Arctic Superstar at the Village Voice

Poster for Arctic Superstar at Scandinavia House
Poster for Arctic Superstar at Scandinavia House

Last week, for the Village Voice, I interviewed the Sámi rapper, SlinCraze. Nils Rune Utsi, as he is bestter known in his tiny Arctic hometown of Máze, was in NYC for the U.N Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, a gathering of 1,200 indigenous people from around the world, where he was invited to play a concert. He also appeared at Scandinavia House, alongside Aili Keskitalo, the President of the Sámi Parliament of Norway, and Simen Braathen, the director of a documentary film about him, “Arctic Superstar.”

The story of Arctic Superstar began in New York, where, in 2013, Braathen produced a photo exhibition of Norwegian rappers and the places they represent. SlinCraze played his first NYC gig at the Mothership in Brooklyn afterward. “SlinCraze’s story stuck out to me,” Braathen told me, “because of his raw ambition, yet impossible starting point. Language is obviously important in rap, yet there he was rapping in a language that is considered endangered by UNESCO. And killing it!”

Utsi’s language is Northern Sámi, understood by only 20,000 people. Not only do Norwegians or Europeans or anyone else not understand Northern Sámi, but many Sámi people don’t understand it either.

As he told me: “There’s no numbers on how many Sámi people there are, because of a history of the Norwegian government trying to wipe out the Sámi language. A lot of kids, from at least two generations before me, learned that speaking Sámi is taboo. So they forgot the language. There’s no real numbers on how many people are actually Sámi, because a lot of people work really hard to hide it.”

I was reminded while speaking to him of an artwork I saw last year in the Stormen cultural centre in Bodø, Arctic Norway. By Edvine Larssen, who lives and works on the Lofoten islands, the piece comprises a found vintage photograph of a Sámi couple. The people in the photograph had scratched out their traditional Sámi footwear.

Edvine Larssen at Stormen. Photo by author.
Edvine Larssen at Stormen. Photo by author.

Why? Because at this time Norway had a policy of forced assimilation, known as Fornorsking, or Norwegianisation. Sámi traditions and clothing were banned, as were the Sámi languages, one of which SlinCraze is helping revitalise through his music.

Read my interview with SlinCraze here. And enjoy his thought-provoking video for Suhtadit (or, “fighting”).

 

Uni Stefson (MTV Iggy)

Sadly the music publication MTV Iggy closed down late last year — and took all of the writers’ work with it. So that my articles may live on, I am going to publish a few of them here. Beginning with this profile of Icelandic artist, Uni Stefson from July 2014.

Uni Stefson Finds Inspiration in the Icelandic Landscape

–Karen Gardiner

For his first solo outing, Unnsteinn Manuel Stefánsson has taken quite a departure from the frantic bouncy electropop and infectious hooks of Retro Stefson, the band he has fronted for eight years. Performing as Uni Stefson, his new release, titled Enginn Grætur (“Nobody Cries”) is an evocative, slowly building composition, built around a 19th century poem and backed by an emotive string arrangement by Viktor Orri Árnason.

Stefánsson first learned the poem, Stökur (“Quatrains”), when he performed it, set to a different composition, with his high school choir. “Eight years later”, he says, “I was in Berlin over the winter, writing music for the new Retro Stefson album. I wasn’t meeting anyone; I spent days, weeks by myself so when I had to do the vocals I couldn’t use my voice, I felt I had nothing to say so, out of frustration, I took up the guitar and started playing random chords and sung a melody to this poem.”

The poem’s author was Jónas Hallgrímsson, romantic, naturalist and advocate of Icelandic independence. Hallgrímsson wrote the poem during his last year of life while living in Copenhagen and suffering from a great depression. “He’s one of the great Icelandic poets”. Says Stefánsson. “It is said that if his mother tongue would have been English, he would have been one of the most famous in the world.” That’s not to say that Enginn Grætur is yet another Icelandic landscape-inspired cliché. “It’s more a personal poem I could relate to rather than another ode to the Icelandic nature”. He says. “You can get sick of that. People who look at Iceland from the outside are a little obsessed with the Icelandic musicians being inspired by the nature, but I think Icelandic musicians are just inspired by each other.”

Indeed, Stefánsson credits the size of the Icelandic music scene for fostering the environment in which musicians can experiment more freely than perhaps they could in bigger cities. The downtown neighborhood of 101 Reykjavík, where he estimates 90 percent of Icelandic musicians live, is “kind of like a village. That’s what makes Icelandic music special. It’s totally different to other cities.” Moreover, he says, “If I was in a band in Central Europe, I would have to go to an expensive studio. I would have to write something that sells. I would have in the back of my mind that I have to write a hit song that will get played on the radio. In Iceland, you never earn any money from music, so you can forget about that from the get go and just write a good song that you want to hear yourself.”

