Preview: Rian

01:25, Mar 12 2014
RIAN MAN: "The music is integral in our lifestyle, it's not just for the stage, for the museum or the TV or the radio," says Liam O Maonlai.

The traditional Irish music of Liam O Maonlai's childhood re-emerged for him as a beacon of light during a dark time.

"I came to a point where I didn't know where to go next ... I wasn't playing, and when I don't play I get quite low," he says.

"I did some session work as a singer with John Reynolds, a long-time accomplice of Sinead O'Connor. I was warming up singing traditional music. And he said he'd love to do some of that stuff with me some time.

"This dawned on me when I was tossing and turning in my bed thinking 'I'm no good and I hate myself'."

Within a week, the pair went into the recording studio to make an album of traditional Irish music, launched in 2005. They named it Rian, the Irish word for imprint or trace.

The lauded album won over choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan, who went on with O Maonlai to put together the similarly titled show, Rian, on at the New Zealand Festival.

With contemporary dancers pulled from across the globe, from Nigeria to Finland, it was key to immerse the cast in the traditions of Irish folk music, O Maonlai says. "The music is integral in our lifestyle, it's not just for the stage, for the museum or the TV or the radio."

He may be best known for his time with the Hothouse Flowers, an Irish rock group who rose to prominence in the late 1980s. But O Maonlai's time as a solo performer pre-dated the band.

"I started as a singer and a tin whistle player ... One summer I got a job to put together a band playing traditional music for summertime tourists. Sometimes the band wouldn't show up, so I ended up doing it – and I didn't mind because that meant all the money went to me.

"But I learned a lot about holding the space with just my whistle and my voice."

Despite this, O Maonlai has always been an intensely social musician, especially drawn to fellow artists keen for a spot of spontaneous composition. It was this that sparked his friendship with New Zealand's own Tim Finn.

"There was an ease in his company. When I wanted to be funny, he thought it was funny.

"We played music together for the love of it."

As group Alt, the pair toured Ireland with fellow muso Andy White. "We drank, and we played and we explored and did some recording."

The festival show may have a particular resonance with its Kiwi audience. The Irish language and culture revival that Rian – as an album and a show – has added to has parallels in the resurgence of Maori traditions.

"We were watching the Maori television channel and it's exactly the same. The same people talking, the same people passionately trying to maintain and uphold the culture."

But O Maonlai dislikes the mention of "preservation" – culture must be lived in individuals' minds, hearts and voices, he says.

"Preservation can almost be a little bit of a death sentence, on some level. I'd rather just get on and do the stuff."


Rian, St James Theatre, tonight until Saturday, 8pm.


The Dominion Post