I’m guilty of not tapping into Greenland’s culture. Hell, my brushes with this great island’s pop culture have been hurried, few and far between. And let’s face it, rarely does Icelandic media, or any other media for that matter, pay attention to our friendly neighbours and their music.
Last time I checked in with Greenland was when I watched their latest and most successful feature length film ‘Qaqqat Alanngui’ (“The Shadows In The Mountains”). It portrayed the legend of a murderous spirit that loves killing drunk and horny teenagers who party in the wilderness. I was surprised by how Americanised its stylistic approach was, but why wouldn’t it be? Almost everything, everywhere, is influenced by the big bald eagle. So it is fair to assume current Greenland rock and pop is too. Right? No?
To help me find out and enlighten me about other aspects of Greenland’s music I was joined by Karsten Sommer, who ran ULO Records and released much of Greenland’s most popular and renowned music through the years. He’s now a reporter for Greenland Radio (KNR).
Driven by independence
“Modern music plays a big role in Greenlandic society,” Karsten tells me. “Its presence and impact started way back in 1973, when the first ever Greenlandic LP was released. The group was Sume (English: Where?) and the LP was called ‘Sumut’ (English: Where to?). Danish record label Demos, which was a part of the Vietnam anti-war movement, handled its release. We got the idea to find a Greenlandic group, mainly because we were “anti-colonialists” and saw Greenland as a symbol of Danish colonialism,” Karsten says. His is a firsthand account, for he produced the album. “Sume made songs in Greenlandic about being proud of Greenlandic culture, urging people to have self-confidence, and expressing respect for the forefathers.”
So it was rock for change—more than just music—a quality prevalent in some of today’s Greenlandic bands, especially those of the hip hop variety. Take hip hoppers Prussic for example. Their raps don’t shy away from taking an inward and honest look at their people’s problems: namely substance abuse, broken families and adult role models and their effect on the youth, be it good or bad.
Sume (who are still active) helped unify Greenland’s people and provided the soundtrack for “home-rule” in opposition to the Danish one. Quickly, rock ‘n’ roll sung in the native tongue had a purpose beyond storytelling and entertainment. “At that time no one was tempted to sing in English or Danish,” Sommer says, adding: “Music was a way of keeping our big country together, and telling others about your feelings. During the late ‘70s and ‘80s, lots of LPs (later CDs) were released. We’re 50.000 people up here, yet many of the releases sold 7,000–10.000 copies!”
However, much like everywhere else, album sales have recently plummeted due to downloading.
Youth gone wild
Greenland’s youth has embraced Internet and smartphone technology in spite of the cost: “It’s very expensive up here: 15Mb cost 1,000 Danish kroner [about $170] a month,” Sommer says.
Greenland is the least densely populated country in the world, so let’s not underestimate how internet access has revolutionised the way music is consumed and how artists and fans alike engage. “The Internet is a gift from ‘God.’ It opens the world. Especially for the young ones.”
Indeed, not-for-profit festivals like Nuuk Underground (which has the goal of “creating an open space for the alternative culture in all of Greenland”) and the Katuaq—Nordic House, (a prestigious and beautiful cultural venue that hosts and produces a variety of culture / art events and concerts, and houses a cinema) reach out to people online. Clearly, Greenland’s music scene is thriving and producing acts that fall under a variety of genres. Lets name-check a few that haven’t been mentioned already.
Greenlandic folk, indigenous hip-hop, alternative rock
Nanook and Nive Nielsen’s international appeal should not be lost on anyone. The former came forth with a successful and likeable blend of pop and rock, sometimes light on its feet and other times emotional and thoughtful. The latter has gained international renown, being released by a prominent German label, touring globally and becoming quite the sensation stateside. KEXP video instalments, appearances at festivals like SXSW and Iceland Airwaves, to name but a few of the hotspots she and her band have hit, have done nothing but increase her popularity.
Legendary folk singer Rasmus Lyberth is by now one of the country’s most beloved and respected figures and an integral part of Greenland’s tapestry—their Dylan/McCartney if you will. Simon Lynge’s pretty voice and cosy acoustic guitar strumming will bring even the most cold-hearted of us around the campfire. Torluut! assembles at least nine members on stage at any given time and their loud, playful and theatrical shenanigans go well with their rock-hybrid. Denmark-based Small Time Giants’ socially conscious melodic and atmospheric alternative rock has quickly garnered a loyal following.
As it stands, hip-hop is probably the strongest wave running through Greenlandic pop these days. “When we were active in ULO, Greenlandic hip hop was what we exported most, mainly to the US, Canada and Japan. The hip hop music is kind of ‘open’.Fans love to hear their music sung in other languages than English,” Sommer says. And this trend has further evolved and spread wider via social networking. Seminal ‘90s hip-hop group Nuuk Posse helped pave the way for acts such as Prussic and Peand eL’s. The latter’s Aftermath Records-inspired hip hop recently found its way onto The Discovery Channel’s ‘Flying Wild Alaska’, a new reality TV series.
This article is not intended as a comprehensive guide to pop music’s development in Greenland and its current state. Look at it as a quick introduction to a largely untapped source of unique artists—who are also earnest students of Western pop culture—now you should seek out their sounds on-line. Thanks to Jens Guðmundsson for his assistance.