Riverdance team Fuse flamenco and fiddlers in new show
‘Heartbeat of Home’, a new dance show from the creators of ‘Riverdance’, with lyrics by Joseph O’Connor and music by Brian Byrne, is drawing a new musical map of Ireland
Captivated by an idea: dancers tap out the ‘Heartbeat of Home’. Photograph: Jim Byrne
A salsa bassline under an Irish reel: Joseph O’Connor and Brian Byrne. Photograph: Eric Luke
In a dark studio on a sunny day, the composer Brian Byrne and a couple of engineers are working on a recording. They’ve had some late nights. They’re putting the finishing touches to an album that will accompany Heartbeat of Home, the first big dance show produced by Moya Doherty and John McColgan since Riverdance. Strings, brass sections, uilleann pipes and Broadway vocals blast from the speakers. The album features the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and world-class players such as Paddy Moloney and Carlos Núñez. They play me a beautiful flamenco song with words in both Irish and Spanish.
“Do you speak Spanish?” I ask the show’s lyricist, the novelist Joseph O’Connor.
“I do now,” he says.
Heartbeat of Home is a big deal, but O’Connor and Byrne seem relaxed about it. O’Connor first met McColgan, its director, simply to trade music. “We met for a coffee and swapped a few CDs. He gave me out-there stuff with African drummers, a lot of salsa and Cuban music and Ennio Morricone. He told me about this idea he’d been working on for an Irish dance show that would blend Irish music with Latin American and African music.
“He didn’t ask me to get involved, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’d be listening to Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, the fiddler, or to Johnny ‘Ringo’ McDonagh, the great bodhrán player, and I’d be hearing tangos and flamencos. And when I listened to songs on the Buena Vista Social Club album or to Paul Simon’s Graceland they seemed to rewrite themselves suddenly to be songs about Ireland. I was captivated by the idea.”
Byrne’s background is primarily as an arranger and film composer; he won awards for the soundtrack to Albert Nobbs. “I had worked as a kid in amateur music hall,” he says. “I had arranged, orchestrated and conducted shows. I was very much aware of musical theatre. When I was very young I wrote a musical against the backdrop of the Famine, and my mother and I put it on . . . We couldn’t get a scriptwriter. We wrote to all these people. Then I read Star of the Sea on my way to meet Joe the first time, and I kept thinking, Why didn’t I meet him when I was 18? He was Mr Famine. ”
The show itself, says O’Connor, is in two parts. “The first part is built around a sea voyage with people leaving an unnamed series of countries and going to an unnamed big country. In the second part of the show they have intermarried, they flirt and trade and their music bounces off each other, and they learn different dances and different modes of storytelling. It’s built around a wedding. The first act is a journey, because on a ship you can meet anybody. The second act is a wedding; the Talmud says the world is a wedding.”