What is Sunaana? The new U.S. festival with big ambitions

Consider the size and scope of a “discovery” focused destination event like Iceland Airwaves. The reputable decades-old showcase festival has grown to such an extent that it now spreads not just through, but beyond Reykjavik and has become not only a platform for rising talent in live music, but also a way to highlight the ins and outs of the local scene. The festival has unequivocally become one of the most valued and highly sought live music events in Europe, if not the world, and presents the ideal time to visit Iceland. Now imagine you could have witnessed the festival’s much more intimate early years.

Sunaana (a Greenlandic word for “What is it?”) is a new festival in Portland, Maine that shares a spiritual affinity with Airwaves. It was inspired by the Icelandic event after all, with Sunaana’s founders spinning the idea from visits to the established festival and threading an unexpected cultural connection between Portland and Reykjavik. As a friend in L.A enthused to me just a few days before I was to fly over for Sunaana’s sophomore edition, which has graduated from one to two days since its 2017 debut, “if any place in the U.S can mirror Nordic culture, it’s Portland”.

Portland, a city consistently ranked at the top of the country’s foodie destinations for its famous produce (and yes, the lobster is as good as they say) and massive craft beer scene, is ripe for an event of this magnitude. Although organic and steady growth seems to be the aim for the festival’s organisers, Downtown Portland is more than ready to take on an event that fills its numerous venues with live music, from performances in museums and whisky distilleries to spacious beer halls and even train carriages – the latter which has occurred both years on a section of the Amtrak from Boston to Portland.

The city even has a transformative new precinct to serve us Sunaana’s beating heart: Thompson’s Point, a development headed by two of Sunaana’s co-founders Chris Thompson and Jedd Troubh. Within the past few years, the industrial hub has been shaped into a lively new multipurpose district readily embraced by Portland’s large hipster-minded community. That aforementioned whisky distillery is one of the tenants, as is a large brewery by stalwart locals Bissell Brothers, the ultra-modern (and incredibly cosy) Cellardoor Winery, and a hub for Circus Maine. These businesses sit in a row opposite the massive Brick South, a spectacular former railroad car repair shop – behind which a covered skating rink sits – that serves as the indoor host for the festival, and the point of origin people will refer to when Sunaana inevitably snakes towards nearby downtown.

Thompson and Troubh, along with Sunaana’s other co-founders Patrick Arnold and Larus Isfeld, worked with local music stalwart Darren Elder to curate the live music program, which spanned two days of showcase performances from bands and artists ranging quite a few different styles. Everything from the rougher edges of punk to the calming, tender sounds of folk were thrown out to the crowd from a very small stage, set up towards on end of the enormous warehouse-like space while everywhere else hosted various stalls touting food, fashion and drinks, and of course the impressive Maine Beer Box, a shipping container outfitted with taps to make for one big, very diverse beer keg containing a dizzying amount of local (and some international) crafts.

Perhaps Portland’s chilly weather and dark, mysterious aesthetic has something to do with it, but the liveliness inside the venues around Downtown is noticeably enhanced, amplified by escaping the cold. It’s warm, cosy and welcoming inside venues like Liquid Riot, where the organisers were testing the waters, so to speak, before the actual festival was to kick off the following night.

Music lovers packing Liquid Riot for “Sunaana in the City” | Photo supplied

Here they had Icelandic band CeaseTone and locals Xander Nelson and JanaeSound perform in the corner of the bar to preview what “Sunaana in the City” would look like. It’s a success no doubt; the beer and food have a lot to do with it, but the quality of the music is what takes it above and beyond, particularly CeaseTone who invoke all the big, atmospheric soundscapes often attributed to Icelandic music and add their own charming, indie-rock touch. That same band would go on to perform on the first official night of the festival, taking the intimate stage in Brick South and cutting the air with synths, guitars and drums while vocalist Hafsteinn Þráinsson rang out with his evocative, well-written songs.

CeaseTone live at Liquid Riot | Image supplied.

It seemed most of the crowd would shift between the Maine Beer Box and the small but packed-with-quality food area, which didn’t have much going for it in way of design but scattered a few of the city’s best food stalls around, offering everything from buttery lobster rolls served in a fluffy Chinese bun (Eventide Lobster Co) to Icelandic-style hotdogs (The Thirsty Pig).

Acts from Maine and nearby U.S states would go on to impress on the first night. The American Classic brought high-energy punk from the get-go, as well as York’s King Kyote and headliners Bel Heir from Philly. But, aside from the aforementioned CeaseTone it was local folk four-piece Snughouse that impressed this writer the most, proving the night’s most dynamic act with all four musicians and vocalists shuffling around on-stage, each bringing their own distinctive voice to the group with beautifully written songs wrapped with cutesy, heartfelt lyrics.

The second night day out was even better, starting earlier and obviously drawing a bigger crowd seeing as it was a Saturday. That Maine Beer Box remained the most popular area through the day but the crowd would shift to the stage as the day progressed, catching highlights like OHX, The Western Den, and JFDR, the latter two particularly shattering expectations with assistance from the Maine Youth Rock Orchestra.

So will it grow? It’s looking like the organisers are in this for the long-run, and their faith is certainly not misplaced with Sunaana. Ideally, the two-day festival will continue to transform and take on the city of Portland as the years roll on, leading to an Iceland Airwaves situation where there exists a symbiotic relationship between the city and the festival. Portland is already a must-visit during the milder month of March, where it’s cold enough to really get into that New England vibe, but not excessively so.

“This year we have heat”, as Patrick Arnold told me on the second day. “When we were talking about Iceland Airwaves and the origin story of that…it was in an airplane hanger with 350 people, and it was raw, it was for all the right reasons. We had our raw moment [in 2017] in a building that was not fully finished. This year we have twice as much, twice the bands, and more than twice the beer”.

I’d say that’s some pretty healthy growth right there, which should make it all the more interesting to see how this festival sketches onto Downtown when it returns next March. If there was ever a time to finally visit the incredibly underrated (and safe – I’ve never felt so safe and comfortable in a U.S city) city of Portland, Maine, it’ll be Sunaana.

To learn more about Sunaana and what it is bringing to Portland, Maine head on over to their official website HERE.

Feature image: CeaseTone live at Sunaana | Supplied.