Still, while Enginn Grætur is an interesting contrast to the more global sounds of Retro Stefson, Stefánsson did not set out to write something quite so Icelandic sounding. “I was a little afraid of having the lyrics in Icelandic because of the nationalist political parties that are coming up in Iceland. Singing a 19th century poem, a romantic poem, seemed kind of off for me.” He spent six months working on the track, but halfway through, during the period of Reykjavik’s mayoral elections, the specter of nationalism entered civic life with highly publicized Islamaphobic comments made by one of the leading candidates. While Stefánsson claims Iceland is the least prejudiced country he has lived in — he was born in Portugal to an Angolan mother and has lived in Germany — the controversy affected him. “I was quite sad and it slowed down my process. But, in the end, I said that as a half-African and half-Scandinavian, I can sing this poem just as anyone else could. That was the way to be true to myself. I don’t want to mix too much of a political message in my music, but if I can release a song that has a personal statement, then I am happy.”

Stefánsson is will be releasing more of his solo “minimal” tracks over the next few months. He will be playing at Iceland Airwaves and in Toronto later this year. As for Retro Stefson, they will start recording a new album in January.

While Stefánsson doesn’t put much stock in naturalism, he says that the crescendo that the track’s three minutes slowly build up to is meant to sound like a volcano erupting. What’s a more Icelandic sound than that?

Photo by Saga Sig

Hypnopompic by Kustaa Saksi

Hypnopompic at Artifact
Hypnopompic at Artifact

Finnish-born, Amsterdam-based graphic artist Kustaa Saksi creates abstract, dream-like, and fantastical illustrations that, as well as gracing gallery walls across the world, have been featured in campaigns for brands such as Nike, Lacoste, and Issey Miyake. His work has appeared in the pages of the New York Times and even on the stamps of the Finnish Post. Continue reading “Hypnopompic by Kustaa Saksi”

Station to Station

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.. Is the title not only of one of my favourite Bowie albums, but also a Nomadic Art Happening taking place across the United States this month — kicking off in Brooklyn last night.

Multimedia artist, Doug Aitken somehow convinced Amtrak to loan him a train that, adorned with multi-coloured LED panels and loaded with artists, will travel cross-country. From Pittsburgh tomorrow night and on to Chicago, Minneapolis, Santa Fe, Winslow, Barstow, Los Angeles, and finishing up in Oakland on September 28th.

At each stop along the way, an event is hosted inside old train stations, and a in a vintage drive-in movie theatre in Barstow. The multi disciplinary events will feature performances from the likes of Patti Smith, Thurston Moore, Beck, Cat Power, Savages and Eleanor Friedberger, as well as art by Kenneth Anger, Urs Fischer, Ernesto Neto, and Carsten Höller.

Last night’s event at the Riverfront Studios in Williamsburg began with multi-coloured smoke bombs bursting from an  Olaf Breuning installation and then a drum line and a popping of pink and grey pom-poms and silver sequins: The Kansas City Marching Cobras.

Olaf Bruening, Station to Station
Olaf Bruening. Photo by author.

While guests (the show was sold out but not crowded) explored the installations, including a yellow Ernesto Neto yurt, and Liz Glynn explained the theory of relativity in her black yurt; No Age, Free-Kitten member, Yoshimio, Hisham Akira Bharoocha and Ryan Sawyer; and Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti played on the stage in front of a bold film backdrop running shorts from the likes of Yayoi Kusama and Nicolas Provost, whose spliced up film of endless cinematic kisses was my favourite.

The night ended loudly: Suicide. A band that, given the singer, Alan Vega, is 75 years old, I never thought I’d see live. Vega stumbled on, cane in one hand, drink in the other and screamed into the mic; Martin Rev, in shiny vinyl trousers, palmed and hammered the synth. Pretty damn delightful.

Suicide. Photo by author.
Suicide. Photo by author.
Suicide. Photo by author.
Suicide. Photo by author.

Here’s an interesting comment from Aitken to the Washington Post:

“The train system runs across the American landscape like untapped arteries,” Aitken wrote in an email. “Much of our journeys have been replaced by interstates and highways. I was interested in using the train to become a nomadic broadcast tower, broadcasting new and experimental culture while tapping into unknown and amazing creators from the locations in which the train stops.”

A Brief Trip to the Electric Room

Remember when MTV used to play music? I do. Maybe I am a lot older than you.

