B-boys, beats and sean nós


Arts: Hip-Nós, a collaboration between sean-nós singers and dancers and South African, Irish and American rappers and breakdancers, works much better than might be expected

THE SONG hangs in the air for a moment, and no one quite knows what to do with it. Gearóidín Breathnach, a sean-nós singer of high repute, has just delivered four verses of a 19th-century love song in the auditorium of the Axis Arts Centre. Ray Yeates, director of Axis and musical director of the fourth instalment of an annual event that solders together the rhythmically wayward tunes of sean nós with the breakbeats and explosive rhymes of hip hop, asks his guest MCs for their response. Nobody speaks.

To be fair, it seems like a tall order. The long-established South African hip hop group Black Noise, freshly arrived from Cape Town, have barely been in Ballymun for a day and their collective store of musical knowledge and cultural associations is being solicited to match a song sung entirely in Irish. They have been plunged into the deep end of musical and cultural fusion. “What is the content of what’s being sung?” eventually asks Emile Yansen, a calm and quiet presence whose nom de rhymeis Emile YX?.

Breathnach explains the context – two young lovers have been sundered apart by disapproving parents and are now divided between distant lands. Black Noise briskly consider their options. Soon Angelo Van Wyk, aka DJ Thee Angelo, contributes a strangely lubricious chant, somewhere between a rap and an RB song, and as Breathnach takes up her song of loss and exile once more, she is accompanied by a more modern lament: “When can I see you again?/ When can I see you again?/ Uh huh, Uh huh/ When can I see you again?/ Coz you know I’m your undercover boyfriend.” It doesn’t quite work. The rhythms compete and the lyrics bristle against each other. But no one seems too concerned. “Give it a go anyway,” Yeates instructs with the good humour of experimentation, aware there is still time to discover what works and what doesn’t. “We have permission to be awful.” It’s a rare misstep. So far the motley gathering of local rappers, imported MCs, a Donegal-based sean-nós singer, British DJ and spoken word artist from “New York by way of Tonga” have struck up an immediate if unlikely kinship.

When Breathnach delivers a decelerated version of Óró Sé Do Bheatha ‘Bhaile, performed over what may once have been the sound of uileann pipes, but now a fizzing ambience over an arrestingly queasy beat from DJ Moschops, two rappers compare their grievances. “I don’t mean to preach, but we need to teach the kids the real facts,” begins Finglas rapper Warren Gifford (Warren G), adding a potted history of famine and dispossession.

“That still didn’t stop the English from raiding our houses/ Get yourself a Paddy – only five pounds sterling/ the Negro costs 50 but the Paddy can live in the garden.”

Yansen’s response, which comes with a studied flow, is more quiet and insistent. “I am the memory, the griot, and remember we will/ I am every drop of blood that was spilt for my people/ I am Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and Ashley Kriel.” His rap traces the contours of time immemorial. “I am the ancient African soil from which all life sprung/ It is me dangling in that tree you racists hung.” If this was a battle rhyme, you’d have to hand it to Yansen on points.

The agenda of Hip-Nós, however, is not confrontational. No participant sees their music, their culture or their ideas at odds with one another. Where they are at evens, though, can be harder to immediately discern.

“These are the songs of the poor,” responds Yeates. “They represent the cultural richness and verbal richness of the poor – such as the verbal tradition of Ireland. That richness of language comes from being able to say several things at the same time without the oppressor knowing.”

Black Noise, one of the earliest established hip hop groups in South Africa, may feel a political resonance. Together for 21 years, they came of age during the anti-apartheid movement. Yansen recalls performing with an earlier combo, called Apartheid Sucks, distracting crowds at mass rallies by break-dancing and rapping while speakers were smuggled in and out of the venue under threat of arrest. “Social justice is a huge element of the music,” says Yeates, “particularly with kids in Ballymun and Finglas going on about unemployment, police oppression, the recession . . . ”

There is a politics in form too. Working within a music that has tangled and diffuse origins, but which acquired its shape in the Bronx in the mid-1970s, Black Noise have always obeyed the shibboleths of American hip-hop culture – the dextrous break-dancing, the busy turntables, the spray cans, and consummate rhyming – but had to make it fit to a South African experience. There is a contradictory impulse to both preserve identifiable boundaries and to melt down divides.

