DIVA spoke to the unlikely political music group that is making queer middle-aged women visible again
BY ELLA GAUCI, IMAGE BY @UKULELLUR
“Bless their little hetero hearts.” It might not be a lyric you’d expect from an Icelandic lesbian ukulele band, but Ukulellur loves to surprise their listeners. Made up of 13 women between 30 and 70, Ukulellur began five years ago as an inside joke. Since then, they performed at Cologne Pride, World Pride in Copenhagen, and were even a part of Taylor Macs opening act for Reykjavík Arts Festival.
If there’s one thing this band knows how to do, it’s write a song about being a lesbian. From lyrics such as “But lesbians broke all the rules/Making straight folks look like fools” to songs about menopause, Ukulellur strives to put middle-aged queer women on the stage where their voices can be heard.
The band is made up of 13 incredibly talented individuals that come from all walks of life. The band is composed of:
- Anna Jóhanns (53) who is “too lazy to learn music properly so the bass is played by ear”.
- Filmmaker and novelist Elísabet Thoroddsen (42).
- Eva Lind Weywadt Oliversdóttir (42) who is described by her bandmates as being a “happy-go-lucky vagabond”.
- Nurse, midwife, and carpenter Guðrún Jarþrúður Baldvinsdóttir (62) who turned from guitar to ukulele.
- Hanna María Karlsdóttir (72) who has played over 100 roles in the theatre.
- Helga Margrét Marzellíusardóttir (35) who is a politician that loves to bake.
- Herdís Eiríksdóttir (49) who is their tech wizz.
- Hildur Heimisdóttir (52) who is a teacher that bought a ukulele with her wife instead of going out to dinner.
- Hugrún Ósk Bjarnadóttir (46) who is a vegetarian percussionist and singer who oils her tambourine with WD40 like only a true lesbian would.
- Margrét Grétarsdóttir (39) who is the resident drummer of the band.
- Margrét Ágústa Þorvaldsdóttir (43) who only knew three chords before joining the band
- Ragnhildur Sverrisdóttir (62) who had only seen ukuleles in an old Elvis Presley movie
- Þóra Björk Smith (50) who simply loves playing in the band.
We spoke to Ragnhildur, Margrét, and Hildur about their amazing journey as one of Iceland’s (if not the only) lesbian ukulele bands.
How did Ukulellur start?
Ragnhildur: Five years ago, it started as a joke with a handful of us. The name Ukulellur is a combination of ukulele and a slang word for lesbian. So we thought of the name first, and it was so brilliant that we had to form the band. There were five who started one evening.
Hildur: The next step was that our bass player made a Facebook group. And suddenly, you were a member of the group!
Margrét: I did not even have a ukulele at that point, but after receiving an invite I decided to buy one.
Did anyone know how to play the ukulele before the band started?
Margrét: No! There was only one member that could play the ukulele.
Hildur: We were all singing in the same choir so we were used to making music together. After the Facebook group, we decided to practise. After one of the first practices, one of our members said that she had promised her wife that we would play for her 50th birthday… which was in two weeks’ time. So we decided to become a cover band so that everyone would be listening to the lyrics and not the instruments! We thought: we have to fake it till we make it. At the first concert, the crowd was crazy. The Sunday after we got a call from the radio asking if we could play for them.
So two weeks after you started, even though none of you knew how to play the ukulele, you were going on the radio. Were you worried?
Ragnhildur: We had the philosophy to just say yes.
Hildur: We wanted to show that women our age will just say ‘Yes, I’m ready’. And if we weren’t ready, we were going to practise until we were.
Why do you think that representation for queer older women is so important?
Ragnhildur: In this band, there are two women over 60 which is the first generation of lesbians who were out and proud in Iceland. We don’t have a blueprint for growing old in the queer community. People as they grow older, they tend to fade away. I did. I thought my human-rights-fighting days were over. We started as a joke, but we realised how important it was. The house at that first concert was filled with women our age. Some of them had never shouted from the rooftops who they were. There’s no blueprint, so it gives us the freedom to make up the rules. We want to show that you can be visible over 30.
How does your queerness intersect with your music?
Hildur: It would be fun to check how many times we use the word ‘lesbian’ in our lyrics. It’s a theme throughout our songs. We want the crowd to sing with us and say these queer words. Every song is called something like ‘Lesbian Friend’ or ‘Lesbian Ex’!
What has been the reaction from the crowd?
Ragnhildur: There haven’t been many Icelandic lesbian ukulele groups, so we always have the element of surprise. We want the audience to have as much fun as we do. Women our age come up to us and they love it because they have never been able to see themselves in such a way. People are not writing a lot of songs about being lesbian or middle age.
Margrét: People connect with what we’re saying, and they haven’t heard people talk about these things. It’s a breath of fresh air to sing about things you never speak of.
Hildur: We have many elements of surprise. Firstly, we are 13 women of all shapes and sizes walking to the stage with these funny little instruments. The second element of surprise is that we are actually quite good at making music. And thirdly, when they start listening to our lyrics they realise that we are political and we are speaking about things that people have not been able to say out loud.
What have been your most memorable moments?
Margrét: I remember one time when we were playing in Cologne, I was just amazed at how many people were there to watch us. And they were singing and clapping with us. I was trying not to be stressed because I have never experienced a crowd like that.
Ragnhildur: My most memorable concert was the first one. We didn’t know how to play, and we didn’t know how many people were going to be there. It was amazing to see all these women that I hadn’t seen for 20 years. It was the first time that I realised we were a band, and all these women were lesbians!
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