DJs discuss the sound of the Arctic at NxN festival

Musicians from several Arctic countries gather at the Anchorage Museum for a “DJ Discussion,” which happened in a gallery displaying works from Brian Adams’s “I Am Inuit” exhibit. The event was part of the North by North festival. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

On the tail of the Arctic Council meeting in Fairbanks last week, the Anchorage Museum hosted a multi-day series of events focused on the high north. Artists, academics and policy-makers gathered for the first-ever North by North festival. According to organizers, one of the goals was to inject more creativity and culture into global discussions of the Arctic. And that included food, films and a lot of music.

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On the museum’s front lawn Saturday evening, Anchorage rock band The Modern Savage played to a tiny crowd and a ring of colorful food trucks. It had just rained, and organizers were winding things down, breaking down tables and hauling away trash. But there were still plenty of food offerings, including a tasty local take on tacos made with Rockfish.

The little lawn party was one of many events spilling out of the museum during the four days of North by North. Some of the programs were formal discussions on topics like U.S.-Russian relations, contemporary art and TED Talk-style presentations on Arctic innovation.

But there was a wilder side as well. Not far from the food trucks, was a group of musicians from northern countries fortifying themselves with pizza and beer ahead of a dance-party on top of a downtown parking garage.

One of those visiting global musicians is Aqqalu Berthelsen from Nuuk, Greenland.

“I do DJ stuff, but mostly I produce music under the name Uyarakq. It means ‘rock,'” Berthelsen said during an interview Sunday.

Berthelsen makes an eclectic mix of music — everything from danceable House tunes to moody beats laid under the voices of collaborators rapping in Greenlandic (he also has songs made with the 8-bit processor from an old Gameboy). People started making hip-hop in the late 80s, according to Bethelsen, and always using the Greenlandic language.

Berthelsen was one of six musicians who spoke at a panel focused on whether there’s such a thing as “Arctic music.” Musicians from Finland, Russia, Iceland and the U.S. compared notes on similarities and challenges in their craft. Most resisted the idea that there’s a common sound coming from performers and composers scattered across countries and continents in the northern latitudes. But many laughed, finding shared experiences as they talked about similarities in how weather and the dramatic seasons affect their work.

Another theme was the difficulties traveling long distances to tour — whether abroad or domestically.

“It’s so expensive to go in and out of Greenland, and the only way most of the year is through Denmark,” Berthelsen explained. “Also, inside of Greenland, you have to take a boat, a plane or a dog sled. There’s no roads between our towns.”

One of the ideas behind the DJ panel, and North by North in general, was connecting people working on similar issues, but have few opportunities to meet and compare ideas. The potential goes beyond just cultural exchange, with economic lessons to be learned too. For example, several of the DJ’s live in countries that are part of the Nordic Music Export Program, a group funded through five national governments, which has spent millions of euros since it got off the ground in 2009 promoting Nordic musicians. Basically, investing economic development dollars to grow music into an export commodity that can pull money back in domestically.

One of those countries is Iceland, where Sveinbjörn Thorarensen lives and performs under the name Hermigervill, which he concedes is catchy in Icelandic, but not in any other languages.

Thorarensen was another speaker at the DJ discussion, his bright blue eyes framed by red hair braided into pigtails as thick as rope. He makes electronic music that often riffs on older pop music trends like funk and disco and spends a good deal of time DJing in Berlin clubs and touring Europe. He buzzed with excitement talking about just about every musicological topic, including Iceland’s proliferating electronic music scene.

“Everyone who is involved in Icelandic music is living in about two or three square miles, and you can’t avoid meeting those people, you can’t avoid collaborating with those people,” Thorarensen explained. “No matter how hard you try.”

That makes for an enthusiastic but insular scene, especially in a country with just 331,000 people. It can be stifling if you don’t ever venture out. National grants to help Icelandic musicians get off the island for tours are still around, Thorarensen said, but have shrunk in recent years. Meeting new people, hearing about different models and markets for touring, and finding new sounds is the benefit of a global-minded festival like North by North.

“Of course the main point of this whole thing is connecting with people, and already I’ve made a couple of very good friends here from all around,” Thorarensen said.

North by North wrapped up Sunday. The Museum said it’s considering different options for what the festival will be like in future years.