“I adore the language, the culture, the songs that are part of all of that. But translating [rock lyrics] into the language can be uncomfortable,” he says.
In the end, the sometime Hothouse Flowers frontman let himself be convinced. For one thing, the singer’s passion for reggae comes close to his ardour for Irish. It is a life-long relationship, going back to his youth in Dublin. “I grew up in the 1970s. The punk movement was born around then. It was brilliant — there was a great sense of freedom, absolutely zero class divide. People were playing instruments who would never have played before.”
Ó Maonlaí, 49, even had his own punk group, The Buttocks. However, they never actually got around to playing a gig. By then he had been derailed by another music, seeping into the culture from across the Atlantic.
“The music scene in Jamaica was evolving. They already had ska. One summer, the weather was so hot,they had to slow the ska down — and from that came reggae. The reggae people were impressed by the energy of punk and a lot of punks were listening to reggae. I got a copy of Bob Marley’s Live! album [recorded at the Lyceum Theatre, London) and found it fantastic. To me, it was a cut above punk. There was a rootedness in it.”
There is a debate to be had over Marley’s influence on reggae. In Jamaica, says Ó Maonlaí, people will tell you musicians such as Pete Tosh were just as important to the development of the genre. Nonetheless, it was Marley who broke through internationally and, so, came to define reggae for Western audiences.
“Marley met [Island Records founder] Chris Blackwell, and that allowed him reach a lot of people,” says Ó Maonlaí. “Blackwell came upon [Marley], saw something. He was from Jamaica and thought it would be good for his country.”
As an Irishman, reggae spoke to Ó Maonlaí in a particular way.
“I was a traditional musician in parallel with everything else. The musicality and the soulfulness of reggae were very attractive. Marley, in particular, was singing songs that nobody else had at that level.”
The singer will perform the Irish language interpretations of the Marley repertoire this Friday. The event is part of Imram, the Irish Language Literature Festival. The translations are by poet Gabriel Rosenstock and the concert will feature Natty Wailer, a member of Marley’s original band.
Ó Maonlaí’s involvement in the Marley project brings with it a sense of travelling full circle. In the 80s, The Hothouse Flowers worked with esteemed reggae producer Joe Higgs, a friend and contemporary of Marley.“He whipped us into shape as a reggae band. He liked you to stick to a definite way of playing. At first we were confused : it was like ‘what do you want us for? Don’t you want us to bring our style?’ However, as the night went on, and we started listening back, we found what we were doing was great. Jamaica had come to Ireland.”