In the salty, arctic air of Ísafjörður, a small fishing town cradled in the northwest corner of Iceland, an omnipresent warmth lingers. A sense of community radiates from the town’s residents, their quaint homes, and the landscape that can become suddenly intimate if one looks closely enough. During the Aldrei fór ég suður music festival this feeling community warmed me to the core.
We drove up to Ísafjörður packed in a small rental car. My friends slept, sung, and snacked during the six-ish hour drive from Reykjavík. The spider web of a road map gave us the impression that time should be allotted for getting lost, but in reality the roads are well marked and signs for Ísafjörður are plentiful.
Out of the window, I witnessed the landscape pull us through the seasons. While traversing a mountain range after turning off route 1 onto route 60, we struggled to find the road in a snowstorm. But in the slowly greening plains before entering the Westfjords, we rolled down the windows and shed our layers.
The creation of this landscape is no less epic than the sight of it: thousands of years ago, the Westfjords, like all fjords, formed by glacial melting. The diminishing ice carved U-shaped valleys out of the rock, leaving behind rows of sheer, flat mountains.
Within thirty minutes of my feet touching the soil of Ísafjörður, a town of roughly 3000 inhabitants, I got the overwhelming feeling that Aldrei fór ég suður (AFÉS) is a festival for the past, present and future residents of Ísafjörður, the rest of us warmly welcomed guests.
The festival’s name, which translates as “I Never Went South” (to Reykjavík), comes from a song by Bubbi Morthens, a former migrant worker, and alludes to the swelling urbanisation of Icelandic society. Though fishing has been the main industry of Ísafjörður for centuries, political fishing restrictions in the early 1980s and a decline in the fish population has caused the Ísafjörður natives to seek work in Reykjavík or abroad, leading to a decline in the town’s population. Now in its eighth year, AFÉS came when a revival of unity was needed. Already on Friday evening, during the community seafood feast in the town’s centre, I could tell a sense of community would run deep throughout the festival: an owner of a local restaurant cooked up huge pots of seafood soup and fish stew, and cheap beer was piled on ice in the back of a pick-up truck.
Mugison, who conceived AFÉS over a beer in London with his father in 2003, remarked, “This festival is all about the love. There are no sound checks and mostly everyone uses the same equipment. We just want to have a good time this weekend and enjoy each other”.
The night of AFÉS’ conception, Mugison and his father made a list of all the things they disliked about the structure of most music festivals: lesser known bands play first; sound checks take as long as the set itself; money reigns, and thus advertisement infiltrates everything from the napkins at the hot dog stand to the stage décor.
Mugison said he wanted to start a festival in Iceland that replaced this formal structure with a relaxed, communal atmosphere, where the musicians and the town’s residents volunteer their time and donate their goods.
COMMUNITY BRENNIVÍN IS GOOD FOR THE SOUL
After sitting on the shore and passing around a bottle Brennivín, my friends and I sauntered over to the venue, a large warehouse situated on the outskirts of town. The stage was decorated with commercial fishing equipment that hung from the ceiling on thick rope. Large plastic tubs used for storing freshly caught fish held the festival’s ever-growing empty beer can collection.
As the Brennivín began to take hold, the concerts started to blend together, as if the musicians had all played simultaneously. But my hazy memory of this musical melding was no dream: Icelandic musicians are an especially incestuous bunch. FM Belfast’s Lóa Hlín Hjálmtýsdóttir, for example, is also in Prinspóló and múm’s Örvar Þóreyjarson Smárason plays with FM Belfast, Borko, and Skakkamanage from time to time.
The sun, even in April, lingers late and rises early, making a viewing of theNorthern Lights this late in the season especially rare. Despite the odds and bright lights that beamed over the crowd, the sky graced me with my first viewing of Aurora Borealis, a subtle tinge of green that accented Ísafjörður’s rural stars.
As we lay on a hill above the concert venue in the plush Icelandic grass, the music still droning in the background, the sky sunk into the depths of my heavy eyelids. Before falling asleep completely, we walked back to a warm Icelandic home and opened a door that we had been told remains unlocked at all hours of the night.
WARMLY WELCOMED RISING
We awoke late Saturday morning in what we realised was the room of a teenage Icelandic girl: the full collection of Twilight novels gave her away. Our hosts had kicked not one but both of their children out their rooms for us. The second room was across the attic hallway, its door adorned with stencils of planets and the names of Icelandic boys.
Maybe it was the smell of eggs permeating the house that morning that caused our bodies to desire the waking life. We soon discovered that our host, who fed us breakfast alongside their children, was the cook of the fish stew and seafood soup of the evening before. Food, I’ve begun to realise, is the language of hospitality. And at no point in Ísafjörður did I go hungry.
LABOUR OF LOVE
On the second night of concerts, rain joined the celebration, but the crowd of hundreds of people remained unbothered. This year, AFÉS is said to have around 3.000 attendants, and I couldn’t help but notice how many children were in the audience that night, sitting atop their father’s shoulders. There is something strangely beautiful about a festival where old men drunk off of cheap vodka can peacefully teeter next to excited little girls waiting in line for Icelandic pop star Páll Óskar’s signature. Even these drunken old men grew endearing in my eyes, especially as they danced with us to a metal band of teenage Ísafjörður natives.
For the musicians and festival organisers, the party continued through Sunday. In the morning all the musicians went to Sunday mass with the town’s residents. In the afternoon they took a bus together to the pool in Bolungarvík, a tiny town that neighbours Ísafjörður, where impromptu water yoga ensued. The day ended with a huge Easter dinner and improvised concerts.
On Sunday, I witnessed Icelandic singer Lára Rúnars serve drinks at dinner, Borko massage FM Belfast’s Árni Vilhjálmsson in the sauna, a busload of Icelandic musicians sing ‘Kumbaya, my Lord’ together in perfect key, and town residents clean up after the crowd. These moments can’t be measured in currency, but money never really factored into the equation in the first place: no one, not even the performers, are paid (other than in food and beer). Anything that does need buying is paid for by sponsors like Landsbanki and Hertz, though advertisement remains minimal. Even with a speedy growth in attendance, the festival has remained an intimate, labour of love endeavour.
You can watch the recordings from this year’s AFÉS at www.aldrei.is. Check it out!
Car provided by Hertz car rental. Book car at www.hertz.is