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The Sami: Swedish Jazz’s Harlem Substitute

by Adam Freshcorn on April 23, 2015

The Sami are a relatively small ethnic group of people. The exact number of Sami people is unknown, but it is estimated that there are 44,000 to 50,000 in total, and only 10,000 of them live in Sweden. Some people believe that there could be as many as 200,000 Sami combined living in four different countries, Finland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden, but this number is often debated.[1] The Sami language is divided into three main categories, separated by region, but up to 85% of people who identify as Sami speak the central/northern variety of the language. Although they do have their own language, a majority of Sami people speak the language of the country that they live in. The Sami do not have a country of their own. In the past the Sami were forced to pay taxes to multiple countries and then pay fees for paying taxes to multiple countries. Today the Sami people are citizens of the countries that they live in, but they still defend their cultural identity and try their hardest to keep it alive.[2]

The Sami first started appearing in Swedish jazz tunes from the late 1930s[1]  in songs like “Wooji Wooji Wooj” by Fritz Gustaf and Ernfrid Ahlin, a song in which the lyrics depict the Sami to be teaching people to swing dance.[3] Swedish citizens wanted to relate to jazz music in a similar way to the way Americans could relate to it. American jazz enthusiasts had a different cultural connection with jazz than their Swedish counterparts, and thus were able to relate to and understand the music in a different and more personal context than could Swedish jazz enthusiasts. Swedish musicians used multiple avenues for incorporating Swedish culture into this new popular art form from America, such as the use of yodeling in place of or alongside scatting, and the use of cultural images such as trolls, but the introduction of Sami people into jazz music gave many Swedish listeners a type of personality or mindset to associate with the music.

The Sami people were different from the majority of Swedish citizens, but were much more relevant to the everyday lives of Swedish people than the citizens of Harlem were. Swedish citizens viewed the Sami as ironic images of the Swedish lifestyle, as a happy and very natural people that were carefree and simple, and during a night of dancing, Swedish citizens could mimic this lifestyle and let go of their worries in order to have a good time, similar to the way that some Americans could relate to the culture of its Harlem jazz musicians. And, in contrast to America, the Swedish majority culture had completely dominated the Sami culture, making them a much less risky ethnic group to poke fun at than African-American people. There was even a musical pop-culture theme known as “happy lapp” which was very similar to the American “happy negro” theme of the 1930’s (the “happy negro” theme is more commonly known as the “Sambo”).[4] Lapp is another common term for the Sami people, though they typically prefer to be called Sami because lapp is a derogatory name imposed on them by foreign settlers that means “a patch of cloth for mending.” [5]

Untitled2The Sami played a very important role in the development of jazz in Sweden. In it’s early years, jazz was viewed as a uniquely American art form. As it made it’s way across the globe, it was not always easy for non-Americans to understand the emotions and feelings associated with the music and the Harlem musicians creating it because the music was born out of a uniquely American experience. In Sweden, the Sami stereotype gave jazz listeners a familiar image to associate with this new music, and this helped Swedish musicians and listeners to connect to the music in a more personal and unique way

by Adam Freshcorn


[1] “Countries and Their Cultures.” Countries and Their Cultures: Sami. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2015. <http://www.everyculture.com/wc/Norway-to-Russia/Sami.html>.
[2] “The Lapps – the Indigenous People of Lapland.” Lapland Travel Info. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2015. <http://www.lapland-travel-info.com/Lapps.html>.
[3] Fornäs, Johan. “Swinging Differences: Reconstructed Identities in the Early Swedish Jazz Age.” (n.d.): 215.
[4] Fornäs, Johan. “Swinging Differences: Reconstructed Identities in the Early Swedish Jazz Age.” (n.d.): 215.
[5] “Countries and Their Cultures.” Countries and Their Cultures: Sami. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2015. <http://www.everyculture.com/wc/Norway-to-Russia/Sami.html>.

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