The music of Iceland includes vibrant folk and pop traditions. Well-known artists from Iceland include medieval music group Voces Thules, alternative rock band The Sugarcubes, singers Björk and Emiliana Torrini, and post-rock band Sigur Rós. Iceland's traditional music is related to Nordic music forms. The only folk band whose recordings are marketed abroad is Islandica.
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Icelandic music has a very long tradition, with some songs still sung today dating from 14th century. Folk songs are often about love, sailors, masculinity, hard winters, and elves, trolls and other hidden people. They tend to be quite secular and often humourous. Bjarni Þorsteinsson collected Icelandic folk music between 1906 and 1909. Many of the songs he encountered were accompanied by traditional instruments like the langspil and fiðla. Chain dances, known as víkivaki, have been performed in Iceland since the 11th century at a variety of occasions, such as in churches and during the Christmas season. An example is "Ólafur Liljurós", an Icelandic víkivaki folk song dating to the 14th century, about a man on his way to meet his mother who is seduced, kissed and stabbed by an elf woman while riding his horse, then eventually dies.
Iceland's isolation meant that, until the 19th century, foreign influences were virtually absent, which resulted in the maintenance of a particular rhythm, called "hákveða", lost in other Nordic countries and considered one of the main characteristics of Icelandic folk music. Hákveða refers to a special emphasis placed on some of the words of a song, often the last word of each sentence in each verse. In the following example, taken from the song "Ólafur Liljurós", "hákveða" is shown in italics:
Rímur are epic tales sung as alliterative, rhyming ballads, usually a cappella. Rímur can be traced back to the Viking Age Eddic poetry of the Skalds and employs complex metaphors and cryptic rhymes and forms. Some of the most famous rímur were written between the 18th and early 20th centuries, by poets like Hannes Bjarnason (1776–1838), Jón Sigurðsson (1853–1922) and Sigurður Breiðfjörð (1798–1846).
In the early 18th century, European dances like polka, waltz, reel and schottische begin to arrive via Denmark. These foreign dances are today known as gömlu dansarnir or literally the "old dances". After their arrival, native dance and song traditions fell into serious decline. For along time, rímur were officially banned by the Christian church, though they remained popular until the early 20th century. In recent years, efforts have been made to revive native Icelandic forms. For example, a modern revitalization of the rímur tradition began in 1929 with the formation of the organization Iðunn.
Protestantism has also left its mark on the music of Iceland. Hallgrímur Pétursson wrote numerous Protestant hymns in the 17th century. In the 19th century, when Magnús Stephensen brought pipe organs to Iceland, soon to be followed by harmoniums. "Heyr himna smiður" (Hark, Creator of the heaven) is probably the oldest psalm which is still sung today. It was written by Kolbeinn Tumason in 1208.
Icelandic popular music today includes many bands and artists, ranging from pop-rock groups such as Á Móti Sól (Rockstar: Supernova Magni's band), Quarashi, Bang Gang, Amiina, to solo ballad singers like Bubbi Morthens, Megas, Björgvin Halldórsson and Páll Rósinkranz, all the way to reggae band Hjálmar and Bulgarian indie-folk band Stórsveit Nix Noltes. There is also a metal and hardcore scene, including notable bands Sólstafir and Changer, and a casio-punk-pop scene spearheaded by Pool Party.
The indie scene is also very strong in Iceland, and bands such as múm, Sigur Rós, the quirky folk/pop singer Hafdís Huld and the solo artist Mugison are fairly well known outside Iceland. Easily the most famous Icelandic artist is eclectic singer and composer Björk, who has received 13 Grammy nominations and sold over 15 million albums worldwide, including two platinum albums and one gold album in the United States.
In recent years, Iceland has seen development and change in both the commercial and underground music scenes. Prominent experimental indie bands, such as the high school originated Hjaltalín and Benny Crespo's Gang are enjoying a wider audience. Notable music veterans are expanding into sub genres; for example, GusGus frontman Daníel Ágúst is currently collaborating with punk rock star Krummi from Mínus, forming the raw duo Esja. The electronic scene in Icelandic music has also widened its audience. Grittier electronic bands are redefining old styles with dynamic music such as the widely acclaimed band Steed Lord, who proclaim themselves as producers of "Gangsta electronic music".
The national anthem of Iceland is "Lofsöngur", written by Matthías Jochumsson, with music by Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson. The song, in the form of a hymn, was written in 1874, when Iceland celebrated the one thousandth anniversary of settlement on the island. It was first published under the title A Hymn in Commemoration of Iceland's Thousand Years.
Iceland Music Export is the name of a government sponsored initiative which "aims to bring together the disparate strands of Iceland's eclectic scene under one roof." The main purpose of the office is to promote Icelandic music worldwide. Iceland Music Export's Web site features a comprehensive list of Icelandic musicians and groups of all genres, Icelandic music videos, downloadable mp3s, interviews and profiles.
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