Panama Papers Bombshell Inspires Some Playful Musical Protests in Iceland

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Downtown Reykjavik photographed on April 5, 2016.

Iceland has made a name for itself as a country of great music, beautiful nature, elves. The island has become a hotspot for tourists over the past few years, to the point where there aren't enough hotel rooms to accommodate all that want to visit. But, following the massive Panama Papers leak, Iceland may now be known best for its corrupt politicians.

A few years ago, comedian Jon Gnarr and his friends created a satire where they formed a political party with the aim of offering jobs to their friends and getting a polar bear into the domestic animal zoo. They ran in the local election, and won. Gnarr became mayor of Reykjavik. During the campaign, it was evident Gnarr and company were making fun of the way politics have developed in Iceland, where nepotism is the rule -- the country's entire cabinet of ministers and their assistants practically forms a family tree. This might not seem strange when considering that the entire population of the country is just over 330,000, all pretty much related no more than four generations apart. When most countries have six degrees of separation, Iceland has two. You can actually run into Björk at the local swimming pool, and meet the president while buying ice cream at 10 p.m. on a cold winter night (yes, this is a thing). Chances are high that you went to elementary school with the Prime Minister. This is Iceland.

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Then, on Apr. 3, the Panama Papers leak hit. Three members of the Icelandic cabinet were linked to offshore tax havens; the Prime Minister, the Minister of Finance, and the Minister of Interior, along with around 600 other Icelanders whose names have not been publicized.

The following day, 22,000 people assembled outside of Parliament to protest. Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson resigned, though he declined to take responsibility for his actions. Later Gunnlaugsson actually retracted his resignation, saying he was only stepping aside temporarily, before ending up handing the job to his second in command. The other two members of the cabinet mentioned in the Panama Papers remain in office. The ruling parties have announced that there will be an election this fall, but people want more.

People are angry and justly so, but out of great difficulties arise great opportunities to stimulate creativity. Fjola Dogg Sverrisdottir, managing director of Cycle Music and Art Festival, thinks this experience will become a part of the country's artistic and emotional reservoir. "I don't foresee people writing songs directly about these events, although this could become a rather exciting opera," Sverrisdottir adds. 

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People are demanding that Iceland's politicians tell the truth. It can also evoke patriotism. Hilmar Orn Agnarsson, choir conductor and former punk rocker in Icelandic new wave band Theyr, tells Billboard that choirs all over the country are, following the Papers' publication, weaving patriotic songs into their concerts. "The nation is undergoing a cleanse, and in that cleanse the voice of music is the strongest influence," Agnarsson adds.

Sigtryggur Baldursson, the managing director of Icelandic Music Export (UTON) and the former drummer of Bjork's former band The Sugarcubes, agrees, adding that events such as these serve as fuel for the grassroots. They create material for songwriting and encourage artistic expression.  Baldursson is now working on a song with renowned Icelandic jazz musicians Tomas R. that goes by the title "The Forgetful Crane," in reference to Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, who claimed he couldn't remember the location of his offshore account. Solo act Hemullinn has performed a song called "Sigmundur David, Where is Your Money?" at one of the protests last week. 

During a musical performance from Improv Iceland earlier this week, the protests became an inspiration when the room suggested it as a topic. The performers staged a one-time-only improvised musical highlighting the ridiculousness of these events and the lack of humility many of the country's politicians have shown.


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