World Music: Iceland
By Marco Werman
Centuries ago, gypsies took Indian ragas, which originally were played on sitars, along with them to the Balkans. There they played these ragas on brass at punk rock speed and made wildly popular wedding music.
Slaves took pentatonic West African kora music and turned it into the blues. The blues funneled back to the rest of the world to become the Rolling Stones and also an Argentine rock-rap outfit, Todos Tus Muertos.
Celtic airs were transformed by cowboys into country-western ballads. Shania Twain, someone I consider an alleged C&W star, has just recorded a Bollywood CD for the Indian subcontinent.
Slaves took pentatonic West African Kora music and turned it into the blues.
These are just a few samples of how music migrates across cultures and is, in turn, transformed by the journey.
Musical tour buses of various sorts have been traveling in this way for hundreds of years. Some forms of music never break out of a narrow niche. I've found it especially intriguing, over the years, to search out the sounds that have been touched only slightly by the global process of adaptation.
In the late 1980s, I had the odd experience of moving from West Africa to northern New York State. I did a mental double take when I realized how similar the mountain fiddlers in the Adirondacks seemed to the lute players in the court of the Morgho Naba in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Both the fiddlers and lute players are equally immune to the touch of modernity.
Now, of course, air travel, satellites and computers have warped the speed at which changes happen in music. To try to keep track of these changes, I often listen to roots music because the best exponents rock just as hard as those responsible for the most funky and evolved sounds.
Wherever I go to report on music, whether it's Brazil or Brooklyn, I listen to both. I listen to the artists who carry a roots torch. And I listen to those who successfully modernize music.
All over the world, I've gone in search of the best new music made by artists who relish living in the global village. These musicians are keenly aware of their roots, environment and history, and they don't copy the well-marketed Anglo-American pop sound.
That explains, more or less, why I went to Iceland, a place I'd never been to before.
From the air, the island appears uninhabited and entirely impervious to cultural osmosis -- which is partly why the whole notion of this country becoming a hotbed of international pop seems so surprising. People who have been to Iceland often compare the sensation with landing on the moon.
My Icelandair flight from Boston arrived at Keflavik airport around 6 a.m. Moonlight reflected off the ripples of the Atlantic Ocean. We touched down between tiny runway lights. Treeless land and large expanses of rock spread out on all sides.
Keflavik is almost an hour south of Reykjavik, on the coast. Since the end of World War II, the United States has maintained a military base there. Iceland has never had an army of its own. In 1951, amid rising Cold War pressure, the United States staked its claim to providing the island's defense. The American military has been the Icelandic military ever since.
Even before September 11 and since the fall of the Soviet Union, many Icelanders have wondered why the base is still part of their landscape. Center and left politicians in Iceland recently have curried popular favor by calling for closure of the Keflavik base and ending the 1951 treaty.
It may be hard at first to understand the relevance of this history to Icelandic music. Here, though, is one connection. When I asked a few of the musicians what they thought about the base, most of them simply shrugged. Many used a variant of the Fifth Amendment I've often heard invoked by young musicians: "My music isn't political." But last year in Austin, Texas, at the South by Southwest music conference (SXSW), I interviewed a raucous hip-hop rock band from Iceland called Quarashi. They broke in a big way onto the American scene after SXSW, taking part in the madness of the Warped Tour. Their number "Stick 'Em Up" spits with venom about the base at Keflavik.
I bomb the mic like a fascist, Mussolini comin' through with no remorse, from the dark you won't see me. Rise up from the sea like a Godzilla straight up through your mind with my armor-plated drilla.
Perhaps the anti-American military symbolism is hard to read at first, but this anonymous fan at a Quarashi message board understood it: "This song is the best sing (sic) ever," he wrote. "Kick that Yankee arse!" Quarashi's drummer and main songwriter, Solvi Blondal, a tightly wound blond guy with electric blue eyes, explained to me, "We don't want this army, the American army -- or any army -- in this country."
That comment came back to me as I tried to make out what part of Keflavik was the airport and what part the air base. But eventually I stopped craning my neck and fogging up the bus window, settling in for the hour-long ride from the orange floodlights of Keflavik through the inky Icelandic morning to my hotel.
It wasn't by Pentagon design, of course, but the existence of the base had a lot to do with American pop music's first appearance in Iceland. Armed Forces Radio and TV beamed it out. Before Björk became the totem of Icelandic music the world over, she recorded a swinging set of jazzy vocals in Icelandic. Songs like "Astartofrar," which feature a bluesy Björk with a big band, show just how thoroughly Icelanders absorbed those Armed Forces Radio broadcasts.
What makes the music distinctly Icelandic, though, is a symbiotic relationship with the cold, the long nights and the island's moonlike geography. The modern world provides ways of girding against Iceland's inhospitable environs. There's always the option of going out for the ubiquitous doner kebab at the busy late-night Turkish fast-food joints in Reykjavik or for a beer in one of the city's warm pubs. Public desire for diversion from the bare surroundings and sub-Arctic isolation has been a key to the success of Iceland's two main bodies of art -- its pop music and its stories.
Icelandic music has a symbiotic relationship with the cold, the long nights, and the island's moonlike geography.
