From Iceland — Rediscovering One’s Roots

Rediscovering One’s Roots

Published August 28, 2023

Rediscovering One’s Roots
Photo by
Art Bicnick

The Vaka Folk Music Festival celebrates Icelandic tradition

Iceland’s musical exports tend to generate buzz. Since the advent of the Sugar Cubes and the subsequent breakout solo careers of Björk and the rise of Sigur Rós that followed, the nation has earned a reputation for producing truly new and unique creative offerings. That often has the question being raised of what’s coming next? Who will be the next Björk or Of Monsters and Men or Ólafur Arnalds? 

One day I just had to look around and ask myself, ‘why am I playing Irish music? I’ve never been to Ireland. Where are the Icelandic tunes for me to play?’

But what about what came first? There’s value in looking to the past, in celebrating tradition, and that’s just what the Vaka Folk Music Weekend aims to do.

“This will just be a casual Krónan interview,” Línus Orri laughs over the phone as we connect for a chat during his lunch break – a truly modern set-up for a conversation about tradition. 

Vaka began in Akureyri in 2015 as a celebration of Icelandic folk tradition. It enjoyed a few iterations in the North before the organisers decided to take a step back. It was at that point when Linus and fellow traditional music champion Chris Foster took up the mantle, bringing the weekend event to Reykjavík in 2019. “We held the festival then in the Tin Can Factory,” Linus recalls. “It was a very small version of it. And then we were getting ready for 2020 when the restrictions all came into force.”

Photo by Art Bicnick

With COVID now seemingly in the rearview (fingers crossed), Vaka will return September 15 to 17 for a weekend of music, dance, food and workshops at KEX Hostel. If you’re thinking the leap from a language school to a popular event space and bar is a big one, you’re not wrong.

“Yeah, we’re stepping it up a notch,” Linus explains. “The Friday of the festival is the official day of the ríma, a traditional style of singing. And the Kvæðamannafélagið Iðunn [The Iðunn Poets’ Association] has been having a concert every year on that date. This year, we decided to have the festival on that day and host a concert together. It’s a chance for people to see both very authentic rímur performances from really old school singers, as well as some experimental or modern takes, with instruments, electronic music and stuff like that.”

It’s a chance for people to see both very authentic rímur performances from really old school singers, as well as some experimental or modern takes, with instruments, electronic music and stuff like that.

Rímur is a form of traditional Icelandic poem that adheres to rímnahættir – specific rhyming metres, of which there are thought to be around 450 in the ríma tradition. Dating to the 14th century, rímur employ alliteration, flowery language and maintain features of mediaeval Icelandic poetic style that was seen in skaldic verse. When sung, the emphasis on alternating words forms a toe-tapping or foot stomping beat.

Finding his roots

While other European nations have strong and internationally-known traditions of song and dance – we’re looking at you Riverdance – Iceland’s folk heritage hasn’t been as outwardly celebrated. How does a millennial indie musician find themselves interested in historical musical tradition?

“I’ve always been a musician and I’ve always been really interested in acoustic instruments and that got me into playing Irish traditional music,” Linus says. “One day I just had to look around and ask myself, ‘why am I playing Irish music? I’ve never been to Ireland. Where are the Icelandic tunes for me to play?’”

That moment of reflection led to Linus joining and ultimately becoming a board member of Iðunn. It was there that he met chairperson and folk musician Bára Grímsdóttir, who along with her husband Chris performs as the band Funi.

“It’s this amazing collection of people who have been perfecting this craft for decades,” Linus says of Iðunn. “But for many years it’s been quite frustrating to be one of the very few people of my generation [involved].” Linus laughs explaining how he’s often referred to as “the young people” in folk music crowds – something he appreciates as he progresses toward his mid-thirties. But he’d like to see more young people in Iceland waking up to the musical tradition around them.

“There’s this incredible wealth of music here that took me a while to find and it feels quite inaccessible,” Linus says. “I’ve been spending my time in the last year trying to find ways to make it more accessible, to make it easy to understand, to make it easy to join in and help in the effort of preserving this craft. It might sound quite simple if you don’t understand what you’re listening to. But it’s actually very diverse and there’s a lot of skill involved in the type of singing.”

Digging In

Vaka’s revival is clearly geared towards increased accessibility and increased appeal to the next generation of Icelanders to carry the folk tradition onward.

The weekend is divided into a series of different happenings. Friday’s musical programming will feature performances by Ragga Gröndal, Funi, Selló Stína, Pétur Húni, Ingimar Halldórsson, Gustaf Daníelsson and Linus. 

The party continues Saturday with workshops on traditional Icelandic dance, Scottish dance and a lesson on ríma for beginners.

But the event that Linus is most looking forward to – and which is billed as the centrepiece of the Vaka weekend – is what he calls “the feast.” On Saturday evening, an anticipated 100 people will come together to enjoy the culinary offerings of wave-making local chef Antje Taiga before the evening explodes into more folksy fun and a chance to put the dance steps learned earlier in the day to good use. The band Byzantine Silhouette keeps the party going with some Balkan flavour.

Photo by Art Bicnick

“I just really look forward to sitting together with everyone and singing together,” Linus says of his anticipation for the Saturday feast. “We are a small but growing community of people that are interested in folk music. So we’re trying to grow this community and that’s why we’re choosing to have things like singing together and dancing together and eating together – that’s how you create community.”

Those looking for a place to rest their voices and feet after a night of song and dance can do so Sunday while further immersing themselves in Icelandic folk tradition. The finale of the Vaka weekend will be a seminar on the future of Icelandic folk music at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies at the University of Iceland. The seminar will be held in Icelandic, but other events throughout the weekend will be in a mix of Icelandic and English.

It feels like it’s time that we had our folk revival.

“I feel like Icelanders have always been kind of embarrassed about their own musical traditions,” Linus says. “I feel like we’ve been trying to prove that we can make ‘real music’ – like European music or something – but it feels like it’s time that we had our folk revival.”

The Vaka Folk Music Weekend takes place September 15 to 17 at KEX hostel. The full program and more information can be found at Follow Vaka on Facebook for the latest updates.

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