámi, an indigenous people from the northern part of Europe, in order to document a singing tradition called dovdna. Dovdna are part of the yoiking tradition, a singing technique inherited from pre-colonial times and serving to invoke people, animals, or places. I have done research on the yoik for six years and observed that dovdna, which are yoiks specifically designed for infants and used to lull them, are one of the most recurring forms of yoiking today. Yet, almost nothing has been written about it. Given the increasing attention to Sámi culture and yoik among the majority populations of the Nordic countries, a scholarly description of this emblematic practice seems more timely than ever. Thus, the project pursues two aims: - To document the dovdna tradition and gain a better understanding of the yoik and Sámi culture at large - To establish dialogues with the existing literature on lullabies and derive insights about songs and infancy The project would inquiry how lullabies 'affect' the singers and infants, in particular, the experiences they afford vis-à-vis past childhood memories, present feelings of comfort, and future developments for the infant, as well as the role of animals and gender in dovdna. This project would start with two years at the University of Liège, where I would be hosted by two research groups specialized in aesthetics and human-animal relationships (Cultures Sensibles), and the anthropology of childhood and infancy (Enfances). During this period, I would spend three months in the region of Kautokeino (Norway) in order to conduct fieldwork. I would spend the third year at the University of Oslo, in one of the largest and most interdisciplinary departments of musicology in Europe.

Funding scheme:

FRIHUMSAM-Fri hum og sam