I never had MTV, growing up, we couldn’t afford it, so I used to get my penpal in Berkshire to mail me videotapes of my favourite music promos and shows. The newest clips from the Breeders; recordings of Hole guest-hosting a show I’ve long forgotten the name of … I’ll never forget PJ Harvey’s video for Down by the Water. I’d watch it, rewind the tape, watch it again, sick on lipgloss and fake eyelashes, and sinking deeper into the dark thoughts that bloomed around the ages of 15, 16 … but I digress.

The internet and music video channel, VEVO has recently entered into a partnership with Dream Downtown to bring its 24-hour music channel to the hotel’s guestrooms. They had a launch party earlier this week and I was lucky enough to be invited: very lucky because it’s usually a serious mission to get into Dream Downtown’s velvet-roped-off Electric Room basement club. Sceney, obviously, but it was fun; here’s some pictures.

Dream Downtown exterior
Dream Downtown exterior
Passage leading to Electric Room
Passage leading to Electric Room
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Electric Room art
Electric Room art
Electric Room art
They had a DJ while playing music videos ...
They had a DJ while playing music videos …
The scene.
The scene.

Where Are We Now?

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I have been walking through Tokyo to the rhythm of David Bowie’s Where Are We Now. My walks, like the song, are a steady rereading of place names remembered, retreaded; names that are memories and walking through them just to feel their familiarity.

Just walking the dead.

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When he sings, “had to get the train from Potsdamer Platz. You never knew .. that I could do that.” I recognise that odd sense of achievement in reaching the familiarity where you make a city your own. A city that you trust you have earned your right to wax nostalgic about. A city to whom you can say Tadaima! (I’m home), when you arrive at it’s airport for the first time in years. Or, a city that can be the focus of your comeback single when no-one has heard a peep out of you for nearly a decade and it makes sense. Nürnberger Strasse, Aoyama, Dschungel, Azabu Juban … the places are a part of you.

I can get a train anywhere in Tokyo. I can glance at the Metro map and compile a route, including transfers, in seconds. You could drop me on a street anywhere in this city and my feet would find the way home.

Ah, but home, It’s not really home anymore though, is it? I’m just walking the dead.

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MCA

Hello Nasty.

RIP Adam Yauch.

——————-

My Beastie Boys story is an indirect one. I never met them or even saw them live. They just happened to form a backdrop to one summer 14 years ago.

It was 1998 and Intergalactic had just been released. I was working as a nurse’s aide in the dementia unit of a nursing home; saving up for my move to Australia, which would begin with a few weeks in Tokyo.

I watched the Intergalactic video over and over again.

Intergalactic

The pristine streets, florescent glow of the subway stations, the bemused but politely quiet bystanders and the neat uniforms of construction workers: the Intergalactic video came into focus after I arrived in Tokyo and took to spending my days wandering, shellshocked, through the streets.

I listened to Intergalactic repeatedly, hitting rewind on my Walkman each time it finished, because it seemed like the right thing. With each step and each note, I imagined the video and it gave me a sense of being connected in that loose, lonely city. I would spend hours wondering through Shibuya and always end up at the big Tower Records where I would pull on a pair of headphones and listen to Hello Nasty on the free listening booths on the ground floor. Eventually I bought it but, because I hadn’t brought a CD player with me to save room in my backpack, I continued making the trip to Tower Records.

One Saturday night at the end of the summer and the beginning of typhoon season, long after I had changed my ticket and decided to stay in Tokyo for three months rather than three weeks; after an unshakeable feeling of tension, caused by my bar  hostess job, had begun to set in, I set out in the rain to wander. I walked from Azabu Juban to Roppongi, through Nishi Azabu and Aoyama, ending up in Shibuya. I was carrying one of those light, transparent umbrellas that everyone in Tokyo seems to use. I was walking down the hill from Aoyama to Shibuya station when a gust of wind whipped my umbrella inside out and snatched it out of my grasp. Immediately a car pulled up and a woman handed me her own umbrella.

I wandered through the back streets of Shibuya, past brightly lit love hotels, clanging pachinko parlours and indecipherable clubs, stores and bars. I ended up in HMV where, inside of a polite circle of people, Money Mark was bent over his keyboard playing songs from Push the Button, an album recently released on the Beasties’ Grand Royal label. I took my stumbling across his show as a turn of good luck. It was a show I would have planned to attend, if I had known about it. But in Tokyo, where I spoke little Japanese and read even less,  I couldn’t ever really know about anything.

A few songs later, he played Cry from Mark’s Keyboard Repair.

Cry; Money Mark

The rain, my loneliness, the tense, nervous feeling I couldn’t shake: Money Mark’s quiet voice and precise words articulated my feeling. My Tokyo wasn’t the  cartoonish, synthey city of Intergalactic at this point, it had become bluesier, more melancholy. Cry became my new song.