Halldór Bragason is the leading figure in the Icelandic Blues scene, turning it into a much appreciated music genre in Iceland
At the mere mention of blues in Iceland, one name instantly springs to mind. Halldór Bragason. Founder of the Reykjavík Blues Festival and now an honorary member of the Icelandic Blues Festival, Halldór has been tireless in introducing and developing this wonderful genre into the Icelandic music scene. A music genre some find a bit outlandish and removed from the Icelandic music traditions. But, then again, the international language of music belongs anywhere.
"Those of us who represent the blues in Iceland, always emphasize the fact that the blues communicates peace, empathy and understanding of man's life and destinies. Wherever the Blues is being played, it is a powerful weapon against racism and creates an atmosphere of charity. It is very sincere and goes straight to the heart of those who are listening."
When asked when the Blues first arrived in Iceland, Halldór says the earliest records to be found in newspapers from the 1920s. "It was and advertisement for a workshop in jazz and blues music. But, I don't think the blues genre really hit us until 1965. It all started with the British blues-wave; the Rolling Stones, John Mayall and Fleetwood Mac. The blues simply became the music genre of that era. It was quite an explosion, and you can follow it through Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, and Doors. It was a time when musicians started searching through original traditions and make music that was understood by the whole world.
Here in Iceland there were suddenly blues bands on every street corner and in every garage. We saw blues and jam sessions appear between 1965 and 1970. They became the Icelandic blues roots. Still, the whole endeavor was very unclear and disorganized until 1989, when a band called "Vinir Dóra" (Dóri's Friends) started playing at Púlsinn bar. It was the start of a huge wave, and we saw musicians like KK and others emerge. The Icelandic Blues was born.”
The Blues is the source
“It's the same all over the world. Whereas music is concerned, the Blues is the genre closest to the heart. It has to do with its groove, its roots. You find it in pop music and today in rap music. The Blues is the source and musicians are constantly recreating it.
The Blues you listen to today is not the same Blues you heard 60 years ago. Nowadays, you hardly ever listen to a pop song without hearing the blues gamut. Maybe it is more obvious to me than most as I have been living and breathing Blues most of my life. Still, it is curious that people always seem to be able to listen to Blues. You can choose from so many different types of Blues.
It is funny, sometimes I ask people if they like listening to Blues, and they reply: No, I have never listened to Blues. Then I ask them which is their favorite group, and their reply is, Led Zeppelin. People just don't realize when they are listening to Blues. It has become such an intricate part of us.”
Interest piqued at a young age
When I was about six or seven years old and started listening to the Beatles and Rolling Stones, I realized there was a purpose in life. There was more to it than simply an everyday, gray and boring existence. Those groups were a revolution to my ears. I started acquiring their records by any means. In those days, we had vinyl, which came in large covers with loads of information on the back.
Somewhere along the way I started reading the information and kept seeing the name Dixon again and again. He had a lot of different roles. He was a bass player, a producer, a songwriter. And, he most certainly caught my interest. I realized not all those Beatles and Rolling Stones songs I was listening were not necessarily written by the group members, but by a variety of original Blues musicians. Now, that piqued my interest. I started an extensive research into the original musicians and gradually managed to make the connections.
“In the 90s my band "Vinir Dóra" wanted to work with the originals of the blues and invited them to Iceland to play and record some CDs. We were working with and learning from sheer legends in the business, Pinetop Perkins, Jimmy Dawkins, Deitra Farr and more.
Later we toured with those legends from Chicago to Italy.
They gave us a glint into this musical genre, and it was all we needed. It was parallel to a classical instrumentalist being invited to play with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra and directed by Karajan. We formed the Reykjavík Blues Festival in 2004. We invited those geniuses back to Iceland to play with us and take part in the Reykjavík Blues Festival. It has been a treat ever since."
In spite of all the connections to pop music Halldór is pointing out, it remains that he plays, teaches and promotes the Blues genre. So, what is it about the Blues that attracts people all over the world?
Conflict and tautness
"In blues you always have to tell a story – or rather the feelings behind the stories. It is easier to play blues than other types of music from the heart. It demands the instruments to sing the story being told. Blues might sound very simple – but it is anything but. The Blues is riddled with one-seventh parts. There is always this conflict, always this tautness. And then there are tunes that can be a single chord, a groove.
Performing Blues is very dependent on the musicians. It is relatively easy to spot whether a musician has got the feeling for blues. He has to be able to express the feelings behind the story he is telling. He has to have a story to tell. If he does, it doesn't matter what his mood is like during a performance. For example, Bob Dylan may give five concerts. Maybe four of them are awful because he is not in the mood. But Dylan is always Dylan and maybe one of those awful concerts is the best concert someone in the audience has ever attended. And then, we have geniuses like B.B.King, who appeared on stage with only his guitar. The minute he started playing it felt like the heavens had opened up. Always."
All them Gigs
Apart from being the Artistic Director of Reykjavík Blues Festival since 2004, Halldór is the Chairman of the Reykjavík Blues Society. He is also the leader of the Blues band. "Vinir Dóra" aka The Blue Ice Band. "We have regularly been playing as a band since 1989. We came together for one gig and then decided to do a second gig. Since then we have constantly been adding a one more gig –, and soon we shall be old men."