From Iceland — What Is Folk Music, Högni?

What Is Folk Music, Högni?

Published March 3, 2016

What Is Folk Music, Högni?
York Underwood
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The first time Snorri Helgasson and Högni Egilsson worked together, they painted sheds for Reykjavík Energy in the hillsides of Reykjavík. Snorri, the musician who manages The Reykjavík Folk Festival, noticed that the then-16-year-old Högni hadn’t been exposed to enough music and started lending him albums by Blur, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and more. From there, Högni dove into jazz, indie, classical, electronic music. Music became precious to him.

Snorri and Högni will work together again when Högni, now an established musician and songwriter, performs at The Reykjavík Folk Festival on Saturday March 12 at Kex Hostel.

We sat down with Högni to get his opinion on folk, the festival and the nature of music.

Högni Egilsson by Art Bicnick

Have you been a part of the Reykjavík Folk Festival before?
No, this is my first time. I put together my solo show this fall and Snorri asked if I wanted to come to the festival. I don’t know if I’m “folk” music; you’d have to get your definition for it from someone else. I’ve always thought of folk music as music of the people—at least that’s what it was in the past.

There was sacred music, which was the music that was played in church. Then there was secular music, troubadours travelling town to town across Europe singing songs about legends, heroes, or mourning and love. They were storytellers. It’s in the 20th century that the term became more narrow.

So you’re not influenced by folk music directly?
Oh I was, I guess. Paul Simon, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, they were all great storytellers and songwriters, accompanied by beautiful music plucked on a guitar or some other instrument. But that can’t be the easy definition of folk music: nice lyrics and acoustic guitars.

“[Reykjavíkurdætur] are bringing sexuality into the institutions. That’s a progressive and very important mode of thinking. That’s activism, which might be more in the spirit of the folk music of the 60s than someone strumming an acoustic guitar.”

Is there a way to define folk music?
Well, let’s look at electronic music and hip-hop, which are really relevant today. Electronic music has a linear progression in its songs. The rhythm picks up, the beat is dropped, and there’s an ecstatic peak. It’s expressive. It goes on a journey and tells a story. Hip-hop is different. You look at the big stars, Drake, Future, whomever. These songs are an installment.

They have a series of chords in some sort of key, but very ambiguous. It’s a unique sound and interesting. It seems like it could go on forever. Rap music is an installation. It’s like theatre music with a verbal overlap.

The functionality of rap is different than other genres, and though its quality may be debatable, it might be a better structure musically for delivering a message.

How does that relate to folk music?
Recently, there was some controversy around the group Reykjavíkurdætur [a 21-member female Icelandic hip-hop collective that focuses on combating the patriarchy], people were saying, “This isn’t real music.” And this got me thinking. Reykjavíkurdætur is delivering a message and disrupting a system in a way that other progressive-minded music groups can’t do, or aren’t willing to do.

Besides them having an effect on youth culture and young women, they are opening up sexuality. They are bringing sexuality into the institutions. That’s a progressive and very important mode of thinking. That’s activism, which might be more in the spirit of the folk music of the 60s than someone strumming an acoustic guitar. If you’re going to label something folk just because it sounds like something from 50 years ago, that doesn’t make sense. It’s about the message.

The Reykjavík Folk Festival takes place from March 10-12 at Kex Hostel.

See also:

Post-Set Breakdown With HE
We chat with Högni Egilsson of Hjaltalín, GusGus and Gluteus Maximus about his latest project HE, which he debuted at Sónar Reykjavík a couple of weeks ago.

Premiering HE
Högni Egilsson Shows His Teeth

This Is Not The First Time We’ve Seen Change
Gusgus on reaching the brink, and coming back stronger

Högni Egilsson on singing, sailing and the making of Grapevine’s album of 2012, Hjaltalín’s ‘Enter IV’

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