Green Fire Islands is a unique and historic collaboration between Irish and Maori/Pakeha artists, which “sets out to build a musical bridge between two creative island cultures, Ireland and New Zealand.” RENEE LIANG caught up with Creative director Bronwen Christianos, recently at WOMAD.

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RL: I saw Green Fire Islands at WOMAD, which was a little different to the other performances you’ve done. Could you describe what the difference was at the WOMAD performance?

BC: We had to reduce a 90 minute show to a 60 minute show, as WOMAD only allows 60 minute slots... this meant leaving out parts.

RL: I remember the intro mentioned there were five parts to the show... what were they?


RL: How did you decide on these five parts?

BC: The five parts were decided on one hand by (Irish musical director) Donal, in an inspiration, but strangely were echoed by Glenn Colquhoun in his series of poems North South (inspired by the concept of Green Fire Islands). The themes and the pattern were uncannily similar, although they had come to it separately. Glenn has made some very interesting observations on this and how this pattern is deeply satisfying to the human psyche.

RL: They do seem to fit a classical narrative pattern, and can be applied to both cultures.

BC: Yes, the narrative pattern certainly applies to both cultures, but I think there’s something else too. The standing ovations were so heartfelt at the three concerts that contained all five parts, that I believe GFI touches some deep human chord... quite apart from any specific culture.

RL: Wow. Did you find you had different types of audience at your three big concerts (Raglan, Wellington, Auckland) – and was there any cultural difference in response between those of "Anglo-Saxon" heritage and those of “Pacific” heritage? Because the concept really is about a “coming-together” of the two cultures, isn’t it?

BC: Well, more specifically the Celtic and the Maori cultures. There were a lot of Maori at the Raglan concert, (as well as plenty of people from other cultures), and I understand there were many Maori present in Auckland too. In Wellington not so many Maori... but we still got a sustained standing ovation.

I think my point would be that it is touches some universal chord. Pauline Kingi once said to me that GFI was not only an important project for Maori but for the world. I do feel that GFI touches people on many levels. It also possibly challenges them.

RL: I’ve been having a look at your website, It states that “an important foundation of this project is recognizing the significance of music’s integral part of the renaissance and restoration of Ireland’s and New Zealand’s culture.” Could you talk a bit more on the idea of cultural renaissance?

BC: I think it is well understood by people how music plays a special part in “feeding” their souls. Donal Lunny, (the Irish musical director for GFI) was a catalyst behind the renaissance of Irish traditional music. His band Planxty was legendary, and got things happening in a big way in Ireland when it took off. This subsequently influenced a large part of modern Irish culture, and you had the revival and renaissance of the Irish spirit happening in many different manifestations.

This whole project (GFI) had its beginning in discussions with Donal over ten years ago, when I was staying with him in Ireland. I started telling him about the stirrings of renaissance within Maori culture, and more specifically about the revival of taonga puoro after generations of silence. He was immediately very interested, and saw parallels with the Celtic story.

RL: How did you first meet Donal and what other projects have you done together?

BC: This is the first project that we have done together. We met in New Zealand back in the early nineties when he was the musical director of the Guinness Celebration of Irish Music tours that were coming out – they were huge productions with everyone who was anyone in Irish music involved.

RL: You’re a musician as well as an artist and designer?

BC: Strangely, no I am not a musician.... I think my ears are acutely tuned in to the essence of music though. I “saw”/“heard” what would happen with this collaboration, (much to the sometimes annoyance of Donal... who would say “I don’t know HOW you saw that”)!

RL: How did you find the musicians for the NZ side of the collaboration?

B: With much difficulty! It was a long process, and an even longer story. I tell people that it took two hours to select and confirm the Irish musicians, and two years to select and confirm the NZ musos.

RL: So how many hours did the musicians have to work together before the concert started?

BC: They had less than five days... They started rehearsals on Tuesday morning, and the first concert was at Raglan on Saturday night. There were no evening rehearsals, but the days were very intense… (in the Raglan Town Hall).

RL: I notice you’re also the co-producer of the documentary. What stage are you up to on that?

BC: There will be two documentaries. The first should be ready reasonably soon. This will be of the last concert at the Aotea Centre, which we were able to film with no holds barred. (In fact Albol almost looked like one of the dancers as he was prowling around the stage!)

The second doco needs quite a bit of editing. But by the time this gets done there should be a lot of interest in it engendered by the first doco. It will be documenting the process (rehearsals etc and the different flavours of the different concerts) plus some amazing interviews.

RL: There’s also going to be a CD... is it a live recording, and when can we expect it to hit the stores?

BC: Sorry I can’t give you a date for this…. hopefully sooner than later as we are getting a lot of requests for it!

RL: Proceeds from this project are going towards a new trust, Whiti Te Ra Hou, which aims “to promote and encourage programmes and projects whose aim is to improve the mental health of New Zealanders”. Do you see this as the start of a whole raft of similar projects?

BC: Oh definitely! I am not sure how similar, but I am expecting there to be all sorts of possibilities. I am excited about the concept catching on big time, highlighting what is so awesome about this country, and dealing to those sad social stats we have in Aotearoa.

Did you know that at the Aotea concert we had a whole lot of special guests come on stage after the show, and there was an extra show virtuall? They all came up as part of a “tautoko” for the kaupapa of Green Fire Islands. Donal especially acknowledged Whiti Te Ra Hou Trust, which was an emotional moment for me!

The special guests were: Hinewehi Mohi, Anna Coddington, Anika Moa, King Kapisi, and Neil and Tim Finn. Everyone sang a song, and the Finn brothers sang two! Then Whirimako sang another number and finally everybody joined together on stage to sing E Papa. It was fantastic!

RL: Is “Green Fire Islands” as a collaboration now complete, or are there plans to do it again or as a regular event? What new concepts and ideas for events have come out of this first one?

BC: Good question! We have received such a fantastic response from the show, that we are all keen to take it to the world. People are calling it the next Riverdance...

Personally I think it has a better potential than Riverdance as it comes from a deeper place. The musicians believe we have made a great start but as far as the possibilities of collaboration it is just a beginning. Obviously it will continue to “mature” , but I believe the essence that was captured will live on!

Further, other smaller collaborations are already developing out of the meetings made... Riki Gooch is catching up with some of the Irish musoes when he is in Europe shortly playing with Fat Freddys, and Glenn and Richard and Riki are talking about an exciting sounding project back here in New Zealand. Iarla O’Lionaird and Richard made a great connection and are also planning some work together in Europe when Richard is over there later in the year. Everyone got pretty bonded over the whole process, so we are all keen to hang out together again where-ever and when-ever!