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Arts Festival Review: Green Fire Islands

International Arts Festival Review: Green Fire Islands

Review by Nick van Dijk

Green Fire Islands
Musical director Dónal Lunny
Iarla O Lionaird, Whirimako Black, Glenn Colquhoun and others
Michael Fowler Centre
11 March

This collaboration between Irish and New Zealand traditional musicians and dancers brought together the spirit of both cultures with fine focused performances from the whole ensemble. Musical director Dónal Lunny put the musicians centre stage, with excellent stirring balladry from both vocalists Iarla O Lionaird and Whirimako Black. The music was integrated with touches of dance in the Maori and Irish tradition - notably the flowing naked backs of two ladies, a teasing Peruperu war dance, and some contemporary interpretive dance to the excellently menacing spoken word of poet Glenn Colquhoun. Around the central themes of reels and waiata spun the rich weave of Richard Nunns' Taonga Puoro and Sean McKeon's silken Uillean pipes.

Maori and Gaelic language and images were seamlessly intertwined like black and white swans necking. The loose narrative evoked by the show was 'Harking back to the Golden Age', 'Fall From Grace', 'Conflict', 'Ruins' and 'Rebirth', but thankfully, the plot remained somewhat obscure, allowing the limelight to fall squarely on the two transcendent singers and Colquhoun's pithy performance poetry. O Lionaird has a great light voice somewhat reminiscent of the guy from REM but way more in tune. Black, in song, flits between tui and clarion bellbird.

The dancers were mostly contained on a riser behind the musicians, but with the copious dry ice smoke, they lacked the impact they had when they went centre stage. It would have preferable if they were also projected on screens above. The gentle pace of the music may have benefited from more use of earthy drummer Ricki Gooch (A strong pop song in the second half would be just the ticket). However, the band was consistently excellent with strong work from the harpist Laoise Kelly. There were trademark blends of fiddle and pipes uplifted by the rhythm section and of course lashings of Enya-ish keyboard pads. All the performers came across as genuine and warm folk.

The fullish audience at the Fowler centre was attentive and appreciative, particularly after Whirimako Black's tender last song, which was followed up with a surprisingly sweet waiata by the two Kapa Haka dancers and a rousing clap-a-long Celtic folksong. A rather unrehearsed encore was lapped up.

Green Fire Island brought out the similarities and differences between New Zealand and Irish traditional culture. The roots of ancient mythology drew a stirring and heartfelt performance that no doubt will be repeated to acclaim at future festivals.


Green Fire Island will appear at WOMAD on 14 and 15 March and at an Auckland concert on 17 March. See for details.

Green Fire Islands on the Arts Festival website
Scoop Full Coverage: New Zealand International Arts Festival 2008

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