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Reykjavik A Great Small City II

Our main reason for visiting Iceland’s capital was to uncover the city’s musical melting pot. Reykjavik has continued to churn out musical icons ever since the initial boom in the early 1980s, as reflected in the documentary and double LP, “Rokk í Reykjavík”, featuring such Icelandic bands as Baraflokkurinn and Tappi Tíkarrass – the latter was Björk’s first serious music project. When talking of Iceland, the first thing that springs to mind are the two most popular names on the international scene – Sigur Rós, and the aforementioned Björk. However, there is an amazingly long list of artists distributed across the length and breadth of the land, as well as countless bands, soloists and collectives that often share their members, regardless of each group’s musical style.

All of these have at some time performed in Húrra, Reykjavik’s leading concert hall, previously known as Harlem. When we were there, we were impressed by the varied setlists scheduled for the following days – an extreme metal festival, a reggae group (Hjálmar, very popular in Iceland)  and a tribute group to the Sex Pistols which hails from the continent. Húrra really acts as a downtown music hub, covering all the musical genres. For starters, it is one of the customary venues for the popular music festival, Icelandic Airwaves, which is held at the beginning of November at various settings in the city, including the marvellous Harpa, a musical and cultural activities centre which has fairly galvanised the local scene in the last few years.

Needless to say, we had to finish off the night with a beer. There are myriad Icelandic brands, including the ubiquitous Viking, in addition to some imported varieties. We ended up at Kaffibarinn, also known as KB, owing to the fact that Damon Albarn from Blur is one of its proprietors. The downstairs hall is comfortable, cosy and features a good, ongoing soundtrack, principally pop and electronic. But, remember not to bother the DJ – not for nothing is there a metal plaque near the crockery which reads, “No requests accepted”. If you want to smoke, which is not allowed inside the premises, they have an open-air interior patio where you can smoke and still keep up a conversation with friends and acquaintances. But, at midnight, everything changes and the upstairs area at KB becomes a dance club which operates until the early hours.

The local scene is clearly both extensive and surprising. Apart from groups with a proven track record, notably Of Monster And Men, Sólstafir, Amina, FM Belfast and Sin Fang, it is the new generation that is shaking the very foundations of the city. We could start with Retro Stefson, a pop group which has been migrating toward electronic and has recently shot to the number one slot in Iceland thanks to their new single, Skin, a preview of their upcoming album, Scandinavian Pain. In fact, it was their vocalist and guitarist, Unnsteinn Manuel Stefánsson, who acted to some extent as our host during our fleeting visit. After inviting us to see his new studio, which is bound to become one of the most active in the city, he took us to have a coffee in Sæmundur í Sparifötunum, a hipster gastro hotel where he introduced us to two of Iceland’s best known rap stars, the upcoming talent, Gísli Pálmi, and the veteran Emmsjé Gauti, the author of a single called precisely Reykjavik. He talked to us about the female collective Reykjavíkurdætur, currently on a meteoric roll, and remarked how one of the leading lights of Iceland’s parliament, Óttarr Proppé, has played in various bands, among them HAM, which was very popular in the early nineties. He also revealed that his favourites included the very young singer (aged sixteen) from R&B and trap music, Aron Can, and the pop singer, Sturla Atlas. Truth be told, Manuel – of Portuguese and Angolan extraction – is also the brother ofLogi Pedro,one of the most celebrated hip hop producers in Iceland and the composer of much of the bass and rhythms for some of the aforementioned artists.

When it came to discovering new artists, we were also lucky enough to have the assistance of the writer, Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, who goes under the stage nameSjónand who collaborates closely with Björk. He recommended the DJ, Flugvél Og Geimskip, and the trap duo, Úlfur Úlfur, whose popularity is on the up and up and who feature among Iceland’s best known current stars.

We could go on about contemporary figures well worth watching, including Sin Fang, who has just worked with Jónsi of Sigur Rós on the latter’s new album. Then there is the electropop group, Gangly, and Alex Somers, the hyperactive writer of American soundtracks who resides in the city and who, together with his boyfriend, the aforementioned Jónsi, recorded under the name Riceboy Sleeps.

And, of course, a must-visit is to the best record shop in town, Smekkleysa, associated with the Bad Taste label (which is what “Smekkleysa” means in Icelandic), and originally related to members of The Sugarcubes. In short, this venue is the basic driving force behind the burgeoning Icelandic scene, due largely to its promotion of such internationally acclaimed projects as Fufanu, Gus Gus, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Minus, Mugison, Múm and Sigur Rós itself.

You will be dazzled by the huge variety of musical offerings to be had in Reykjavik. Don’t pass up the chance to venture into the city’s music scene – check out our flights here.

Text by Joan S. Luna (Mondo Sonoro)

Images by Los Viajes de ISABELYLUIS


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