Friday, July 20, 2018

An Icelandic Ukulele Workshop - Í örmum mínum, ó herra

Vesturbæjarlaug neighbourhood hot pools

Vesturbær's Kristin

The pleasures of íslensku society are not immediately obvious, nor are the ways of surviving in this marginal climate. But our daily visits to Vesturbaejarlaug - our neighbourhood hot pools complex - gently reveal the nuances and beauty of their culture.

A young woman says hello as she hears my Aussie drawl talking to Ja-a-ane, walking the streets of the Reykjavik suburb of Vesturbær. Kristin has been to the tailor to drop off some clothes for mending (not everyone has an amazing seamstress mother like mine). We talk as we turn street corners to her stoop.

In that short conversation we learned a lot, for instance where Björk lives (literally a few doors up from our Airbnb). But more real, we learn about Kristin's job, how much people earn, how much rent they pay (kr200,000 per month for a family of four). Her job is paid well - maybe kr380,000 per month? That maths doesn't seem easy living to me, and I know a beer is about $10 Australian. But, she avers, if you talk to the locals you can find ways to reduce the cost of eating out with two for one offers etc.

Jane. Fame stalking.
I pretty much always have my sopranino ukulele in my daypack. It is a great passport to winning friends and influencing complete strangers. I pull it out, and we sing a song on her stoop, with her two boys (rough age of 10) shyly watching on. As a reward for our song, she gives us 2 beers! I drink one on the spot. So lovely of her. Nice beer too, with coriander touches. We said our farewells and head to Vesturbæjarlaug.

The Captain of the Icelandic Cricket Team - Jakob Robertson

At Vesturbæjarlaug I finally crack the conversational jackpot in the shallow pool. The oppressive and apparently eternal clouds/fog have broken and the temperature has soared to 14.7deg C. Lying completely flat out in the 30cm 36-38deg pool, I chip into an English conversation about having the power to change the weather. I had just watched Geostorm on the plane, so it was apropos.

Are you Australian I asked the young lad.

Yes. My mother is Icelandic, my Dad Australian. 

Jakob now lives here mostly, and is the captain of the Iceland Cricket Team. He is also off the next day to Estonia for a Rugby 7s match. It floored me when he said he had met Mal Webb and the Formidable Vegetable Sound System at a permaculture event in Iceland. Jakob, apart from being an obviously all round nice guy and sportie spice, said he was perhaps best known for a short youtube on Icelandic language.

It occurred to me that I didn’t need a uke right there in the pool to facilitate my social life, for that is one of the key functions of Icelandic geothermal pools. Not only are they healthful and pleasurable, they are the social centre of the culture, akin to the pub in England, or the cafe in Europe.

The Iðnó Ukestration Workshop

The venue, but not the setup.
Our Thursday evening workshop at Iðnó went very well, Not as many as we hoped - 11 - and people were immediately saying, you should charge twice as much next time. You see we failed to take into our exchange rate reckonings, that a steak in Iceland costs the equivalent of AUD$50. C'est la vie.

Our venue - Iðnó (the Icelandic letter ð is pronounced like it has a 'th' in it) - is Reykjavik's original lakeside theatre building, and now seems like an arty refuge. The building, and the culture harboured there, are welcoming and beautiful. and they were so pleased to host us. The people who come are mostly in their 20s/30s, with the youngest (and best English speaker and player) being 12 year old Matthias. We are grateful, humbled and a bit ashamed that we could not contribute more in the Icelandic language department, because pretty much every Icelander has English in their language repertoire. Takk!

The Reykjavik Ukestration Workshop was a first for us in many respects. There was no established ukulele group in Iceland to network with (Ukulele Reykjavik didn't seem to have much going on), and we had to fly in blind looking for a venue. Thanks to René from Iðnó for having faith in us, and to Facebook for $30 of worthwhile advertising.

Jane and I worked our teacher magic well, assessing people for 10 minutes or so. Who knows their chords? Who does not? Rhiannon is the great winnower of strummers from the beginners from the riffers. Jane took three beginners into the next room, whilst I was able to work my acolytes through riffs in You Never Can Tell, and introduce them to the pentatonic (as usual) with My Girl. Everyone came together at the end to play together and then to hear a few songs from us.
Folk from the Reykjavik Uke workshop

Like Scandinavians generally, most Icelanders speak English well. So we had no problem, but we are always aware of being what one of our bus drivers called ‘English Fascists’. English speakers expect all people to speak English. I get what he is saying. The wonderful babble of íslensku, between children riding their bikes, deep conversations in the laug, or workers picking up litter on the fjara - it reflects a strong culture of 350,000 people. People who have a language have a common culture. They share something non-speakers cannot. It is what creates our human richness, not only in language and culture, but in how we think about the world - for instance 50 names for snow or somesuch in inuit? I have great respect for culture and languages, but I wish we Australians also did as a people. England, ironically the great colonising ‘fascist’, is similarly blessed (as we found out) with enormous dialectical diversity - the sorority of the scouser, the brethren of the brummie.

