Last January, I was sitting near a cave with three Bedouin men in the Jordanian desert. There were no other signs of human activity; the barren yet beautiful landscape rivaled the highlands of Iceland. The ancient city of Petra was an hour away—by mule—and the surrounding red-rock mountains were illuminated by a winter sky full of stars.
I had just met the Bedouin men earlier in the day and quickly connected with them. But we were alone in the middle of a desert and I was nervous.
I didn’t feel this way because I didn’t trust them. I was nervous because they had asked me to freestyle rap.
When: May 23-24
Where: Stokkseyrarsel farm near Selfoss
Price: 9,500 ISK
Freestyle rap is something I do for friends on road trips or when I have a few beers in me. I wasn’t some kind of wordsmith wunderkind who grew up battling on street corners in the Bronx. Still, I brought it up in conversation and they were intrigued and wanted to hear my flow.
I got up and started to freestyle. I stumbled in the beginning but finally picked up momentum and got into a flow. When I finished, one of the Bedouin men stood up and started to freestyle in Arabic. Sudden surprise quickly transformed into awe and excitement.
Here we were, gathered around a fire we had made from tinder we’d collected earlier in the day, rapping in Arabic and English. Doing it in the middle of the Jordanian desert, next to a cave. Though we spoke different languages, we were creating together. We were sharing, and ultimately, we were connecting. It was a beautiful moment, and after the man finished his flow, we all hollered and applauded. He laughed.
Enter the rabbit hole
That night at the cave will remain one of the most magical nights of my life. Once I got back to Wadi Musa, I wanted to learn more about the culture of gathering around fires to share stories and music. I did a Google search with a string of keywords: “winter fire,” “sharing stories,” “music,” “gathering” and “nature.”
One of the first Google results to pop up: The Sagas of the Icelanders.
I clicked on the page not knowing that I was jumping down a rabbit hole, coming out on the other side weeks later with an obsession for Iceland and its culture. Eventually I started to send unsolicited requests to Icelandic storytellers and artists, asking them about the scene and what inspired them. In the beginning—like many others—I naively thought it was the country’s nature that inspired most artists. My new hypothesis is that a small population allows people to collaborate with different people and experiment with new ideas.
These conversations with artists and storytellers catalysed my idea of launching a music and arts festival that incorporated storytelling. After weeks of ruminating about the festival idea, I decided to quit my jobs and move to Iceland to pursue it. Some people thought I was crazy to walk away from my life in Washington, DC. But I wasn’t walking away. I was running toward realising a vision that I intuitively felt needed to happen.
The festival idea would eventually grow into Saga Fest, a multi-day experience focused on sustainability, community-building and transformation. The festival will take place on a farm called Stokkseyrarsel, located near Selfoss, thanks to the support of an inspiring family of farmers and environmentalists.
The goal of the festival is simple: to connect people to each other, and to nature.
Nearly 750 people will gather for the inaugural Saga Fest, which takes place on May 23 and 24. There will be live music performed by seventeen local and international acts, including For a Minor Reflection, Fufanu, Sisý Ey, Ylja, Soffía Björg and Robot Koch (Germany). We’ll also have jam sessions, drum circles and freestyle rapping, since creating music is just as important as listening to it.
Twenty-seven artists will join us from more than eight countries—including artists from all over Iceland—to build installations and create immersive art experiences. These experiences involve festivalgoers (making them “participatory” in nature) and relate to storytelling. For example, a group of Dutch artists coming to Saga Fest will use special devices to record festivalgoers’ heartbeats as they ask them questions about their lives. All of the collected heartbeats will be mixed into a soundtrack by a producer on-site. Musicians will have the chance to layer improvised instrumentals over the track, and the final piece will be performed near the end of the festival.
Many of Saga Fest’s artists work closely with the local community. Twelve of the festival’s artists are participating in our week-long residency, where they will mentor and collaborate on projects with local Selfoss youth.
There will also be workshops covering a range of interests: skateboard design with found materials, meditation and yoga, shamanism, oral storytelling, free-form dance and life-sized puppet-making.
While music, art and workshops are important components to Saga Fest, the core of the festival will be focused on creating a space where people can share, learn and create with others. We want people to be vulnerable, and depart the festival with new perspectives and friendships.
In a lot of ways, this journey has been rooted in gratitude. Saga Fest would not be the magical experience it is destined to be if it weren’t for a supportive community and a passionate group of core organisers (I have lots of love to extend to the Saga Fest founding team: Katrin, Siggi, Josh, Þórólfur, Bylgja, Anna, Sandra, Janet, Melina and Lucy).
Ultimately, Saga Fest is about planting seeds of change. Our goal is to ensure all participants leave with a burning desire to live more sustainably and to effect positive change in their communities.
I hope you’ll join us to be a part of this transformation in May.