(Reykjavík, Iceland) —- You get off the plane, suck in the super clean air, and get your bearings. Everything is white. The white tipped mountains. The flecks and traces of snow in the air. And then there are the people. Draco Malfoy white blond hair. Bright alabaster skin. Perfectly coiffured and impeccably dressed (except for the industrial strength snow boots).
Iceland is the last place in the world you would expect to hear the soulful sounds of Jamaican reggae. AmabAdamA have been writing and performing Arctic Reggae for the past five years, and their music is as pure Irie as the driven snow.
Gnúsi Yones, his partner Steinunn Jóns and their best friend Salka Sól have been performing in Iceland and England for over ten years and have taught a generation of Icelanders the joys of downbeat reggae music. In an island nation of under 300,000 people, most Vikings under the age of 50 have taken to the slow tempo classic reggae sounds of AmabAdamA. Close your eyes of think of the early sounds of the Mighty Diamond, or Toots and the Maytals, and you will get a feel for their music. Open your eyes and you will see Icelanders skanking and moving like it was Sunsplash and not the land of the geysers.
Even though the capital city of Reykjavik is a just 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle, AmabAdamA manages to fill the bars and the performance halls with music that would best be performed at Canada’s Jambana or Jamaica’s Reggae Sumfest. It is that slow soft downbeat that has everyone weaving and bumping to the music.
In Iceland singing along with performers is encouraged and, as a result, everyone knows the words to their songs. Haven’t heard their music on G-98 or the Vibe? That is because all of their lyrics are in the obscure Icelandic Nordic language. Foreigners don’t have much luck with the words, so the trio gives them a few easy words to sing out at the appropriate times.
“We are living on an island where it is almost mandatory for people to be creative. Iceland is a nation of singers, songwriters, authors and actors, “Steinunn told the Caribbean Camera earlier this week at the Iceland Airwaves music festival. “No real resistance to our (Jamaican inspired) music, in fact just the opposite, people love what we are doing.”
While Jamaican artists often sing about the ills of society from the violence in Trench Town to demanding Equal Rights, AmabAdamA is thinking about the environment and saving the planet.
“ I have everything. Abundant food. A home. A safe country to live in and even warm boots” laughed actress, singer Salka Sol as she pointed at her feet. “It just wouldn’t be right to have us sing (about the social ills of the Caribbean). There are always messages in our lyrics -- we have made songs about corruption, a lack of compassion, the importance of respecting Earth, dancing and lots of other stuff. In many ways we perform family friendly music with a message. Our audiences have fun, and as you know we encourage people to dance and sing along.”
On an island that has produced some of the world’s top musical groups from Bjork to Of Monsters and Men and Sigur Ros, the three performers aim to be the FIRST to bring Reggae Arctic Soul to the world. They have an online following in England, Canada and the US thanks to their performances at Iceland music festivals that attract off-island music fans.
This past weekend Caribbean Camera was part of the almost 10,000, mostly English speaking foreigners, taking in the music. This year was the 20th anniversary of the four-day festival. Airwaves bring in international acts, from the US, Canada, the UK, Germany, Russia and other northern countries. Over 200 acts performed in Iceland’s bars, art galleries, theatres and the open street. AmabAdamA gave two concerts and was the only band playing reggae.
Because there are so many international visitors attending Airwaves, most of the bands performing speak in English on stage. AmabAdamA is no exception with Salka Sol humorously introducing their songs in English. When the Caribbean Camera took in their show inside a jam-packed brewpub in the capitol city’s port district, a hand vote showed almost all of the audience understood English.
“Right now our music is sung in Icelandic, but, if we are going to broaden our market we are looking at some point to recording in English,” said producer and singer 30-year old Gnúsi Yones. ”Our fans in Iceland don’t mind us speaking in English during the festival, but, a new album, it is a 50/50 proposition, some don’t like the loss of Icelandic, but we do have a need to expand (or reach). Coming soon our next CD Gróðurhúsið will be in Icelandic but we may make English versions of some of the songs available.”
Since Airwaves the group has already posted three new songs on Spotify. Their next CD Gróðurhúsið is coming out soon. “The main theme is maybe feelings and love -- to love one self and to love others. In the title song Gróðurhúsið the lyrics go something like "I have a greenhouse in my garden, where I'm going to grow myself." and then the metaphor continues,” explained Gnúsi.
It is hard for recording groups to make money in such a small country. The three founders of the group have to wear many hats. Gnúsi has a recording studio; his partner 29-year old Steinunn Jóns is also a singer with The Daughters of Reykjavík. It is a touring women’s rap group, which sings about politics, feminism and sexual abuse. Salka performs both solo and with a cover band called GRLPWR. The 29-year old is also an actress on the National Theatre stage and in Iceland’s growing movie industry. She was in the Netflix hit Trapped and gave me a stage whisper secret heads-up – the popular detective series has already quietly filmed its second season and she has a role in it!
The trio has yet to visit Jamaica – that is on their collective bucket list – Toronto is more likely to happen first. “ We would put aside some of our other work to travel and perform in Canada. We hear that Toronto has one of the world’s best reggae scenes,” continued Gnúsi Yones. “ And besides which, what Icelander wouldn’t want a trip south!”
The musicians might be taken aback by Toronto’s climate - despite all my talk of Iceland’s glaciers, and freezing temperatures, the capital of Iceland has much less daily sunshine but tends to be warmer in the winter than Toronto. This fall has been one of the warmest for Iceland in decades whereas Toronto has seen some of the white stuff already.