Highland and New Paltz High School students were able to learn from and perform with one of Ireland’s most renowned musicians, Liam Ó Maonlaí, in the stunning upper terrace of the Lifebridge Sanctuary Retreat and Learning Center in Rosendale, with glass windows overlooking the Catskills. Walking up the stairs to the room, where Ó Maonlaí and the students had gathered in a circle under a wooden cathedral ceiling with the light streaming in and the sound of a tin whistle and Gaelic chords reverberating into the deepest reaches of the soul, it felt as if I were in the Aran Islands with the sea washing up against the cliffs and miles of stone walls whispering their secrets.
Known for his band Hothouse Flowers, as well as being one of the greatest sean-nós (traditional Irish) singers, Dubliner Ó Maonlaí has traveled to the farthest reaches of the globe to learn from aboriginal masters in Australia, Africa, Japan and Eastern Europe. He has also recorded with some of the world’s best musicians, including Carlos Nunes, Donal Lunny, U2, Rolf Harris and Van Morrison to, name but a few. In fact, Bono, the lead singer of U2, dubbed Ó Maonlaí the “best white-boy soul singer in the world.”
How did he find his way to an ethereal lodge in Rosendale with two dozen local high school students? Like the breadth of his musical knowledge itself, the world suddenly became personal and intimate when Highland High School creative writing and drama teacher Stephanie Santagada learned that Ó Maonlaí was going to be in New York City performing at Lincoln Center for the Rian Festival. “I’ve always been a huge fan of Liam’s, and had the opportunity to meet him in Woodstock a few years ago, when he was performing at the Bearsville Theater,” Santagada recounted.
They become social media “friends,” and when Santagada learned that Ó Maonlaí was going to be in New York City, she threw out a question to which she never imagined he would respond: Would he come to New Paltz to do a benefit concert to help save the High School Drama Club, which was on the chopping block due to budget cuts?
“Even though I teach in Highland, my two children go to New Paltz, and I hated to see the Drama Club lose its funding,” she said. And to her great surprise, Ó Maonlaí said yes. They raised $5,000 in ticket sales for his benefit concert last weekend, and to top it off, he also agreed to do a musical workshop with New Paltz and Highland High School students who had an interest in or a love of music and dance.
“Not only is he a phenomenally talented musician, but he’s also about bridging cultural gaps through music,” said Santagada. “He’s studied with tribal elders in Mali, Africa and around the world, and brings that sense of commonality through music that I believed our students would greatly benefit from — and he was kind enough to say ‘Yes!’”
In the spirit of bridging gaps, Santagada teamed up with New Paltz High School (NPHS) principal Barbara Clinton, who was at the workshop, to invite students passionate about music, singing, dance and theater to learn from the Gaelic maestro. “When we first arrived, a few students started playing the piano, and everyone else gathered around and started singing and dancing. It was magical,” said Santagada. “They’re from different schools, they didn’t know each other; and yet in an instant, there was no boundary of being from New Paltz or Highland — they were just young adults who loved and wanted to share music.”
Playing a small cylindrical tin instrument that he had purchased in Mali for $40 and a week’s worth of lessons, Ó Maonlaí explained the meaning behind the aboriginal “Dream Song” as being a “miraculous place, kind of like Heaven.” With that he began chanting the song, accompanied by his tin instrument, and within minutes he was singing from so deep within his body and soul that it transformed the room into that dream space. Students started to learn the West African words and sing along with him, swaying and tapping their feet, the song building and receding like the tides of an ocean.
Ó Maonlaí then invited students to perform whatever they wanted to, and he would accompany them, either with a leather drum, the piano, his voice or clapping. What came next? Jaw-dropping performances by high school students that rivaled top American Idol auditions, only better — much better.
McKenna Gallinari of Highland stood up and played acoustic guitar and sang, with Ó Maonlaí sliding in to heighten the performance with a gentle strumming of an indigenous drum. The students all applauded, which provided even more courage for others to get up and strut their musical stuff, like New Paltz trombone player Noah Pomerselig pushing his instrumental talents to the limits as Ó Maonlaí challenged him by accompanying him on the piano and taking him to greater heights. It was a performance of symphonic proportions.
Jenica Cochran of New Paltz borrowed a guitar from a friend and got the entire room enchanted and sparked by her acoustic rendition of an Eminem song. That was followed by a Broadway-quality tap-dance performance by Highland sophomore Jared Sprague that had everyone clapping and tapping along, including the epic Ó Maonlaí. Another NPHS student premiered a fast rap song that he had written, with cutting lyrics like “I don’t make up rhymes, I cough up my insides.” The room was so filled with passion and music that the students decided to forgo their lunch break and eat on the bus, not wanting to miss one moment of Ó Maonlaí’s presence and support.
The event ended with Ó Maonlaí performing a traditional Gaelic song, on which he encouraged the students to join in. While it sounded like some heartbreaking love affair gone bad, or the loss of a loved one with soulful cries to the heavens above, in the end Ó Maonlaí explained that the song was about a young Irish lad who was planning on marrying a rich old widow, but people were afraid that he’d just drink all of her money away. The students laughed. “It is a funny song, but there are levels to it. It’s about industrialization coming to Ireland, the polarization of rich families and poor families who don’t want their children to marry into another class…”
Whatever Ó Maonlaí says or sings, that lilt of his Irish accent is meditative and endearing. “It’s been such an amazing experience having him here,” said Santagada. “He’s so many things: a rock ‘n’ roll performer, a traditional Irish singer, a master of aboriginal and traditional folksongs from all over the world.” Beyond his musical talents, Ó Maonlaí has a way of connecting with people — in this case high school students, with whom he was able to bring out the depth and breadth of their burgeoning musical, dance and vocal talents.
Hats off to Ó Maonlaí, the students that participated, Santagada for bringing him here and Principal Clinton for supporting the collaborative school effort. For the love of the Irish!
To learn more about Ó Maonlaí, go to his website at www.liamomaonlai.ie.