Music in the frozen north
In late April, the Anchorage Museum and the Institute of the North hosted the second annual North by North Festival. The three-day event which focused on addressing the challenges and opportunities of northern innovation featured a remarkable cast of foreign scientists, business people, investors, artists and musicians. Among this year's crop of musicians were Icelandic rockers Sud and Greenlander Uyarkq. During their short stay in Alaska, we were lucky enough to sit down with the musicians and talk about music in the frozen northern hemisphere.
O'Hara Shipe: Aqqalu Engell, you're best known by your DJ moniker Uyarakq – is there meaning behind the name?
Uyarkq: Yes. Uyarkq actually means stone in all of the Inuit languages but I chose to spell it with Yup'ik “y” and a “k” and “q” to honor Kalaallisut and Inuktitut, my native languages. When I started doing music 20 years ago, I started with metal music so it's like paying homage to my musical heritage.
OS: I know your career has taken quite a lot different twists and turns. Can you tell me a little bit about your musical progression?
Uyarkq: I started doing electronic music about 10 years ago in 2008. Back then, I was the only guy doing electronic music actively. After that, I got some recognition from the hip-hop scene and this rapper Peand-eL wanted to collaborate with me so that's how I transitioned into Greenlandic hip-hop. After that, I have been working mostly with rappers, creating beats and making my own “igloo” music.
OS: So, I have to ask, what is “Igloo” music?
Uyarkq: Well, it's house music but igloo mean house in our language so I just call it igloo music.
OS: How would you characterize the music scene in Greenland?
Uyarkq: Right now, hip-hop really is the biggest thing in Greenland and it has been like that for the last 15 – 20 years. Greenlanders are usually really musical and you could say that half of all Greenlanders are artists or musicians. I would say that a quarter of Greenlanders are rappers so it's really big thing – every young guy can rap. I only know like two people who can rap in English because it is two languages away from our native language.
OS: How does Greenlander hip-hop compare to American hip-hop?
Uyarkq: Well, hip-hop in Greenland started in 1993 when a group called Nuuk Posse came out with their first EP. It was mostly like old school hip-hop with easy rhymes. Then when I started doing electronic music and collaborated with Peand-eL [in 2005], I took a different kind of direction with it. I took it to an experimental level because of my electronic background and challenged the rappers to rap on different beats. It's been a good fusion of the two styles.
OS: I first saw you perform at the North by North Festival in 2017 and was in awe when I saw you play an entire set on a Game Boy!
Uyarkq: Yeah, it was something like five years ago when I started making music on the Game Boy. I have this friend from Denmark who also plays music on the Game Boy so I asked him how he did it. He told me that you can order a blank cartridge that has been programmed by this Russian programmer to remix music. So at 27, I bought my first Game Boy ever and ordered this cartridge online.
OS: Does playing music on the Game Boy have any significance?
Uyarkq: I was a young boy in the 90s and I lived in Northern Greenland in a small community and my step-father used to take me on seal hunting trips. But he told me “back then you cried all the time on the ice because you wanted to be home and playing on the Nintendo instead of going hunting.” In my head, this is a good memory but yeah, I was mostly at home playing Super Mario and Zelda on the Nintendo. So my idea of making music on the Game Boy is to induce nostalgia because of the way Greenlanders ingest music – they are slaves of nostalgia – so I gave them nostalgia with a twist.
OS: Under the band name Suð you guys released two albums: Hugsanavélin in 1999 and Meira Suð in 2016.
Helgi Benediktsson [singer and guitarist]: As a band, we were really active around the millennium and then we went into a hiatus for some years. Then we got back together in 2013 and starting laying out the tracks for Meira Suð in 2016. So, we are just really happy to be back playing our stuff again.
OS: Who would you say influenced your music?
Kjartan Benediktsson [bassist and singer]: The 90s stuff!
OS: In recent years Icelandic artists like Kaleo and Of Monsters and Men have been receiving international praise. Is it safe to say that the music scene in Iceland is folk-rock based?
Magnus Magnusson [drummer]: No, actually I would say it's more about hip-hop. I think they have more of a following than rock bands do these days.
OS: So, what is it like being a rock band in Iceland?
HB: Well – it's OK. People still listen to rock music but its not the hottest thing at the moment for the young people. But it will go in circles I think.
MM: Just give it another two or three years.
HB: I think rappers are still riding a wave and are doing some good stuff but of course, the big bands that have been coming out of Iceland have been rock bands or indie-pop.
MM: I don't know, I think maybe it is good that rock goes underground again. Maybe something new, something good might happen.
OS: Is there a specific sound that makes Icelandic rock sound unique?
HB: Well, it's always a little bit different when you sing in Icelandic because the sound changes a little with the rhythm of the language. I think when you sing in Icelandic there [are harder syllables] and it makes it a little quirkier and then again it makes it a little special. Like the rappers are slurring their words quite a lot to be able to rap. Some people thought you can't really sing in Icelandic because of the pronunciation of words.
OS: Do you guys write songs in both English and Icelandic?
KB: When we start to write a song we scratch the lyrics down in English and then we try to craft the Icelandic lyrics. You kind of start by singing in English and then sort of grind the Icelandic lyrics out months later.
OS: You mentioned rock going underground. What are the music venues like in Iceland?
MM: Well, I would say most of them [seat] 100 – 150 people. The biggest venue is something like 5,000 people.
HB: Of course you could play in the stadiums. Guns N' Roses is coming in June and the stadium seats like 40,000 people. Iceland's entire population is like 340,000 so one in every 30 people are going to this concert.
OS: In America, basement and house concerts are kind of popular. Do you have anything like that in Iceland?
MM: House parties? Hmmm.
HB: I don't remember anything like these house parties or basement concerts in Iceland.
KB: Yeah, that's not a known concert in Iceland. Unfortunately.
Want to hear music by Uyarakq and Suð? Check them out on Facebook at @Uyarkq and @SudBand.
To listen to an extended interview, check out the Anchorage Press SoundCloud.