GRASSROOTS: Christian Duell

During late August, I hosted the first GRASSROOTS event in my backyard. GRASSROOTS is a community building music & arts project where I feature Iceland-based artists and musicians.

At every GRASSROOTS event, I will facilitate a series of community-building activities such as dinners, facilitated dialogue, arts and crafts workshops and sharing exercises.

The three goals of GRASSROOTS are:
1. Bring the community together in intimate spaces
2. Showcase the work of talented artists and musicians
3. Share the vision of Saga Fest

The first concert was small (about a dozen people), about six attendees were from Iceland and the other six were international visitors or residents. This is similar to the demographic makeup of what I’d like to see at Saga Fest.

“When Neil Armstrong took his small step from Apollo 11 and looked around, he probably thought, Wow, sort of like Iceland—even though the moon was nothing like Iceland. But then, he was a tourist, and a tourist can’t help but have a distorted opinion of a place: he meets unrepresentative people, has unrepresentative experiences, and runs around imposing upon the place the fantastic mental pictures he had in his head when he got there.” – Michael Lewis, Boomerang (2011)

Although Christian Duell isn’t Icelandic, he was one of the first musicians I met in Iceland (and he’s also become a very close friend). Hailing from Australia—where he is also known for his work in the Brisbane-based folk group Mr Rascal—and currently living in Reykjavík, Christian shares an important characteristic with me: we are both outsiders in Iceland.

As a Fulbright-mtvU fellow, I need to be cognizant of my position in the community. Being an outsider means I need to be open to the local community and work with them to co-create and collaborate on all of my projects here in Iceland. I also need to make an effort to integrate into the country seamlessly, which is why I’ve been attending as many events as possible, chatting with locals and learning Icelandic.

It was through learning the language at a school called the Tin Can Factory that I met Christian. We met a lot of other “outsiders” here who were doing their best to learn Icelandic even though most Icelanders speak English. We did it to better understand the culture and respect the country’s official language. Everyone I’ve met has been incredibly open to helping me with developing my Icelandic, and Christian feels the same way too.

Christian performed six songs and wove storytelling about his adventures in Australia and Iceland into his set. After his performance, I interviewed Christian about his time in Iceland:

Q: How has your experience interacting with Icelanders been?
A: As an outsider it can be tempting to try to pigeonhole a country as “friendly” or “cold” or “rude” or whatever. But I think the best way to describe my experience with Icelanders is “beautifully complex.”

During my first month here I found it hard to connect with people and then as I started to open myself up to people and make an effort to understand the language and culture more people began to open up to me and welcome me. Surprisingly I’ve discovered that learning some basic Icelandic and greeting new people I meet with a hug have really helped to breaking down our barriers and I’ve discovered great depth and thoughtfulness in the Icelanders I’ve become close to.

Q: Do you feel your time in Iceland has impacted your music? How?
A: My first month in the country was really difficult. Having left behind my job, family and friends and embarking on a temporary long distance relationship with my partner, I felt like I’d landed in a giant void. Alone and with so much time and space, there was nowhere for my thoughts and feelings to hide.

My music and songwriting has always been a spontaneous outlet for me more than something I try to force. I arrived in Reykjavik with all of my music gear locked up in storage in Australia and with no pressure or expectations on myself to write or perform. After 3 weeks in the country I began to desperately miss my guitar and so through some great fortune and help from a lovely guitar repairer called Gunnar, I quickly found a new guitar and a vehicle for expressing what I’m experiencing here. And new songs have just started to come since then.

Q: You’ve said that Iceland has a lot of “space.” What does this mean? How does the space affect you?
A: I’ve been fascinated by the idea of serendipity over the last few years and that these are not just random coincidences but situations we can consciously create space for. Creating space for the unknown to express itself.

So coming to Iceland for me was about welcoming serendipity because Iceland to me is a country with a lot of space; literally and metaphorically. Amongst the endless fields of lava and moss, the black sands of the south, the long days of extreme darkness and light, the ordinary streets and buildings and the fog lies endless space for all types of expression to emerge.

Q: This is your third time to Iceland, has each visit been unique? What has been different this time around?
A: I think the difference between my previous visits and this time around is that I’ve experienced Iceland less as a tourist and more as a thoughtful outsider.

As an Australian, I don’t consider myself belonging to any particular place, but being more like a “temporary custodian” in any place that I live or visit. Australia’s weird and disturbing colonial history means I don’t feel like I can claim to “own” or belong to any particular place even in my home country.

The reason I have kept coming back to Iceland is that I feel a deep connection to the landscape and the place, and I try to apply this care and respect to the environments and people that I come into contact with.

Living here this time as opposed to just visiting for a series of days has meant I have been able to connect more meaningfully with the people and the place.

Mr Rascal links:

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