Into My Arms, Oh Lord - Í örmum mínum, ó herra

We finish our evening performing three songs - a  quiet acoustic set with a respectful listening audience - always such a treasure. In the beautiful hall, this great community space, our voices and ukes echo expansively.

As often happens for me, I have an idea during a song; and as often happens for her, Jane knows nothing until I say something midstream. Let's get the audience singing the chorus in their language. Into My Arms is a standard of ours for maybe 9 years and there is a Spanish woman from Galicia there (she is a student at Reykjavik University) so we start with Spanish (because I figure we can probably manage it) - Entre mis brazos, oh dios. Entre mis brazos.  Everyone sings that quite successfully, including us.

But now for the more difficult one. Difficult for us. But not for anyone else.

Í örmum mínum, ó herra. Í örmum mínum.
The Icelandic PM's flat - one of those.

Home for conversation

At the end of the concert we disperse. It is 9pm. The sun sets in another two and a half hours, and our bags need to be packed for a 5:30am trudge to catch a bus to the airport. As we walk home with Gudrun (our Airbnb host who we invited to come to the concert) she casually points out an apartment block. The Prime Minister lives in one of those apartments.
Gudrun and Gunnar's loungeroom view

At home we sit around with Gudrun and Gunnar chatting until 11pm. This is the real Airbnb experience, struggling with language and exploring topics of mutual agreement and verve. One of the pressing questions I have is: why has Iceland suddenly become popular as a tourism destination? Presciently, I wrote about the reason in this very blog way back in 2010!! As they say, there is no such thing as bad publicity, and Eyjafjallajökull proved that point.

A key to successful society - the Third Place

Vesturbæjarlaug and the ukulele have been little windows of opportunity welcoming us into Icelandic life. In The Ukestration Manual we talk about the importance of community, and the role of 'third places'. The first is home, the second is work, the third is your local hangout - the surf club, the beach, the pub, the coffee shop, the club.

Or the hot pool complex. Or the ukulele group.

I started our 3 day Iceland trip with a Facebook whinge, as Jane and I were questioning WTF we even came here. But it has grown on us - this nation, culture and country -  courtesy of the third places that we have visited, and which we have even helped enrich.

In other countries we might’ve gone for a coffee or beer with our new uke friends post-workshop, but here the expense is just too traumatic. Perhaps we should’ve just gone for an eleven dollar pool visit?

Do the Icelanders need the uke, given they have their pools? Of course they do! This culture is sooo musical - nearly everyone seems to play in a band or choir.  The airplane tourism guff on the back-of-seat screen skites that something like 1 in 4 Icelanders have written a book, so they know creativity.

I mean, go figure, what are you going to do in those loooong nights? I imagine have sex and play music. But we all know which one of these two options is ultimately the least complicated and more enduring.

Opportunities and sustainability. The ukulele or the gun?

What bothered us for a long time when doing ukestration workshops in far flung places during the last 8 years, was a concern about what the actual legacy was that we were leaving behind. This concern lead to us write The Ukestration Manual in the hope of helping people create something more enduring than merely admiring the cuteness of the ukulele and learning a few chords or nifty riffs. For our aim, ultimately, is to help people foster community through people making music together.

But we do leave, for we go home. And so apart from writing the Manual, we have to leave sustainability for locals to achieve. And Icelanders seem better equipped than most to achieve that (one example of the strength of the society is that they are consistently ranked first on the Global Peace Index).

At the end of the concert one of the young women says - We run a festival here. Would you be interested in appearing at it? And there's the rub. It's all about the opportunities that climb in through the open window, simply because we are putting it out there.

Jotting these thoughts on an airplane high above Greenland brings to mind the choices we have, and how we can actively create what we do have. For how different would our opportunities be if we carried a gun rather than an ukulele; if we carried fear rather than hope and creativity.
High above Greenland - an appropriate place to ruminate about Iceland.

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