RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
OK, when I say the words cruise ship, you might think all-you-can-eat buffets, shuffleboard, maybe conga lines, which, frankly, all sound pretty awesome to me. But one cruise line company has been shaking up the old formula of cruise vacations. For years, Lindblad Expeditions has emphasized cultural learning on their trips. And a few years ago, the company added a little music to the experience. Baz Dreisinger traveled to Iceland with them and brought us this story.
BAZ DREISINGER, BYLINE: It's early afternoon onboard the National Geographic Explorer, and our ship is anchored near a majestic-looking fjord off the west coast of Iceland. One-hundred-forty-eight passengers are getting ready for the day's activities.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This is a five-minute call for all guests who would like to go ashore first and then have the possibility and signed up for kayaking in ground number two.
DREISINGER: Even before the kayaking, it's been a busy day. This morning, there was a lively dialogue about politics with a panel of Icelandic intellectuals, including the CEO of the country's national power company. Tonight's cocktail hour will feature a geologist and an archaeologist. No, really, it's interesting. The trip is about connecting what happens onboard with experiences ashore, says CEO Sven Lindblad, whose father founded the company.
SVEN LINDBLAD: If you think about a cruise ship, it's largely inward-focused. It's - the ship is the destination in many ways. And for us, it's just the opposite. It's what's outside that matters. The ship is really a base camp. It creates the ability to get out there.
DREISINGER: Out there, for Lindblad, means going to places like Antarctica, the Galapagos and Morocco. Eleven years ago, the company partnered with National Geographic to help travelers learn more about these countries, their cultures and their importance to the global ecology.
LINDBLAD: This isn't just a business. This is really, really trying hard to get people to look at the world from a different perspective in areas where we really do need to pay attention.
DREISINGER: Pay attention not just to the environmental threats in these destinations, but the cultures that define them. In 2012, Lindblad realized something was missing from their voyages.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LINDBLAD: We, more and more, just want to bring music into the experience in one form or another, both ashore and in certain instances aboard, because music is a universal language. So wherever you are in the world, there is music, right? And there is interesting music, if you know where to find it.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing in foreign language).
DREISINGER: The man he hired to find Icelandic music, beyond Bjork, is ethnomusicologist Jacob Edgar, owner of the independent label Cumbancha. He also helps Putumayo Music sign artists and hosts the PBS series "Music Voyager," in addition to curating Lindblad Expeditions.
JACOB EDGAR: Many of the musicians that we present on the ship, when you mention to locals who we have, their jaw just drops because, you know, we live in a world where - of micro-communities - where there are famous, famous musicians that we may never have heard of in the United States. But if you walk down the street with them in their home countries, they're superstars.
DREISINGER: The band Ylja, for instance, is hugely popular in Iceland.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UT")
YLJA: (Singing in foreign language).
DREISINGER: Singer Bjartey Sveinsdottir says that while they play stadiums at home, they had a ball playing for the small audience on the cruise and introducing them to new music.
BJARTEY SVEINSDOTTIR: We love playing and seeing the joy from the people, that they like it and have fun listening to the songs.
DREISINGER: In addition to Ylja, the ship's musicians in residence included singer and songwriter Snorri Helgason and a producer from the experimental band, Mum. They chatted with passengers about Icelandic music and treated us to impromptu performances. And every night, they turn the ship's library into open mic jam sessions.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing in foreign language).
DREISINGER: Curator Jacob Edgar says his goal is to find musicians who are both representative of their countries and cultures and accessible.
EDGAR: My hope is that the music is entertaining, of course. But more than that, I want people to feel like they've learned something from it, that they've gained a deeper understanding of the country.
DREISINGER: But there's one cruise he doesn't even try to curate - Antarctica. Passengers on that journey will have to feast their ears on the natural music of penguins. For NPR News, I'm Baz Dreisinger.
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