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.”
How does this manifest itself in music and dance? "In the first half you hear salsa music by itself and Irish music by itself, and gradually they intertwine," says Byrne. "By the time you reach the end of the show there's rap, mambo, salsa, Irish céilí, jazz, Benny Goodman. "
He explains the complexity of different folk rhythms and traditional airs. He taps out beats. He lilts a few tunes. He explains how to put a salsa bass line beneath an Irish reel, again singing and tapping it out.
He also discusses the role of technology in the creation of the show. The writers collaborated via email. Initial audition tapes were collected online from dancers all over the world who were influenced by Riverdance, and Byrne absorbed hours and hours of music on the internet. "I'd go down the wormhole of YouTube for hours, days, weeks," says Byrne. "I knew about flamenco music, but for me to write a bulería, the most difficult flamenco dance, I really had to get the rhythm of it into my body . . . There are these internal accents. I'd look it up on YouTube and watch for hours and then would spend weeks walking my dog around Los Angeles [where he lives], counting it out."
“That dog’s a great dancer now,” says O’Connor.
'Riverdance' nailed it
Byrne was first approached by McColgan and Doherty when he was working on a film score in Ireland in 2010. He initially thought of turning the job down, "because I thought that what Bill [Whelan] did with Riverdance, blending Irish music with a contemporary orchestra and band, just nailed it."
O'Connor sees Riverdance as a milestone on the road to Irish self-confidence and maturity. "I grew up in an Ireland that wasn't even on the map. My grandfather used to read the News of the World or one of the other English tabloids; there was the weather map of Britain, and beside it was this funny little island called Northern Ireland. The place that I lived actually wasn't there. We weren't worth the ink. So you had a notion of Ireland being a disappeared place.
"There are moments over the past 20 years when Ireland came out of the 20th century . . . The World Cup was one of them: seeing players in an Ireland jersey who were black and spoke with a Liverpool or Glasgow accent all on the same team. The Irish rugby team playing in Croke Park is a huge part of Ireland's growing up.
"A writer such as Kevin Barry couldn't exist 20 years ago . . . There's a generation of Irish writers now who are not in the shadow of writers 20 years older. And Riverdance was part of that. It took this thing, Irish dancing, that a lot of people were a bit embarrassed about.
“In the same way, some regarded the Irish language as this sad old relic from the past and forgot the enormous richness of it. In our haste to hate ourselves we were ready to throw these things away.”
Last year Doherty and McColgan put on a promo presentation of Heartbeat of Home for promoters from all over the world. The promoters "had been begging for a dance show, because Riverdance has an amazing following", says Byrne. "John and Moya resisted for years and years. So we did this 40-minute warts and all version, with just a tiny little band . . . All the promoters bought it up."
O'Connor and Byrne don't seem intimidated by the expectations. "There'll always be a comparison with [Riverdance], because it's from the producers of Riverdance and there are Irish dancers in it and at some stage they're going to come out in a line," says Byrne. "We pay homage to that."
Here, ensconced in the studio, they're happy to chat away about music and art. O'Connor talks about the music in Irish writing: "William Trevor to me is like a beautiful chamber music. Beckett has a minor-key sadness". Byrne talks about jazz: "I snuck in a lot of jazz," he says guiltily.
They discuss misheard song lyrics: "My brother thought 'Ghostbusters' was 'Those Bastards'," says Byrne. He says they have left some room for improvisation in the score. "The bass player for Cats in London played the same score for 25 years." He shakes his head in wonderment. "Twenty-five years playing Memories."
O'Connor says things have changed since Heartbeat of Home's groundbreaking predecessor. "In the 20th century, Ireland did what all post-revolutionary societies do: we concentrated on what was special and unique about us," he says. "Maybe the time has come to celebrate commonalities rather than differences. I spent six months in Nicaragua in 1985, and I was very struck by the emotional similarity between their music and ours. And on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua you hear English Victorian music-hall songs played with a kind of calypso sensibility. The Lambeth Walk is a big traditional song on the east coast of Nicaragua. They'll tell you it's a traditional Nicaraguan song, but your Irish granny in Kilburn would also sing it. I was always struck by this. So when John started talking about this stuff, I wished he would invite me to get involved." O'Connor laughs. Later, he says: "For me [Riverdance is] the four-minute mile. No one will ever again be the first to break the four-minute mile, but Roger Bannister leads to Usain Bolt, and Gene Vincent leads to Imelda May, and the Dubliners lead to the Pogues.
"Riverdance was a wonderful thing coming out of Ireland at that time. This is coming out of Ireland now."
Heartbeat of Home previews from Wednesday at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, in Dublin. It opens on October 2nd, running for 10 nights before touring China and North America