The Sagas are Iceland's other great body of artistic work, and they precede Björk, Sigur Rós, Quarashi and the Apparat Organ Quartet by nearly a thousand years. After a slow settlement in the ninth and 10th centuries, first by Irish monks, then by the steadier colonization of the Norwegians, scribes wrote the Sagas, transferring Iceland's oral history to paper.
The Sagas were supposedly recited around fires during long, frigid nights (presumably accompanied by strong and abundant spirits). These tales were Iceland's first pop entertainment. Many of them are set in Norway, like one of my favorites, the Saga of the Faeroe Islanders. In it, a wise, respected leader is harassed by the Norwegian king. But instead of submitting to the king, the wise man leaves with others to find freedom in -- where else? -- Iceland.
This past is recalled glowingly in the tourist brochures in the lobby of Hotel Esja, where I stayed in Reykjavik. I read through them late one night in my room as I listened to the Apparat Organ Quartet's track "Ondula Nova" on my headphones. Construction work on a wing of the hotel was stalled, I could see, just outside my window. A bulldozer was parked with its scoop hanging just above a deep cut into the permafrost earth.
The view out my window gave me the trippy feeling of floating above the rocky crust of the island through icy air and aurora borealis.
"Ondula Nova" and the view out my window gave me the trippy feeling of floating above the rocky crust of the island through icy air and aurora borealis. This timeless landscape, it seems to me, is captured best by contemporary electronica. While folk music in Norway, Sweden and Finland is undergoing a revival, Iceland stands out for creating music almost entirely in the present tense.
Iceland's young musicians have something of tabula rasa on which to work because there's not much of an instrumental tradition. Roots music is limited mostly to vocal music based on the verses in the Sagas, in which the sounds inchoate, breaking, even pained. The main characteristic of all these cold styles is that there is not a lot going on, either rhythmically or in terms of range.
"You're waiting for something to happen," explains Jóhann Jóhannsson, Apparat's de facto conceptual spokesman. As a result, it may be easier to hear the sound of modernity in Icelandic music than to locate its roots. What the modern stuff reveals, though, is the timeless quality of the Icelandic environment. You hear the barren moonscape, you hear the stars blinking against the black sky and you hear the ice crack.
Much of the year, Iceland's natural rhythm lies in a cryogenic state. And though stillness may bring quiet to the music, it's not always calm. In the sounds of Iceland's pop artists, who tread through the stillness, there are also moments when they evoke something akin to a primal scream.
Take The Hymn of the Seventh Illusion, a 2001 project of Apparat's Jóhannsson and Kitchen Motors, a Reykjavik experimental music collective and think tank he helped create. In 2001, Jóhannsson and Kitchen convinced Barry Adamson (formerly of Bad Seeds and the composer for David Lynch's "Lost Highway") and Finland's Pan Sonic to score and perform an electronic requiem of sorts. This electronic work became The Hymn of the Seventh Illusion. It's punctuated with musical bursts that sound like collapsing icebergs.
The album is decorated with a pattern of brainwaves. This was the concept behind the graphics, as explained in the liner notes: "Magnus Blondal Jóhannsson, the pioneer composer of electronic music in Iceland, was kind enough to let Kitchen Motors perform a brain scan on him while listening to the music contained on this CD. While most people would find the sterile hospital environment unnerving, Magnus drifted into a completely relaxed alpha state."
This kind of Icelandic avant-pop will not be heard any time soon on the average American's CD player. But such a limitation doesn't deter the thousands of young musicians and music fans in Iceland from diving into the unknown.
That was made most clear to me one night at an unassuming club called Vesturport, where Kitchen Motors presented a six-hour showcase. Twenty-somethings who looked like they ought to be shaking their hair in a mosh-pit somewhere sat politely and attentively, smoking and sipping while sonic artists presented subtle light displays to the accompaniment of electronic drones.
"There is a willingness to try new things in Icelandic music," Jóhann said. That's supported in part by a belief among some of the Icelandic public that trying new things is in itself virtuous.
Sometimes there's an overabundance of such virtue. On the last night of the Iceland Airwaves festival, for example, over yells of Icelandic ravers, Kristin Björk, one of the key players at Kitchen Motors, told me excitedly about a sonic artist she had seen perform in a recital at the Institute for Contemporary Art in London. His piece involved a dictaphone, and at the end of it, the man fell off the stage. No one was sure whether it was an accident or intentional. "It was brilliant," Björk reported.
Kitchen Motors supports the most offbeat artists it can find, pairing them with unlikely collaborators -- a stark contrast to the American music industry, which, if you go by the Grammy Awards, seems to honor the least offbeat.
Iceland will surely continue to create innovative music. Its creative landscape keeps the country's sounds off balance. There's a tension -- between long nights and short days, between cold air and hot thermal geology, between commercial pop and avant-garde sensibilities -- that also sets off a kind of shoving match between American ideas about where the bar for pop music should be set and where Icelandic artists will set that bar, thank you very much.
Not having any real musical roots icons like a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or a Woody Guthrie or a Salif Keita, Iceland is creating its own roots music now.
This was a strangely reassuring thought to have upon leaving Iceland. I'd discovered a paradoxically ultramodern tradition of ultracool indigenous sounds. Any notion I'd harbored that Iceland's music had developed in a vacuum was jettisoned by this trip. Iceland has been connected to the rest of the world for a long while.
That means that the modernity in Icelandic music is both foreign and familiar. It sounds almost exactly the way you might expect: cold, but warm.