Here’s another interesting one from Iceland, but what else do you expect from the land of the Huldufólk?
The relationship between musicians and other artists and the world of the prison cell is well documented. Johnny Cash was jailed seven times for various misdemeanours and developed a prison obsession beginning with ‘Folsom City Blues’ and culminating in his seminal performance and live album recording of ‘At Folsom Prison’ within that penitentiary, followed by two later live performances in the jail. He virtually lived there.
In another and totally unrelated circumstance I recall an episode of Columbo in which a professional photographer framed a con for murder but was undone by the sleuth when he found a photograph of the con taken by the photographer (who claimed he didn’t know him) during a series of prison photo-shoots years previously. Oh, the unknown delights which await you within these pages!
Crime, trials and detention and their aftermath are intriguing and hot on their trial is Inki (Ingibjörg Friðriksdóttir) who describes herself as a composer who has never been afraid to try new things, merging experimental electronic music with her contemporary classical background, before shifting into ‘avant-pop music’. Also that she “likes to get a little weird.”
And you don’t get much weirder than chasing down current and ex-inmates of Reykjavik’s Women’s Prison which is, or was, in Kopavogur I believe, a middle class suburb, until it was relocated to the city’s rural outskirts, and inviting them to be interviewed for an album against a backdrop of a variety of music styles including hip-hop to create a ‘story’ of the place, relating imprisonment to entertainment. Prisoner Cell Block H meets Neighbours.
(Interesting side note: The ratio of female prisoners to males in Iceland is typically the highest in Europe although it can vary hugely from year to year).
So in the album Inki mixes up original music, the sounds of the prison, and the interviews into an art form of its own. It probably came easy to her. It seems she’s worked as a producer at the infamous San Quentin Prison in California where Johnny Cash also got in on the act, recording his second live album there in 1969.
She says her intention was to make “a dance hit infused with inmates’ stories, sarcastically blending together people’s worst moments with a pop hit.” I’m not sure what they would have thought about that degree of cynicism but she ended up interviewing both women and men because at the time there weren’t enough female prisoners and it had become a mixed-gender prison – and she lived to tell the tale. But as there’s only ever been one serial killer in Iceland the odds were ever in her favour.
In short the slogan of the album is ‘let’s dance to forget.’
The sample track is the last one, ‘Love of my life, bad guy,’ a title which probably summarises why so many women end up inside, or at least end up making weekly visits for years to someone else who is.
You know, I wasn’t sure that this concept would work, if it would sound contrived and unnatural. But it does work – well – and I think that’s partly because experimental music like this is as much ‘on the fringe’ as prisoners are with respect to society. If there is any ‘genre’ that is on the same wavelength as them then this is it.
One of the tracks, I don’t think it’s this one (how would I know, it’s in Icelandic, it might as well be Martian!) concludes with an inmate telling the story of how his father, also a former prison inmate, loved to torture him, finally leading to him being homeless at only six years of age. It’s hard to imagine such a thing in modern Iceland, but there you have it.
There’s a place for music like this and the ‘journey’ she relates and it isn’t in the pop charts (let’s face it there’s fat chance of it getting onto them). But it deserves to be preserved for posterity, a study in the darker side of Icelandic life that’s more valid than any Nordic Noir drama, in the National Museum, for future generations to ponder over as much as any Viking Saga, Halldór Laxness novel or folklore about elves and trolls.
‘Brotabrot’ is released on August 5th.
Incidentally, the album cover appears to be a montage of the interviewed inmates, but not in such a way as that they are identifiable. A nice touch.
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