From Iceland — Teaching Hillbillies to Appreciate Music: Borko on Music and Small Town Life

Teaching Hillbillies to Appreciate Music: Borko on Music and Small Town Life

Published June 11, 2015

Teaching Hillbillies to Appreciate Music: Borko on Music and Small Town Life
Ragna Guðmundsdóttir
Photo by
Art Bicnick

I stalk my interviewee from my window, waiting for an unfamiliar car to leave. When the coast is clear, I skip across the lawn to a house I’m very familiar with. It might seem like a nifty coincidence that the person I’m interviewing now lives in the former home of my best childhood friend, but not in Drangsnes. The tiny fishing village in Strandir is home to around 70 people who are all somehow connected. When you live there, almost anyone you meet is a relative, friend, colleague or neighbour (or a mix thereof).

My next-door neighbour is Björn Kristjánsson, better known by his stage name Borko. The name has been a source of interest for me for a while, since I’ve repeatedly tried and failed to teach my father to say it right. He prefers to call his neighbour “Bronko” after some old type of car he used to own. Embarrassingly, said neighbour is well-aware of this but not offended, laughing as he lists the various ways the name has been mispronounced before (“Birko, Bronko, Porko….”).

He traces the origin of his name back to when he graduated from college and decided to move with his friend to Finland, to learn Finnish and start an art duo. He explains: “We were making fun of GusGus who at the time didn’t want to call themselves a ‘band’ but an ‘art collective’, so we were going to be an ‘art collective’. We decided to find names that sounded Finnish. I chose Borko and he chose Hondo and we became the art duet Hondo ja Borko. But we never did anything more than creating the names.”

Björn has toured internationally with bands such as FM Belfast and Múm, and has released two albums in his solo career. Early on, he was also in a band called Rúnk, whose members included several well-known musicians in Iceland, like Prins Póló, Benni Hemm Hemm and Hildur Guðnadóttir.

When I ask him what kind of music he makes, his frown gives away that he doesn’t like such definitions. “I really don’t,” Björn confirms. “I just make all kinds of music. People can just listen to it and compartmentalise it if they want.”

Borko 2

Björn has been living in Drangsnes for the past three years, working as a teacher at the local elementary school and breathing life into the local music scene. He and his family moved to Drangsnes after receiving a sign during an Easter break in Árneshreppur, the remote municipality north of Drangsnes, where his wife Birna grew up.

“We had been stuck in the same track in Reykjavík for a while,” Björn says. “We stopped here on the way to Árneshreppur and visited some friends and they told us that there were vacant principal and teacher positions here and asked if we would apply. We didn’t think so, but when we continued on north the day after, we talked about it the whole time. Then we went to a bingo at Finnbogastaðaskóli [the elementary school in Árneshreppur] and won a 10,000 ISK credit slip to the store in Drangsnes and we agreed it was a sign that we should apply. Three months later we had moved to Drangsnes.”

Björn, who is a music teacher by profession, went from a school in Reykjavík with 400 students to a school with 15. “It’s like a little family, everyone is always together and you can have a much more personal connection to the students,” he says, noting though that it’s also a lot of work, because he’s teaching all age levels and must be well versed in all their curricula.

He emphasises independence and personal service to his students. “I want to help them come up with their own ideas and help them realise them, rather than just feed them material. I can do that with either twenty kids or five, but the quality of the service I provide is better when they are so few. It’s perfectly individualised.”

Taking full advantage of his chosen profession, Björn has been turning his students into talented musicians and he says it wasn’t difficult at all. “They are awesome. Most of them are genuinely interested in music and it’s not much effort to teach them to keep the beat or learn new melodies.”

Those kids came under the spotlight in 2013 when they participated in a highly successful and award-winning Christmas commercial campaign produced by Vodafone. Being a music teacher, Björn was called to a meeting to discuss the idea of finding children who played instruments, and he naturally brought up his students. The commercial shows a group of kids on stage, performing a Christmas song for their families (who record it on smartphones and view it through iPads).

“It was so much fun,” Björn recalls, “everybody in the village became involved in the project, decorating their houses three weeks earlier than usual. They were so positive and so into it. I think that shone through, this positivity and honesty and spontaneous joy.”

The people’s positivity also extends to Björn’s attempts to create a music scene in the small town. In order to make his own music, he rented an old building in the village to use as a studio. “I had probably lived here for about three months before I even saw this little house, I mean really saw it. So I started asking around and got to know it was the library. It’s a fifteen square metre house, it’s amazing it even exists.”

After being granted a permission to rent the old library, Björn renovated it by himself and turned it into a studio with the full support of the locals.

Full Sumarmölin Line-Up:
Retro Stefson

But more noticeably, Björn founded the monthly concert series Mölin, in co-operation with the local bar/restaurant/guesthouse, in which he gets different musicians to play each time and warms up for them himself.

I voice my doubts about middleaged countryside people being interested in this sort of hipster music, but Björn tells me they are very open to it. “Some people come to every concert and I think it’s out of real interest and not just duty and co-dependence. There have been about 25-60 people in the audience. In a town with a population of 70, that’s pretty good. Almost a 100% attendance.”

He also hosts a larger family-friendly summer version of the concert, called Sumarmölin, which is slowly building a good reputation. The line-up for this year’s Sumarmölin is pretty impressive, including fairly big names in the national music scene, like Tilbury, sóley and Retro Stefson. Kveld-Úlfur is also playing along with the big shots, a band made up of Björn’s older local elementary students.

But after three years, Björn is now moving back to the city. He recently had his third child, and although he likes bringing up his children in such a safe environment, he and his wife are missing their families and friends, most of who live in the capital.

He still plans to continue with the summer concerts, however, so this small fishing village could still become known for a hipster music festival.

Sumarmölin takes place on June 13 at the community centre in Drangsnes, Samkomuhúsið Baldur. The house opens at 19:00 and the concert starts at 19:30. Check out the full listing here.

Tickets are available at the entrance and on presale here.

Support The Reykjavík Grapevine!
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!

Show Me More!