Imagining Ireland review – a glorious, cliche-free musical melting pot

the Sierra Leone-Irish singer Loah and Mathman, of the hip-hop duo Mango and Mathman.
Imagining today’s Ireland … the Sierra Leone-Irish singer Loah and Mathman, of the hip-hop duo Mango and Mathman. Composite: Rex Features

Lest we forget, Ireland’s Taoiseach is the gay son of an Indian immigrant father and an Irish mother. And with nary a reference to Guinness, shamrocks or any other accoutrements of tourism, this enterprising, imaginative multi-artist presentation, promoted by Culture Ireland, reflected a modern, multifaceted view of Irish experience far from stereotypes. “A photograph of some of the noises coming out of Ireland right now,” was how the bill-topper Paul Noonan (of Bell X1) expressed it as the show meandered through jazz, classical, gospel, rap and other areas seldom associated with Celtic culture.

There was no grandstanding, no big statements of intent or political speeches (apart from a brief feminist shout-out from Lisa Hannigan as she fronted an eight-piece all female band); just a disparate selection of musicians almost seamlessly mixing and matchingcontrasting styles and influences. A versatile house band, the Crash Ensemble String Quartet, provided consistently unexpected counterpoints along the way.

Excellent … gospel and blues from Brian Deady.
Excellent … gospel and blues from Brian Deady. Photograph: Richard Gardner/Rex/Shutterstock

In low-key early stages, Maria Kelly brought sweetness and Seamus Fogarty light. But you yearned for the dynamism of a Radie Peat, Lisa O’Neill or Rioghnach Connolly to get the senses pulsing. Happily, the arrival of Irish-Sierra Leone singer Loah, delivering moody soul and atmospheric rhythms in the ancient language of Sherbro, did exactly that.

Suddenly, the slightly surreal Gregory Dunn big-screen photographic images depicting unusual vignettes of urban and rural landscapes began to make sense. This was Ireland, but not as we are told we knew it. The hip-hop duo Mango & Mathman bounced on, hurling sharp bouts of rhyming into a melting pot awash with strings, raising the stakes when Lisa Hannigan joined them to sing Deep Blue in epic Eminem-Dido style.

The second half was better still, opening with the quickfire Dublin poet Stephen James Smith, accompanied by violinist Emma Smith, with his brilliant and witty My Ireland, addressing the historic misrepresentation of Irishness. The arresting close harmonies of harp/keyboards duo Saint Sister and stirring gospel and blues from the excellent Brian Deady followed. Hannigan took centre stage to deliver her gracefully passionate Fall, before being joined by Saint Sister for an affecting unaccompanied setting of Seamus Heaney’s poem Anahorish.

A jovial Noonan closed the show, but there were no big singalongs, traditional favourites, rabble rousing or tumultuous finale. The one indulgence was unexpected – a feelgood whole-cast cover of Dancing in the Moonlight.