Once a year at the beginning of November, tourists and Icelanders flood the city of Reykjavík for the five-day music festival Iceland Airwaves. This energetic event not only attracts emerging and well-established bands from across Europe and North America -- it also draws in a diverse, dynamic crowd of music lovers and Iceland enthusiasts from around the world. London resident Amalchi Castillo-Rodriguez and New York resident Paul Sauline—two former neighbors—decided to travel to the festival together this year, looking to soak in the distinctive sounds of what has become Iceland’s most iconic international music event.
A Cultural Fascination
A long-time appreciation for Iceland’s thriving music scene and a fascination for the island nation’s gorgeous terrain drew these two adventurous friends to Airwaves.
“It had always been a dream of mine to come here, and I visited for the first time last year,” Amalchi says about his connections to Iceland. “I was interested in the music coming from Iceland. I had heard about this festival but I missed it the last time I was here, so I decided to come check it out this year.”
Amalchi, who is originally from Puerto Rico, and has been living and working in London for the past five months as a technology consultant, didn’t want to make his second journey to Iceland unaccompanied.
“Amalchi called me up one day and asked me if I wanted to go,” Paul explains, his hands tucked casually in the pockets of his black trench coat. “I’ve never been to Iceland, and have never left North America before, so I got my passport and decided to join him.”
Both men agreed that one of the highlights from the festival was seeing American indie-guitarist J. Tillman, aka Father John Misty, from the Grammy-nominated band Fleet Foxes, perform live.
“I also hoped to see Björk in concert and pre-ordered my tickets well in advance to come see her. That was before she cancelled,” Amalchi explains, shrugging his shoulders. “Maybe next time, though.”
Journeying Outside Reykjavík
Because Amalchi had explored the northern and western parts of Iceland on his previous trip, he and Paul decided to sightsee across Iceland’s glorious south coast this time around, traveling to the glistening Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon before taking a dip in the luxurious Blue Lagoon.
Although both trips outside the city were enjoyable, Iceland’s notoriously capricious weather had a few surprises in store for them along the way.
“It was pouring down rain, and the weather was the windiest I’ve ever experienced,” Paul, a promotional filmmaker for Broadway productions, recounts of his experience at the Blue Lagoon. “Thankfully the weather was beautiful when we were out hiking.”
These ex-neighbors, who lived side-by-side in Brooklyn, New York, for two years, had pleasant interactions with Icelanders throughout their travels and have grown to appreciate the nation’s charm over their week-long stay.
“Icelanders are very straightforward people,” Paul explains. “They’re very proud of their country, so they like to talk about it, which means you’re always free to ask questions.”
Amalchi admires how warm and welcoming Icelanders can be toward tourists: “My experience on the road is that they’re very trusting as well. When we were out traveling, a lot of the time the hostels were closed, and they would literally just give us the key, let us stay over, and then tell us to leave it there the next day. I think it’s really different back home in America; there’s not that level of trust.”
Paul was surprised to see how lax and easy-going Icelanders are when parenting their children. “During our stay, one of thing that has really shocked me is that they leave baby strollers outside of cafés, stores, and restaurants with babies still in them,” he says, with a laugh, remarking that such a thing would also likely never occur in the States.
After hopping from venue to venue, and traveling from destination to destination, Amalchi and Paul do not hesitate to recommend the music festival to prospective attendees. “What’s there to be on the fence about? It’s a great line-up and a cool country,” Paul says to anyone pondering a future trip to Airwaves.
Amalchi agrees with his friend, recalling the time when he first encountered Iceland and its unique musical culture several years ago.
“I used to go to boarding school, and had this bad habit of going into CD stores and picking out music based on the album covers,” he says. “I remember finding this cover with a baby alien on it with lyrics that I didn’t understand. It was the second album from Sigur Rós, Ágætis Byrjun. I was so blown away by it and wanted to know more about the country where it came from.”
He recommends not only coming to Reykjavík to attend Airwaves but also extending one’s stay to experience the country more in-depth. “I would say if you have a chance to make your trip not just about the festival but also about exploring Iceland, that’d be great. That way you get the best of both worlds.”