When I think of international diplomacy, I often imagine a huge summit with government officials in suits shaking hands over treaties that took months, or even years, to craft. Diplomacy, however, takes many forms. Many of the most effective methods of fostering friendly relations on the international stage rely on artistic and cultural diffusion. Music is one such avenue that offers invaluable insights into intercultural understanding.
Last weekend at Songbyrd, two West Nordic bands channeled the love they have for their communities, languages, and cultures through carefully crafted lyrics and innovative tunes.
The first group to perform was Greenlandic pop singer-songwriter Frederik Elsner and his band from the Faroe Islands. While I do not speak Greenlandic, I was captivated by Elsner’s haunting vocals and deft command of the guitar. Elner’s music portfolio spanned the genres of pop, folk, indie, and more, leaving the audience hanging on the end of each final chord to hear what sort of song would be next. Elsner and his band were clearly excited to be sharing bits of West Nordic culture with the crowd, even pausing between songs to teach us words in Greenlandic.
After the show, we were able to sit down with Elsner and ask him a few questions about his music. When we asked about the importance of music to him, Elsner said: “Music does something to your soul. Music does something to your feelings.” He imbues love for people and places (both physical and imagined) close to his heart into every word, chord, and song, which has a profound effect on listeners.
During his performance, Elsner cited family, nature, and love for his country as major sources of inspiration for his music. Elsner’s father gave him his first guitar, and from that day, Elsner wanted to practice in order to be just like him. Now a father himself, Elsner has a renewed appreciation for the bonds of family: “That is my future,” he said.
The West Nordic Waves event at Songbyrd gave Elsner the opportunity to showcase the beauty of Greenlandic culture. “It’s so important to us. It’s actually the first time that a Greenlandic singer sings in the U.S. in Greenlandic…I’m proud of that,” said Elsner. “They have to hear our music. They have to listen to our Greenlandic language. That’s why I sing in Greenlandic. It comes from the heart.” Staying true to his Greenlandic identity through language use is important to Elsner, who hopes that music sung in the Greenlandic language will act as a conduit through which to bring awareness to broader socio-political issues like climate change impacting the West Nordic region.
The second group to take the stage was GRÓA, a punk group from Iceland. While Elsner’s set entranced the crowd, GRÓA’s energized them. In fact, when asked to describe their music in three words, members of GRÓA used the words “passionate, energy, and turbo.”
Dressed in the coolest fashions inspired by Reykjavík’s punk scene, group members screamed into the microphone, jumped around on stage, and moshed through the audience. GRÓA’s chemistry as a group was enthralling. Whether they were standing in a tight circle playing instruments or rolling around with one another on the venue floor, their love for one another was tangible.
Guitars, drums, and saxophone blended into a vibrant cacophony in GRÓA’s set. Each song channeled the passion and energy that the group centers in their sound. GRÓA also heavily incorporated screaming into their music, adding another layer to the chaotic brand they actively cultivate.
We had the opportunity to talk with GRÓA after their performance to learn more about them and their music. GRÓA formed naturally as a group; two of the members are sisters, and the others were already friends. Many of the band members said they have been playing classical music from a young age, but their pivot to punk music was inspired by the people and places around them in Iceland. “We represent the grassroots in Iceland because, Icelandic music, when you Google it, is not the same, but there are so many cool things happening in the grassroots in Iceland.”
GRÓA’s music is definitely a reflection of this observation. Their “cool” sound blends elements of free jazz, experimental electronic music, rap, rock, and more. They take inspiration from artists like Fugazi, Sonic Youth, and Alabaster DePlume. In their music they like playing around, releasing energy, and doing something fun together.
On the opportunity to bring Nordic culture to the United States, GRÓA said: “It’s crazy to have this opportunity to just travel and play in general…seeing people enjoy our music is just…magnificent…it means a lot to us, but I don’t know what it means to the people here.”
I think it is safe to say that for many audience members (including myself), the West Nordic Waves concert had a positive, profound impact. Hearing the excited chatter on the patio outside the venue and the big smiles of people as they walked out the door are solid testimonials of the transformative effects of music. If you want to see either artist live, I would highly recommend doing so on a trip to the beautiful West Nordic region – you won’t regret it!
Photography by Camille Kelly