One might be surprised of the various faraway places producing American-born R&B/soul music. Certainly, Iceland doesn’t readily come to mind. Quick history lesson: the original musical culture of the Republic of Iceland was inspired by folk music from Northern Europe and the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. While folk still has a place in Iceland, this small island sitting across from Norway has recently produced several alternative pop sensations, including: The Sugarcubes, Bjork, GusGus and Sigur Ros—all who have attained international attention with their ambitious mix of rock, classical and electronic music. Unfortunately, on the international radar, Iceland’s urban music talent pool tends to be just a whisper below the more dominant pop and folk market.
Yet, amongst the handful of homegrown artists, there are occasional pleasantries who bubble up above the transient pop stars, such as the jazz funk band, Mezzoforte, and a particularly delightful R&B/jazz duo Kenya and Nemor, one who should shed a bit more light on the Iceland soul scene.
Kenya Emil, an Icelandic native, and Jason Nemor Hardin, a US transplant to Iceland, discovered each other’s talents at a regional event in 2003. One might call it destiny for aspiring musicians like Kenya & Nemor to first meet at a concert entitled “The Soul of Motown,” but it was actually thanks to much encouragement from their respective friends that the two found one another and hit it off. While Kenya’s first professional gig was performing at this tribute concert, Nemor rediscovered his childhood musical gifts after a career playing basketball in Europe. One year later, Kenya (known as “the voice”) and producer/musician Nemor (known as “the vibe”) reconnected to start developing their own soulful niche. Their first demo track in 2004, “Touch Me Taste Me,” was the beginning of several years in defining their sound and sharpening their songwriting abilities. The duo eventually caught on in 2006 with expanded club gigs and festivals in Iceland, along with tours of Norway and New York.
After years of perfecting their studio performances and stage presence, Kenya & Nemor’s finally self-release their debut Just Becuz, an intertwining of Atlantic Starr, Earth Wind and Fire and other old-school R&B influences with mostly electronic beats. Dance clubs could feast on the title track, one accented with booming bass and plenty of Kenya’s vocal sweetness and sass. The hip-hop shaded “U Know How It Goes” is powered by the fierce snare drums and funk-laced piano by the track’s producer Thaddeus ‘Pismo’ Smith III. For a light, romantic moment, “The Coffee Song” covers sexy ‘80s R&B balladry with a touch of swing and Kenya’s inviting alto for that special encounter: “We can get some coffee/Get to talking.” In a different romantic light, Nemor’s dreamy keyboards and Kenya’s sultry lead and background voices send “Touch Me Taste Me” into a soothing sensual zone. With a modern jazz trio led by pianist Dadi Birgisson, “U Take Me Places” is another intimate setting that detours from the R&B format. Though Kenya keeps it mellow for most of Just Becuz, she firmly exercises some vocal power on “U Go Your Way,” about a relationship on the skids.
Just Becuz is a sweet elixir of old school R&B tossed with neo-soul, hip-hop and jazz tidbits. The only major downfall is when Nemor’s rare lead—and sometimes off-key—appearance on “Still Recall” falls far short of Kenya’s vocal confidence. Otherwise, Just Becuz is a credible debut for Kenya & Nemor, one that should make a small dent in the international anonymity of Iceland’s fairly quiet urban music community. Recommended.
By Peggy Oliver