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Music & nightlife | Iceland has a cultural volcano, too on Astini News

Iceland made the news big time last year when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted, spewing a cloud of haze that clogged European airways for nearly a week.

This year, Iceland has been sending out much friendlier emissions — call it a "Purple Haze," if you like — as that fiery northern isle experiences what might be called a cultural eruption. "For a country with only about 300,000 people, there's an incredible wealth of talent," said Kevin Cole, senior director of programming at Seattle radio station KEXP.

Cole was in Reykjavik two weeks ago, broadcasting live from the Iceland Airwaves rock festival. As a follow-up, on Friday, Neumos nightclub hosts Reykjavik Calling, a free showcase of eight musicians — four from Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, and four from Seattle, including Sean Nelson, of The Long Winters, and David Bazan, from Pedro the Lion.

Reykjavik Calling is part of a burgeoning cultural exchange between Seattle and Reykjavik, which celebrate 20 years as sister cities this year. The action is not limited to music, but extends to the visual and culinary arts, as well. Part of an Icelandic push for cultural tourism — given a big boost by the opening of a direct Seattle-Reykjavik flight on Icelandair in 2009 — Reykjavik Calling also reflects a growing recognition that the two cities have a lot in common.

"The weather is similar," said Cole, who discovered during his trip that Iceland's surprisingly temperate climate (55-65 degrees in summer; 30-40 in the winter) was quite familiar. "It's rainy and overcast and dark for half of the year or more and that's kind of conducive to people to create music, to try and find something to do. Then there's the physical beauty. The surrounding areas are physically stunning here in Seattle — when you can see'em, right? — and Iceland is almost beyond comprehension, with some of the biggest waterfalls in the world — a land of fire and ice."

Sense of isolation

Seattle and Reykjavik also share a sense of isolation, which has engendered a self-reliant attitude and a resistance to trends elsewhere. Coincidentally, that resistance has resulted in a musical tilt in both places toward folk revivalism and electronica. Ólöf Arnalds, for example, who plucks the guitar or the 10-stringed charango as she sings in a voice described nicely by her more famous Icelandic counterpart, Björk, as combining the sounds of a very young and very old woman, would be right at home playing with Seattle breakout band The Head and the Heart.

"That band in many ways could actually be from Iceland," said Hlynur Gudjonsson, Icelandic consul and trade commissioner, who organized Reykjavik Calling with KEXP.

Arnalds is paired up on Reykjavik Calling with Nelson. Icelandic folk-pop singer-songwriter Snorri Helgason, who sings in a Bob Dylan/Neil Young style will pair up with Bazan. Faroe Islander Gudrid Hansdottir will share her catchy chamber pop with celestial-voiced lead singer for Seattle's folk-pop aggregation Grand Hallway, Tomo Nakayama. And Nive Nielsen, from Greenland, an Inuit folk singer and ukulele strummer whose songs have a sense of impishly magical innocence, will collaborate with Seattle singer-songwriter Shelby Earl. Reykjavik Calling is sponsored by Icelandair and Iceland Naturally, the marketing arm of Iceland's trade commission, in New York, with Gudjonsson the prime mover. Married to a woman from Montana, Gudjonsson is a fan of Northwest music.

"We've actually been coming to Seattle since 2006, when we were looking at the time when Icelandair would start flying into Seattle," he said. "We had our first Taste of Iceland event in 2007. We brought a film, a chef, and did some stuff with the University (of Washington)."

Taste of Iceland repeated in 2008 and the following year Icelandic chefs came to Ray's Boathouse. The trade commission then turned its eye toward Seattle's Nordic Heritage Museum, helping the Ballard establishment mount the Nordic Fashion Bienniale, which runs through Nov. 13.

Part of that show, "Looking Back to Find our Future," was curated by New York-based Icelandic artist Hrafnhildur Arnardotti, known for her collaboration with Björk. The show draws out relationships between traditional and cutting-edge contemporary fashions from Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Sweden and Norway.

But for Gudjonsson, music was always on the front burner. In 2006, he and Cole began talking about collaborating. In 2009, KEXP was invited to broadcast live from Iceland Airwaves with a staff of two. Last year, three people went; this year, eight, all on Iceland's dime.

Bilateral links

Apparently, it's bearing fruit. Iceland's witty neo-folk outfit Of Monsters and Men recently signed with Universal.

KEXP's broadcasts from Iceland Airwaves, graced by an on air appearance by Iceland's president, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, have been crucial to building this bilateral relationship. This year the station broadcast five bands each day, over three days, and every hour they weren't broadcasting live, they were recording (and videotaping) more groups for later podcast.

KEXP's YouTube channel got over 30 million views this year, said Cole, with several podcasts, including one by Swedish artist The Tallest Man on Earth, getting more than a million views.

The Seattle music scene has benefited from KEXP, too.

"When I was on a German tour with The Long Winters — and this was 2003 — everywhere we went people said 'We heard you on KEXP,' " Nelson said.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or

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