Review: Two Kids Music Albums from Iceland

[Cue Jim McKay voice] Spanning the globe to bring you a constant variety of the best of kids' music from around the globe, it's Zooglobble! [End Jim McKay voice]

I've never been shy about shining the spotlight on kids music from outside English-speaking North America -- plenty of Spanish-language music from multiple continents, not to mention Putumayo and Secret Mountain (and other labels' ) albums from around the world.

I feel safe in saying, however, that this is by far the furthest afield I've ever traveled, because today I bring you not one but two album reviews from the fine country of Iceland.  Honest-to-goodness kindie music from the northern European country of just a shade over 300,000 people.

The first of the couple albums here is the classic Ekki bara fyrir börn.

"Classic?"  Huh?

Yes, because that album title translates into Not For Kids Only.  This, friends, is a faithful -- albeit Icelandic-language -- cover of the Jerry Garcia and David Grisman's classic 1993 family-friendly bluegrass album.

It's from Icelandic record label Warén Music, and while I'm not sure I could've told you what I expected such a remake to sound like in advance of hearing, I guess I was surprised at the result, which was... well, pretty straight-forward.  It is as if Garcia and Grisman learned Icelandic, got a pot of coffee, found a few more musicians, and re-recorded as if they were some American kindie version of Michael Haneke remaking Funny Games.  (What really happened? Somebody brought over a copy of the original, and the musicians were inspired to recreate it.)

Aside from the language barrier, musically it'll sound a lot the '93 version, albeit a little more punched up, as if a few more musicians stumbled across Garcia and Grisman as they noodled away in the woods.  It's a little odd at points to hear such familiar melodies with unfamiliar words (take "Lagarfljót" for example, the translated version of "Shenandoah").  And then there's Lautaferð bangsanna, which is "Teddy Bear's Picnic" as sung by a Tom Waits' vocal double in Icelandic.  (Listen to the whole thing here.)  With the language barrier, this is accessible to all ages.

I realize this is essentially a novelty record for the English-speaking world -- you'd have to be a massive Garcia/Grisman completist or speak Icelandic in your family to want this.  But it's joyful, and a neat reminder of music's boundary-less nature.

If Ekki bara fyrir börn is American kindie (or American proto-kindie) rendered inscrutable for the typical American audience, Skýjaflétta is thoroughly Icelandic in conception, but completely accessible to audiences of any language.  The album is the brainchild of Sólrún Sumarliðadóttir, who plays in amiina, an Icelandic sextet that grew out of a string quartet and, in addition to releasing music on their own has also played with Sigur Rós.  Sumarliðadóttir wrote the music to accompany a couple of modern dance pieces for very young children, up to age 3.  (According to Sumarliðadóttir, the first 5 tracks are for a piece called "Clouds," the remaining tracks score "Twist and Turn".)

As you might expect from that background, these aren't straightforward pop songs.  The word "Skýjaflétta" means "a braid made of clouds," and this is an ambient dreamscape, but a shiny one, filled with pops, clicks, and toy pianos.  Some tracks, like "Twisty Tangle and Turny Braid," (as translated in English) and "Build" are pensive, exploratory, while songs like "Explore" are designed for more reflective wonder.  They are all wordless, making them, of course, open to everyone.

You can listen to six tracks from the 31-minute album here.  Ironically, just as the Icelandic-language album is for all ages given that almost all Americans will just listen to the music, the instrumental nature of this album, makes it all ages, too, though kids under 5 might particularly groove to this.  This is a thoroughly charming album and while I'm sure I will never get a chance to see the dance pieces these were composed for, I'm glad the album has a chance to cross the ocean for families with adventurous listening habits.  Definitely recommended.