Fifteen years ago in a remote village in Ethiopia, two Icelandic toddlers started writing rap songs. The brothers, Markús and Birkir Bjarnason, then five and three years old, could not speak the local dialect of Daasanach and would only sometimes play games with the local children. They relied on each other for friendship, fun and musical entertainment. Now, in their early twenties, the brothers form the nucleus of Omotrack, and a band that’s been a diamond in the rough for the past two years is finally getting polished.
The brothers eventually rounded out the band with a four-piece brass section, and Omotrack recently placed third in Músiktilraunir, Iceland’s annual battle of the bands for young and emerging talent who are hoping to take their careers to the next level. “We tried to enter two years ago, but we only had two songs,” says lead singer and guitarist Markús. “We had been a band for maybe ten days. Now we have more music, and we feel more comfortable, so we just thought: let’s try this.”
It worked out: their bronze finish earned them a spot at this year’s Iceland Airwaves, and a supporting slot with the contest’s winners, Between Mountains.
Straight Out Of Omorate
After their childhood in Sub-Saharan Africa, the pair grew up in Iceland, with Birkir studying classical and jazz piano and Markús taking jazz guitar lessons. They found that they brought the songs they wrote as toddlers along with them. “We just remembered them, I don’t know why, they have just followed us around,” says Markús. “A few of the songs on our album are inspired by those, actually,” adds Birkir.
Composing the songs as an equal pair, they found themselves writing about their experiences in the village where they grew up, lending a depth and spirituality to the music that is wise beyond their years. “One of our songs is about a ten-year-old boy we met in Omorate when we went back for a visit recently, whose parents have shunned him,” Birkir explains. “Everyone in the whole town treats him like a pariah. So he lives around the house we used to live in, and some of our friends are helping him, giving him food, paying for his school, things like that, but he has no friends, no family, nobody.”
Right Here, Right Now
Alongside writing about the heartbreaking injustices they have seen, Omotrack churn out interesting, upbeat pop songs like the life-affirming mantra “Life Is Now,” which is equally fun and full of grace. “We try to think of our lives and see how lucky we are,” says Markús. “We have so much.”
The song is a highlight in their live set to the point that at a recent show at Gaukurinn, an audience member called out for it after it had already been played. “It’s very important to us that we are having fun,” says Birkir. “We’re making this music for ourselves and maybe someone else will like it. If it stops being fun, it’s pointless.”