a shorter version of this article was first published in The Evening Echo [Cork] on 2017-03-29
What started as a coffee between two friends turned into a record then into one of the best Irish dance and theatrical experiences in recent years and then developed one of the most exciting traditional Irish groups in the country, Liam O’Maonlai – while best known for his work in The Hothouse Flowers, has had a long history of collaborative work with many varied artists and musicians – is one fifth of Ré who play in Cork on 8 April; “Rian began life as a record I made in London with John Reynolds, who’d be known for his work with Damien Dempsey and Sinead O’Connor, we’ve always had a good rapport and he always offering to do some recording with me. At one point I was at a loose end and feeling somewhat uninspired so I rang him, he picked me up at Paddington Station, we went for two cups of coffee then he took out a foolscap page and said ‘okay what do you want to record’ so I just dug into my memory and listed off songs and tunes I just knew, and we then we went into his studio, within three days we’d the bones of it done, we were both being doing our own thing and so two years passed before we finished a mix, and I was very happy with it.”
Bumping into former No Disco presenter created the next chapter of Ré’s story, “one day I met Donal Dineen by the canal on his bike, we were chatting and he told me Micheal Keegan Dolan was mad about the Rian record, and I didn’t know who he was at all, so I learned he was winning awards with dance and theatre, and he’d love to work with it. My initial reaction was great, imagine that, a show and I don’t even have to be involved they’ll just use the record, but when I met him and we got talking I realised I just had to work with him, I liked his energy and outlook in his own life, and a relentless breakneck commitment to his art”
The next step was to try and work out how to combine chorography with Liam’s music, “we indulged in music for hours on end, for the first month it was just the 8 dancers, and me where I played them my music and they found a circuitry to make the dancing have a band feeling; who were sort of empty vessels as far as Irish culture was concerned so in a way that was exciting, there were no preconceived ideas about what that culture was about. I adore native culture anywhere, and I adore Irish culture, the language features very strongly in my life but I’m not militant about it, I just love it, the playfulness of it, the imagery, the music, the connection between it and nature and the land and the benefits of that causing a perfect circuitry between you and that environment, it’s so natural, it’s what we are good at it if we allow ourselves.”
After Michael & Liam had decided on how to adapt Rian for the stage, they needed to create the musical side of things, “I pulled together a group of musicians Maitiú Ó Casaide, [a Dublin piper who received TG4’s Young Musician of the Year Award 2015]; Cormac Begley [a concertina who received the Sean Ó Riada Award in 2014; Eithne Ní Chatháin, who is also known for here solo work under the name of ‘Inni-K’ [a traditional singer and fiddle player from Co. Kildare] and a fellow founding member of ‘The Hothouse Flowers’ Peter O Toole [a multi instrumentalist and accompanist,] and between us we formed a band out of the whole thing, it became a show.”
The show toured internationally and regularly for nearly 2 years – many readers might remember their outstanding performances in the Cork Opera House as part of the 2014 Cork Midsummer Festival – and the experience was something that Liam enjoyed, “it was great, while being the very free thing that it was, it was also strict since it was choreographed, down to the second almost, but it was great for us to give us that discipline and get us used to being in that tight environment together.”
All this time on the road gave all 5 musicians a chance to really delve into the music, it was experience Eithne found valuable, “I think playing these tunes you get to know so well on tour makes you find new life in them again and again. It’s about what happens in the moment as we play together and find the life in the tunes, the life sort of jumps out of the tunes, once we lock in together. That’s what I think touring the world and playing to different audiences all over the globe does. You really get acquainted with the essence of the tune and learn how to bring that out anew each time.”
Touring theatrical shows always have a finite lifespan and Rian was no different, but while the show finished the musicians couldn’t, “Michael needed to moved on and start a new thing, and for that to happen he had to cut off Rian so that was that, and out of it Ré became a travelling band. From the start of Ré I personally wanted this to take it’s own form, not to let anyone idea dominate it and just let their be a gathering of traditional musicians and almost have the structure come the tunes, for instance Matthew came up with a set, and all three of the soloists, Matthew, Cormac and Eithne brought a set of reels together, and of course Cormac has a lot of polkas to draw upon. They are all scholars musically, they’d be always interested to be sitting with musicians learning new tunes and polishing the ones they have. I’ll be interested in what comes next, there’s so much scope in traditional Irish music model without trying to be too adventurous; there are so many great tunes, some are well known and others yet to be known – people keep finding new old tunes, it’s amazing, it’s like a well with no end to the tunes that keep coming to the surface. There are so many possibilities”
After touring as band in their own right, the music changed from having very tight points to hit for the chorography to being more ‘in the moment’, Liam wanted to document what had developed, “we wanted to make a record out it, so we went to a church in Galway that Cormac had access to, we spent a couple of days there playing into the wee small hours of the morning – it was very interesting to be in a church at four o’clock in the morning, loose and at our ease, we inhabited the place and made our record. I feel a record should be a snapshot of a place in time, sometimes that can be elaborate but where the band is at is an onstage live thing.”
This current tour has seen Ré continue their link to the pulpit and pews, but undergoing a tour of just churches, Liam continues, “upon reflection there’s a lot of reasons people could attribute to use doing all the gigs in 17 churches, it really was that Cormac had access to a network of these venues [Cormac is the founder of ‘Tunes In The Church’ touring network – which challenges the concept that the home of Irish music is a pub setting and intending to set the standard for the presentation of live traditional Irish music in Ireland ] and a structure for us to do it under, I was in no hurry to go against it. We’ve no problem with playing in any venue, but the beauty of some of these churches is sometimes you don’t even need to plug into anything; we’d be able to play with PA Systems.
The majority of the Churches are still functioning, most of them being Anglican or Church Of Ireland, we’ve played in two Catholic ones, one in Kilkenny and the other in Newtown in Kildare, that was a lovely one – a very modern church. Those aren’t being admired yet as buildings, those built in the 60 & 70s”
Eithne not only finds the musical collaboration inspiring but also the fact it is an arrangement that keeps them all fresh by taking frequent breaks, “It’s great. We’re all very busy and active with other musical projects and when we get together, we’re enriched by our other experiences. I have certainly found as I develop in my songwriting and performing career and progressing on that side of things with Inni-K that my musicianship in general has improved and I bring that to Ré also. We’re all developing as we go. Its a little bit like a family getting together when we play a Ré tour. We’ve shared a lot of stages together in a lot of towns & countries now and we lock in whenever we have the chance to perform together.”
The whole process of turning a record into a dance and music stage show and then into a band is something that drives Liam, “I was talking about this with my friend from Mali, about the idea of if you have a vision for your country, and then be it, embody it, instead of trying to preach some sort of identity, be the identity! feed the identity, recognise the identity!
It all remains to be seen, Ireland is being enriched at the moment, but people coming in from the East, people from Africa, and many different countries. We are a welcoming country – it’s not a done deal not all the people are, we don’t see it all the time in our civil service or structures – but it is in our essence, in our land, we have something that keeps reinventing ourselves, no matter who comes they become Irish, the island seems to bestow an identity onto people, I know this is ‘Dream Talk’ on a certain level, but it is also how I see on other levels, it’s what drives me as an artist, keeps me going and makes me smile.”
Ré play the Triskel Christchurch on Sat 8 April as part of a national tour, ticket information available via http://www.triskelartscentre.ie