The 1974th Annual Easter-festivities will soon be upon us, as will the fourth annual ‘Aldrei Fór Ég Suður’ (I Never Went South). Both are excellent reasons to celebrate with friends.
Every Easter since 2003, and this year will be no exception; the cream of Iceland’s musical crop has collectively made its way down to the heart of the West Fjords, to the town of Ísafjörður (pop. 4.000). More specifically: to its harbour, where they join local artists on-stage to celebrate the pure, unabashed joy of music. A celebration of local talent and rural heritage along with the best of what’s happening in the capital, the ‘Aldrei Fór Ég Suður’ Festival (AFS for short) is the brainchild of Ísafjörður’s own Mugison, one of Iceland’s most celebrated new musicians.
Here is a true statement: Some of the best ideas are born over glasses of beer. The story behind AFS – which has by now been repeated ad nauseam by the Icelandic media, including the Grapevine – goes that Mugison and his father were sitting in a London pub some years ago, when they started joking about hosting a grand music festival in their tiny home-town. And now they’ve got Blonde Redhead performing.
“We were basically enthusing about how cool it would be to see [legendary Ísafjörður fisherman] Dóri Hermanns singing ‘Shaking the Blues Away’ in his raspy voice before giving up the stage to someone like Sigur Rós,” Mugison told the Grapevine. “For some reason, the idea stuck with us, we started looking into it and before we realized it, we had recruited more than 20 bands without even giving thought to logistics such as procuring a venue, sound system or transportation for the mass of people. Luckily, some good people got involved early on; the first festival went over smoothly and has been steadily growing since.”
Growing out of proportion?
The number of artists and acts appearing at the festival has been steadily increasing since its inception. It has grown from about 20 (the first line-up included Mugison himself, Kira Kira, assorted Sigur Rós members playing country-music and a band fronted by legendary troubadour and AFS mainstay Siggi Björns) to the point where 30-35 acts are set to appear this coming April. There have been talks of making the festival into a two-day event, or adding an extra stage, just to fit all these bands on the daylong schedule. Among those scheduled to rock an old warehouse on Saturday 7 April 2007 are the aforementioned Blonde Redhead, legendary rock bands Ham and Mínus, Pétur Ben, Lay Low, Ampop along with Mugison himself. And then there’s the local talent, of which there is plenty – some even say that one of the results of AFS is a revival in Ísafjörður’s garage-band culture. Also, a mountain choir and a troupe of rappers represent the suburb of Flateyri, while the Mayor of neighbouring Bolungarvík (an avid concert promoter), Grímur Atlason, will perform with his own rock band.
While it’s fun to theorise that AFS could someday rival some of the larger music festivals in Iceland – or even Scandinavia (Norway’s annual By:larm festival, for instance, started out much the same as AFS) – a large part of its charm stems from the intimate atmosphere it provides. But then there’s the familiar urge to invite all your friends to join the party. “One of the problems we face at this point,” a member of the AFS committee told the Grapevine, “is the sheer number of quality acts applying to play. We couldn’t possibly host all of them, but the year-to-year increase in performing artists is telling of how much we’d like to.”
Widening the frame
One of the tenets of AFS is that relatively (or completely) unknown local talent gets as much leeway and attention as nationally renowned acts such as Benni Hemm Hemm or Mugison. Nobody gets special treatment, nobody gets paid, but everyone seems to have fun, as the organisers usually face a barrage of applications from Icelandic and international musicians wanting to partake in the affair. Mugison says, “The festival is a non-profit event and thus we charge no entry-fee. Rather, the festival is paid for by sponsorship, so we don’t offer any monetary compensation – although we supply our performers with lodging, food and parties. The weekend is more about getting together in a decent small town with likeminded musicians, performing for an open and unpretentious crowd made up of people of all ages and professions. Ever since our first run we’ve had a lot of visitors from out of town checking out the festival – the atmosphere here is very friendly and festive during the whole week leading up to it.”
I ask Mugison what he feels sets the festival apart from others of its kind, other than it being in the small, remote town of Ísafjörður.
“Well, one important thing is that everybody involved with the festival donates their work, so there’s a lot of goodwill in the air. Everybody comes together to make it as good as possible. Another thing is that the audience is comprised of ‘regular people’ in the respect that, you know, it’s not a specific crowd out for a specific type of event, if you catch my drift. It’s just everyday people – entire families – coming to check out the event, getting exposed to very eclectic music alongside their favourites. I think it’s beautiful that your grandmother, for instance, will see Kira Kira, The Nine Elevens and Hairdoctor while waiting for her local Accordion Society to come on. And it goes both ways: the ‘underground’ crowd coming to check out the aforementioned artists will get to see Siggi Björns strum his acoustic guitar or Villi Valli play the piano. They also might need to widen their frame, and this is a chance to do that. It’s also more fun than most festivals I’ve been to.”
The Aldrei Fór Ég Suður Festival will take place in Ísafjörður on April 7, from around 2pm ‘til late. At the time of writing, the following acts were confirmed to appear: Ampop, Benny Crespos Gang, Blonde Redhead, Bloodgroup, Charly, Donna Mess, Dóri DNA,Dr. Spock, Esja, Fjallakórinn í Önundarfirði, Flateyrarrapp, Flís og Bogomil Font, Flæði, FM Belfast, Grjóthrun í Hólshreppi, HAM, I Adapt, Jan Mayen, Lay Low, Mínus, Mugison, Óli Popp, Pétur Ben, Pollapönk, Reykjavík!, Siggi Björns, Skriðurnar, Skúli Þórðar og Sökudólgarnir, Slugs, Sprengjuhöllin, and Æla.