Once a week, after schoolyards fall quiet and workdays end, a handful of musicians climb the stairs of a whitewashed Reykjavík pub. They hail from England, Scotland, France, the United States, and Iceland too, and the cases under their arms hold guitars, fiddles and accordions. One side of the pub steadily fills with instruments and chatter; players pull up stools to form a circle. Then the music begins: Irish reels and Scottish jigs, Dutch sea shanties and Swedish polkas. Drinks plunk down on tables, one song bleeds into the next, revelers clap between rounds of Gull. Under the pub’s dim lights, by the edge of the pond, the music swells for hours and washes over all.
Though Iceland may be known for its music scene, this particular occurrence—where performers come together not to write or rehearse, but to celebrate old songs—is a rarity.
It’s called the Reykjavík Trad Sessions—“trad” being shorthand for “traditional music,” which refers to songs passed down aurally or performed by rote in a particular culture. In minutes, the group might swing from 19th century Scottish song “Wild Mountain Thyme” to modern American folk classic “Wagon Wheel.” Some evenings, singer Bára Grímsdóttir introduces the crowd to verses born amid Iceland’s fjords and mountains. There’s even a group songbook, updated on occasion to reflect players’ varying backgrounds, and replete with lyrics for mournful Icelandic tune “Sofðu unga ástin mín” as well as the Irish “Down by the Salley Gardens,” from a William Butler Yeats poem. The goddess called spontaneity holds all the dice.
The musicians are of all ages and come from varying walks of life—and rather diverse musical interests.
“I’ve been playing hardcore punk music since I was a teenager,” says Linus Orri Gunnarsson Cederborg, “but when the scene I was a part of died out, I was drawn to the idea of folk music because it shares some of the ideals of the punk scene. It’s inclusive, there is a community around it, and they are both tied to social ideology.”
Linus first arrived at the sessions in 2015 with a mandolin and little idea of how to play, but within weeks he was strumming along. “I didn’t actually like Irish music when I started to play it,” he says. “It grew on me as I learned it, and now it’s the center of my musical life.”
Sometimes, special guests descend on the sessions: in late March, Danish clarinetist Benjamin Bøgelund Bech taught old Icelandic songs he studied in university, while Wilma Young, a Shetland native living in Iceland, led the group in Celtic reels. Once, the group hosted a musician from Mongolia.
For Hannah Boswell, a fiddler from West Virginia, the sessions are a way to connect to her roots.
“People sang these songs as they lived and worked and died,” she says. “The songs linger in the land wherever you are; they come from an era when sometimes music was all you had. And that creates something incredibly special, I think—something you can still find in yourself if you reach deep enough.”
The sessions serve a broader social purpose as well.
“Thousands of people in Iceland learned to play instruments as kids,” says Linus, “and their instruments are lying in closets and attics because there is no culture for people playing together unless you are in a band.”
But, at the pub, music and community flourish as one—creating, in Linus’s words, ”a living, participatory music culture where people can get together for the simple joy of playing.”
For the time being, the Reykjavík Trad Sessions meet every Thursday at Ölsmiðjan from 19:00 to 23:30.