Jamaica’s cultural export heads north – way north
On December 21st – Day One of Winter – sunlight in Reykjavik is just a 4 hour 7 minute low-in-the-sky rumour. The dim sol stays lit long enough for Icelanders to shop, grab an espresso, gas the car and suck up what little light the gods offer that day.
Busy. Busy. But oh so brief. What do Icelanders do for the other 20 hours of a winter day? For gnúsi Yones, Salka Sól Eyfel and Steinunn Jónsdóttir, the three singing stars of AmabAdamA the seemingly never-ending night is time for perfecting the Jamaica strut, singing and writing reggae music — all in Icelandic of course! Next spring when the sun comes back, AmabAdamA will have a new album for their growing world fan base.
There wasn’t much light last month when I travelled to Reykjavik to take in the Airwaves music festival. Sixth year in a row and the third time I was seeing AmabAdamA. For most of the show I was trapped in a crowded media pit watching the two blond female singers and a bearded red haired man giving their Icelandic take on the Jamaican strut.
Incongruous. Herky-jerky. Infectious. The 1,000 Vikings in the packed hall (that is big audience for a city of 120,000) started mimicking these odd Jamaican-like moves as the music on stage throbbed in a decidedly Caribbean Call and Response musical movement.
It is old style reggae AmabAdamA music has trace elements of last century stars like Toots and the Maytals and Chaka Demus & Pliers.
I didn’t get backstage that night – a glacial wall of security people blocked the entrance from the screaming fans. I wanted to find out how there could be original reggae being written and performed so far north? What are they singing about? And, where did that Iceland strut come from anyway?
I did connect with the band after returning to my own version of the Great White North (Toronto, Canada), albeit via e-mail. Over a couple of days we talked about AmabAdamA’s three year evolution from a Reykjavik “Bashment Dance” band to A-list performers with online Icelandic videos garnering more views than there are people in the world who can understand the language.
“ We haven’t made an English song yet! It’s all in Icelandic. We write about things that matter to us,” explained singer Steinunn Jónsdóttir. “We have made songs about corruption and lack of compassion the importance of respecting earth, dancing (and forgetting what you are doing because you see something nice and lots of other stuff. We say what we think and (with these long dark winters) we think a lot.”
“Gnúsi makes the “riddims” and he and I have written most of the lyrics, but we all influence the outcome.”
The band formed in 2013 and quickly signed to a local recording studio. One album Heyrðu mig nú has been released and a single from it “Hossa Hossa” (Think the 1965 breakthrough hit Bam Bam by Toots & the Maytals) was a solid hit in Iceland and got play in Scandinavia. Last year “GAIA”, found a large following (by Icelandic standards) on radio and YouTube.
I couldn’t understand a word of what I heard on stage but the tight harmonies and the enthusiasm of the performers make it oh so approachable. For Iceland ears, the lyrics resonate as strongly in the land with little light, as reggae does in sun splashed Trench Town.
“ We use the same themes (as Jamaican reggae), just because they speak to us. Lovers. Rock and Rebel music,” she continued. “We are fortunate enough to grow up in a very peaceful and privileged island so we can’t say that we have been through much hardness, but still there are some things in our society that we think are wrong and we point them out. “
“Our biggest political party is right-wing. We don’t connect with that way of thinking and we are not afraid to say that out in our songs. We want to inspire our listeners to care! To stand up! To love our neighbors. That’s how we were brought up.”
“We are Icelandic and we are not pretending to be anything else. We write about our own experiences. We still connect to the compassion and simplicity of the lyrics of classic reggae songs.”
At Airwaves, the people cheer, clap and try to mimic AmabAdamA’s moves. It looks like the whole room is moving a chicken dance has met dancehall thing (watch their YouTube Hossa Hossa to understand https://youtu.be/b-G8YdzUjK8 ).
“We don’t really think a lot about our choreography, but Steinunn took some dancehall classes and taught us some moves. We haven’t mastered it yet though (as you probable noticed) but we just like to dance!”
One of the reasons we love reggae is the trance of the riddims. You just cannot stand still!,” said singer Salka Sól Eyfeld. “Icelandic people don’t really let loose on the dance floor but we do, and don’t really care if we don’t look our best doing so, and that influences our audience.”
The band has only performed once outside of Iceland and that was in England. This time of year they dream of taking their act to somewhere warm … including Canada (It is all relative, the band thinks of Canada as a ‘way south’).
The three singers don’t have the luxury of warm weather vacations; all have part-time jobs to sustain themselves. “gnúsi has a recording studio; Salka is a radio host and one of the Icelandic Voice judges on TV. I teach dance and work at a cafe called Kaia Kaffihús (that sells Marley coffee :)”
By Stephen Weir
Previously published in the Huffington Post and republished here with permission.
Stephen Weir is a well-known Toronto communicator. He is an active publicist working on many important cultural projects including the Toronto Caribbean Carnival (Caribana), The Underground Railroad Event, The Brampton Art Gallery (PAMA), The Art Gallery of Hamilton, The Cundill Prize for History and the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction.