“This show is like a trampoline”

Svavar Knútur – Zeche Carl, Essen; Decemer 11th, 2018

The week of Icelanders singing Christmas songs had started with Svavar Knútur and it ended with him. He played in Essen for the first time and it was one of his funniest concerts this year (and I’d already seen a few really good ones). He gave us lovely songs, lectures on Icelandic Christmas and all sorts of hilarious stories. It was absolutely everything I could have wanted and even better than I had expected. I’m still laughing just thinking about it.

The show was Svavar’s first time in Essen and he’d been a bit nervous about it beforehand, fearing that nobody would come. He was wrong though, by showtime the venue had filled considerably and during the break he told me there were 70 people. I was at the front and wondered what the show was going to be like.

As he walked on stage, Svavar told us that he had not expected so many people. He started by explaining the differenced between German Weihnachten and Icelandic jól, which is a celebration of the returning of the light and thus has a bigger cast of characters than just Jesus and Mary and Joseph. Apparently it is not so much connected to a Christian tradition, but more a general tradition. The first song, or at least the lyrics to it, were written by his greatgreatgreat (…) grandfather and he looked straight at me when he told us the title to make sure I got it. It’s called ‘Nóttin var su agæt ein’ – the same song we had heard in Düsseldorf as well. Svavar told us how it is supposed to be sung softly, tender and without and ego and then demonstrated how some singers do it wrong.

We learned about Grýla, the mother of the 13 Icelandic Yule lads and a mean troll, who ate her first husband because she got bored with him and lost the second to illness. It was the third one, Leppalúði she had loads of children with and 13 of them are the Yule lads who steal stuff and look into windows or eat all the food. Grýla eats children who cry and the Yule cat they have eats children who don’t get clothes for Christmas. When Svavar spoke about how stupid Grýla’s husband was, he went of a tangent and talked about “reverse natural selection” in Iceland. It was highly amusing. Back to the trolls we learned that their anatomy is different from ours too and they have lots of multiple body parts. it was all funny, but had a serious note too, because all these myths were used to explain why life in Iceland was so hard and people were poor. It was also used to explain death, since the child mortality rate was really high in Iceland not that long ago. After all these dark stories he played ‘Maríu Bæn’ (Prayer to Mary), a dark song found in the belongings on Halldór Laxness and turned into a song.

After such sadness, he promised to bring us back up, like on a trampoline and told us more stories about Christmas in Iceland, for example about Glühwein and how they go about it all wrong. It was hilarious. 😀 We also heard about eating fermented shark on December 23rd, which is like “eating fish made out of wasabi” and how bad it smells. I sure know the smell, one day I might even try it. The 24th is then the day when everything gets cleaned and the families celebrate in the evening. That sounds very much like our Christmas, except for the traditional songs about death, especially to certain people. 😉 Christmas meals are plenty for Christmas, because everyone gets up at night and eats leftovers. It’s also a big tradition to give books for Christmas. That is a nice one to have. 🙂 He then told us about Icelandic Composer Ingibjörg Þorbergs and played her song ‘Hin fyrstu jól’ (His first Christmas) for us. I can only imagine how beautiful it must have been to play the song on the radio with her.

Then Svavar got into his own songs and told us about the importance of Weltschmerz to inspire creation, Waldeinsamkeit to crate and Wanderlust to bring the creations out into the world and collect more Weltschmerz while traveling. This has always made sense to me and I sure like the feeling of collectively sharing some Weltschmerz, especially if it comes along in the form of a song as beautiful as ‘Emotional Anorexic’. <3 I’m not sure I share the feeling of loving mornings. I seem to have turned from a morning person to a night owl over the years, quite the opposite of Svavar. I like his description of those mornings though. He explained to us that the Danish word “hygge” so many seem obsessed about is the exact same as the German “Gemütlichkeit”. Good to know. When it was time for ‘Wanderlust’ he spoke about the limited scale of Icelandic emotions and how different it is from the German “emotional rainbow”. This is not necessarily true for all Icelanders, but the ones I know better are all well traveled. He is spot on about Germans getting angry though. 😉 Somehow he got from there to Martians. :DI really can’t describe how funny it was. Even if I repeated word for word, you probably would not laugh as hard as I did. It all ended with a beautiful sing-along

We got to hear half a song about Gütersloh where he played theater in three different plays he also wrote the music for and how one critic had used just the wrong word to describe him. ‘Lady Winter’ was just the right song to take us to the break. I went and chatted with him for a while, bought his Christmas album and was offered some Christmas cake a friend had baked for him. It was yummy!

When he returned, Svavar brought us the book about the Yule lads he’d already given us to sig in Düsseldorf. He also asked us not to draw penises which some people seem to think is funny. Apparently in Poland they draw asses instead. 😀 Next was ‘Brot’ a song about struggle in all of its forms. Such a great song too! ‘Tiger and Bear’ and ‘Spor’ followed back to back. Then he asked his friend Marie on stage to join him for ‘While the World burns’. Hearing them sing in harmony was beautiful. 🙂 ‘Undir birkitré’ brought another good sing-along and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the room who was smiling. A spontaneous and lovely rendition of ABBA’s ‘One of us’ followed, before Svavar unpacked his ukulele and joked about how unstable it was. He spoke about the evolution of ‘Ölduslóð’ through people covering it and using different chords than he does so he updates it.

He announced a new song he never played without having the lyrics in front of him. ‘Haustvindar’ is about autumn winds and mourning a summer that never came and not yet being prepared for the autumn. In the end there is nothing to do but dance with the leaves. He screwed up once, but the song was beautiful nonetheless. I need to listen to ‘Ahoy Side A’ more! The last song in the set was ‘The Hurting’, but before singing it he joked about offering it for a sex shop commercial. 😉 He also needed to tell us about lying and thus creating new mythologies, because science has taken away so many mysteries. I already knew the stories about the Canadians and the Swiss, but the one about the US American TV crew was too funny. I’d sure like to read that Heathen Constitution he mentioned. *giggles*

We cheered so much that he needed to come back for an encore, but I hadn’t expected any less. He promised us one last Yule song telling us some more about the yule lads that scare children and are rude to the adults. On January 6th though, the Icelanders gather by bonfires trying to connect with the hidden people and how they came about. So we got to hear a song for that occasion. It sounded really sad. Last, but not least Svavar played ‘Heims um bol’ (Silent Night) with one verse in German that we all sang along to. It was beautiful and there could not have been a nicer ending to the concert. 🙂

I had a train to catch so there wasn’t much time to chat, but I quickly said goodbye before I left and thanked Svavar for the great concert. I sure liked those Yule shows and would not mind to attend them again.


Nóttin var su agæt ein
Maríu Bæn
Hin fyrstu jól
Emotional Anorexic
Lady Winter

Tiger and Bear
While the World Burns
Undir birkitré
One of us (ABBA)
The Hurting

Icelandic Elf Song
Heims um bol

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