Sofia Käfer: using ethnography to create authenticity

My name is Sofia Käfer, and I am a music composer. I typically work with genres such as ethnic and folk and enjoy mixing them together in an eclectic manner.

I am currently studying ethnomusicology, which combines musicology, ethnography, and folklore. My professional interests are in ethnographic expeditions where we collect musical material from cultural carriers and transcribe it into musical notation.

Folklore, with its mind-blowing variety, is a bottomless source of inspiration for me, which I use to compose unique pieces of music.

When I create music, especially if it is intended to represent the character and specifics of a particular ethnicity, I try my best to incorporate this component into the track using reliable and accurate ethnographic sources. Sometimes, I have to delve deep into audio and video archives to search for “the truth.”

My own experience in expeditions and working with the people of the North also helps, and although they are all very different, similarities can be spotted.

Here are some photos from my expedition to the Ket people – an indigenous small-numbered group in Northern Siberia.

When it comes to video game music, especially for mobile games, it is supposed to be relatively simple, unobtrusive, and easy to listen to for long periods of time so that the player is not bothered by any complex ethnographic components.

However, it does not mean that the music has to be vapid and flavorless or consist of dull clichés, as is often the case nowadays with national/folk music.

When I began working on the “Greenland” track for Solitaire Cruise by Belka Games, the initial task was to create music that could generate the atmosphere corresponding to this ethnicity without containing stupid clichés and that had to sound interesting yet not be difficult for the listener.

In such cases, I prefer to use the “formula” I’ve derived from my experience:

  • a pleasant “classical” form;
  • a simple key and time signature;
  • live vocals and instruments;
  • an essential component that improves everything – scientific (or, more precisely, ethnographic) authenticity.

While working on the track, I used the following references:

  1. Inuit Drum Dancer @ Kulusuk / Greenland
  2. East Greenland Drum Dancing
  3. Greenland song “Innarta anaanaga”
  4. Ramund (Danish folk song) on Nyckelharpa – Myrkur

For my track, I used one of the languages of the indigenous peoples who live on the territory from Greenland and Nunavut to Alaska. I studied their national specific songs and music to create the groundwork for my composition, which is based on the real folklore of this ethnic group.

I used the book “Sirenik Eskimo Language” by G.A. Menovshikov (USSR, 1964) to obtain information about the phonetics along with folkloric and everyday text materials. Specifically, I used a fairy tale called (“The Wolf and the Fox”), which was written down in 1960 from a 60-year-old semi-literate hunter named Numtagnin.

Here is the original text and its translation:

The wolf and the fox
(1) Once upon a time, there lived some people who owned a horse. (2) One day, an old man rode the horse to the river to catch fish. (3) When he arrived, he started fishing. (4) Then he put everything he caught onto his sled, which had a matting. (5) On his way back, the fox saw him. (6) She ran ahead, pretending to be dead. (7)The old man saw the fox and thought he could make a collar for his wife. (8) So he put the fox on his sled. (9) He took his horse by the bridle, and started walking. (10) However, the fox threw all the fish off the sled and ran away. (11) After a while, the old man came back. (12) He walked into the house. (13) His wife asked him, (14) “Have you caught any fish?” (15-16) “Yes, I have also brought you something to make a collar,” said the man. (17-18) The wife was happy and went out. (19) She looked at the sled, but there was nothing there, not even the fish. (20) She went back home angry. (21) The fox took all the fish to her hole. (22) As soon as she finished, the wolf came. (23-24) “Oh, you have caught fish!” said the wolf. (25) “Yes, I did, and it was hard work. (26) I nearly froze to death doing it. (27) I put my tail into an ice hole and sat there. (28) All day until the sun went down I kept my tail there. (29) The fish clung to the fur of my tail. (30) Your tail has a lot of fur, so you will catch plenty. (31) My tail has much less, and I still managed to catch some,” said the fox. (32) “Alright, lead me to the ice hole,” said the wolf. (33) So she led him. (34) They soon arrived at the ice hole. (35-36) “Here it is. I put my tail into this hole and sat,” said the fox. (37) The wolf put his tail into the water. (38) He sat. (39) The fox started to run around, splashing the ice hole. (40) After a while, the wolf’s tail froze. (41-42) “The water carriers are coming, I should run!” said the fox. (43) And she ran away. (44) The wolf wanted to follow, but he couldn’t because his tail was frozen solid. (45) The fox ran away. (46) The water carriers saw the wolf and started to beat him with their buckets. (47) His tail came off. (48) He managed to run away. (49) The runaway fox saw a house from a hilltop. (50) She looked inside, since the door turned out to be open. (51) She walked in and saw a pot on the shelf. (52) She tilted the pot and poured flour dough on herself. (53) The dough got into her eyes. (54) And she tried to exit the house but kept bumping into everything with her nose. (55)Finally, she went out. (56) And started to clean her eyes. (57-58) When she finished that, she stumbled upon the tailless wolf. (59-60) “So, something happened to you as well?” said the wolf. (61) The fox said: (62) “Those ruthless people beat me on the head so hard, my brain has come out! (63) Can you please carry me to my hole? (64) There I will die.” (65) The wolf said: (66)”You see, the fox deceived me – I lost my tail because of her. (67) Get on me.” (68) And carried her all the way to her hole. (69) As soon as they were close, the fox jumped off into the hole. (70-71) “Serves you right. I took your tail from you,” she said while entering the hole. (72) And went away.

Now let’s take a closer look at the “Greenland” project in Ableton Live.
There are five main layers in the track:

  1. Basic percussion
  2. Atmospheric ambience
  3. Choir
  4. Violin
  5. Flutes

I will now describe them in more detail.

1) I started with a basic percussion rhythm. This sample was recorded on an ordinary drum, but then it was rhythmically stylized to a “buben” (a specific type of tambourine) which is very common among the North Indigenous peoples.

2) Creating the atmospheric ambience/background.

Here, I decided to use violin flageolets with a repetitive shimmering pattern – to weave a feeling of the “Aurora Borealis” into the music fabric.

3) Small Inuit Choir.

Little improvisation plus characteristic features of the singing of this ethnic group. I love to use polyphony, so this track turned out to be one of my favorites. The lyrics I borrowed from the aforementioned Sirenik fairy tale.

4) “Maybe we can use some Danish folk music and/or a Hardanger fiddle”.

Since Greenland is part of the Danish Kingdom and has been culturally associated with Europe for more than a millennium, I decided to add a delicate, non-obtrusive motive that resembles Nordic fiddle.

I have just an ordinary violin, not a fiddle, but it does the job.

As I mentioned before, I always try to record as many live acoustic instruments as I can.
Of course, I use libraries and plug-ins, but if I have suitable instruments, I prefer that.

5)  Finally, I add some flute and a pinch of tambourine – and my music soup is ready 🙂

Most probably the player will not notice that but the inclusion of the Inuit music folklore has made the music way richer than it would be with simple clichés.

Since the death of the last native Sirenik speaker, Valentina Wye, in 1997, the language has become extinct. And my pronunciation is so far from authentic, it might be called an echolalia of some sort.

This track was never intended to be an ethnographic piece and should not be regarded as such. Instead, it could be perceived as a symbol of respect and as an inspiration.

Thank you for reading!

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