I Never Went South: Europe’s Nicest, Most Remote, Festival

Mugison's unique festival
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The drive from Reykjavík to Ísafjörður took eight long hours up tricky slopes and narrow passages along the craggy coastlines of the Westfjords, one of Iceland’s most spectacular and isolated locations. The tiny town whose name stands for ice-fjord in Icelandic is located some 500km northwest of Reykjavík and is populated by a mere 3,000. The scenery here is breathtaking: a set of imposing snow-beaten mountains and steep rocks loom over the unsuspected visitor. In April however, weather conditions are not forgiving and at night temperatures dive way below zero, while snow, wind and rain alternate within split seconds.

The reason why Clash is here is no other than to revisit Europe’s most remote music festival, Aldrei fór ég suður (meaning ‘I never went south’). Aldrei is the brainchild of well-known Icelandic songsmith Mugison, conceived eight years ago over a drunken conversation in London with his dad, PapaMug, when they imagined a festival “were local workers would sing, dj and entertain as if they were the main attraction, while they would get the biggest names from the Icelandic music scene to support them.”

In Icelandic terms, Aldrei fór ég suður is the opposite pole of its famous bigger brother Iceland Airwaves. Aldrei is not about hyped-up acts and trendy types. Trends don’t reach the Westfjords! Aldrei fór ég suður is the celebration of rural heritage, community life and egalitarian values: volunteers run the festival that takes place in a workshop that normally repairs bulldozers and trucks; there is no entry fee and no soundchecks; all artists regardless of fame and popularity play for free and for only 20 minutes. The friendliness and hospitality of the locals is admittedly humbling and the festival is a collective effort of everybody in Ísafjörður. “We did a deal with the town council in order to get them involved, because we thought that politicians were lazy and weren’t showing up at the gigs. So we agreed that the mayor would be actively involved in housing people, helping out and working at the venue and show an example,” Mugison proudly explains.

Over the years most of the usual suspects of the Icelandic music scene have played at Aldrei: múm, Hjaltalín, Gus Gus, even Sigur Rós did country versions of their songs by changing their name and dressing up in country outfits. “A normal Sigur Rós show wouldn’t do for Aldrei,” Mugison proudly boasts.

Celebrated electropopers FM Belfast have performed already three times at the festival. One of the main collaborators behind the band, Árni Rúnar Hlöðversson, observes: “Aldrei is very raw and basic. We are staying at a dormitory with the rest of the musicians. I actually think we’re too old for this, but it’s nice to stay with other people and reconnect, because we’ve been playing a lot abroad and for us it’s important to keep good relationships with other bands and get to know what’s happening in Iceland.”

In terms of this year’s acts performing at Aldrei fór ég suður the palette was very rich and rewarding. Clash particularly enjoyed the following acts:

Prinspóló a collaborative effort fronted by Svavar Pétur Eysteinsson from Skakkamanage includes members from Sudden Weather Change, Reykjavík! and FM Belfast. Their minimalistic DIY acoustic strums and soothing tones were an endearing opener to such a unique festive affair, even if Clash only nodded along to the incomprehensible Icelandic lyrics.

Later on Mr. Silla – the solo project of Sigurlaug Gísladóttir from múm - took to the stage. Their straightforward, bluesy pop-rock and Sigurlaug’s pristine voice, drawing influence from PJ Harvey, proved a slow-burning aural delight.

A proper revelation to Clash though was the avant-garde experimental hardcore duo Lazyblood – a shocking and unique experience. Lazyblood are contemporary dancer and choreographer Erna Ómarsdottir and composer Valdimar Jóhannsson. They took the concept of extreme sound opera to new, darker places where theatrical expression and chorographical precision meet raw energy and animal instincts. Outstanding.

Post/black-metallers Sólstafir continued in a similar mood. They showcased a sombre and powerful blend, but with fewer twists than Lazyblood, but with heavy guitars instead that seems to be very popular in this isolated part of the world.

A special mention should be given to the performances of – king of his castle - Mugison who brought an entire brass ensemble of different ages onstage and an early-evening bash by Icelandic gay icon Páll Óskar in front of a cheerful crowd and screaming kids adding to the diversity of the festival.

The long weekend draws to a close and Clash wonders what may the future hold for an event like Aldrei fór ég suður… When asked about further developing the festival Mugison jokes: “I am not the marketing kind of guy. Some people have advised me to sell the brand. It’s obvious that they’ve never been to the festival!“

Words and photo by Vasilis Panagiotopoulos

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