“A lot of the people continue to grow up in a tribalistic environment,” says Yansen. “Not only in South Africa. It’s also a global thing – people click within their tribe or race or whatever. We’re from Cape Town, which is a port city where the people are [racially] mixed. During apartheid we were just labelled coloured. Eventually we realised that everyone has a mixed history – there is no pure race of people. But a lot of people in our community still stick very religiously to those tribal confines. South Africa is changing now. People are starting to bridge racial boundaries and also starting to sample things that would have been previously taboo, like Abdullah Ibrahim’s jazz.”

OR, FOR THATmatter, sean nós. Hip hop has always sampled diverse sounds and woven them into its fabric. One of its unspoken central tenets is that there can be no apartheid in music. The Hip-Nósshow follows two acts. The first is a showcase of each participant’s work, from Mary Ann Hernon’s sean-nós dancing to Black Noise’s B-boy moves, and from the spoken-word performance of Vaimoana Niumeitolu to the rapping of Ophelia McCabe. The second brings them together, musically, culturally and physically, which, for anyone who has seen Black Noise dance, may require choreography as carefully calculated as air-traffic control.

“It’s all storytelling,” says McCabe. “That’s why every one of us is here. Sean nós would have been a way of recording real events in history and culture in the same way that I may express myself through lyricism, dance or drawing. It’s all our personal stories. That’s where it all comes together.

“It may clash, but it eventually gels because we’re all standing on our own two feet doing our thing.” Everyone is alive to the danger that sean nós might be swallowed by the rhythmic insistence of breakbeats – “squashed by electronics,” is how Yates expresses the concern – and no one wants it to feel like a backing track.

Breathnach is understandably sensitive to preserving boundaries: “It’s important that you don’t try to change what you do yourself. You try to meet in the middle. If I try to sing in line with rap, then I would be losing sean nós. If they bend to accommodate me, it wouldn’t work either.”

Curiously, though, with a music that is several centuries old and that the participants roundly consider to be the preserve of a minority of traditionalists (Breathnach finds her own childhood interest unusual, while Warren admits he had no knowledge of sean nós prior to the first Hip-Nósproject), it is hip hop that often seems to be facing a graver threat to its existence.

Angelo of Black Noise, Warren and Ophelia each voice a sorry disdain for contemporary hip hop and the homogenised, desiccated version of the music that receives the majority of airplay, in their respective continents.

“We’re not affixed to a scene or a culture of making money, which is hard in Ireland anyway,” says Ophelia. “The commercial world creates a very bastardised form of something that began from pure expressional roots. Anything doctored and manufactured for commercial gain loses the message.”

Many participants will speak of hip hop offering a chance to kick-start a renewed interest in sean nós, but when McCabe speaks of “removing the security of your beat” to create something much more risky, it’s not fanciful to think it may work the other way around. Whether Hip-Nóswill ever cohere into its own genre or if it exists only through annual intervention is something few can say.

“To be honest I don’t know,” says the DJ Moschops (Harry Webley), on a break between scratching up tracks by Horslips or parachuting samples of sean-nós dance taps into the mix. “We have to see how the gig unfolds. But there’s stuff that’s happening that’s tantalising. There are rappers from Cork using beatbox, harmonica and tin whistles. There is a strong connection to the past in Ireland, more so than many countries. And there’s a real yearning to recapture that sort of purity and clarity.”

With a sharp poignancy, Yeates recalls that the form was starting to take root in the work of the rapper Daniel McDonnell, aka Lunitic, who had begun to incorporate bodhrán beats and folk music into his rapping, until his death earlier this year at the age of 24. The new show opens with a tribute to McDonnell and a recording of his Hip-Nósperformance, standing as both testament, commemoration and a stirring illustration of what could be the birth of a new tradition.

“You may say sean nós is a thousand years old, or hip hop is 30 years old, or that Irish hip hop is only 15 years old,” says Ophelia. “But really they’re all as old as the universe. When humans started to record, or write down any feeling, you’d have found an incredible, fast lyricism and delivery. The gift of the gab. We’ve always been highly expressive verbally.” The oral tradition continues, whether in Irish, English or Afrikaans, matched with bodhráns, B-boys or breakbeats.

Hip-Nós is at Vicar Street tomorrow at 8pm. axis-ballymun.ie