Balbriggan gaining recognition as international music hub

With the construction of a new concert hall in Balbriggan, the town is set to become the music hub of Ireland. However, world-class artists are already gravitating to Balbriggan as a place for developing and producing new musical works.

In January 2021, the Irish Institute of Music and Song welcomed two talented musicians to its campus on Church Street as Artists-in-Residence.

Paul Oakley Stovall is a critically-acclaimed writer and actor who plays George Washington in the national touring cast of “Hamilton”.

Nikhil Saboo made his Broadway debut as Marwan Jitla in “Mean Girls: The Musical” and plays several roles in the national touring cast of “Hamilton”.

During their residency, Paul and Nikhil stayed in Bedford House while developing several musical and film projects. They composed new material and delivered workshops through the IIMS schools outreach programme, reaching more than 1000 students from 22 schools across the island of Ireland.

They even produced an original song, inspired by their time in Balbriggan.

“The Low Road” is a song commission supported by Our Balbriggan, written together with IIMS co-founders Dónal Kearney and Michael T. Dawson. It celebrates the legacy of Frederick Douglass, who toured Ireland in 1845 advocating for the abolition of slavery. Writing of Ireland, Douglass famously said:

“Instead of the bright blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I breathe, and lo! the chattel becomes a man.”

The song incorporates elements from the Irish-language song tradition as well as the work songs of African-American spirituals. It is a macaronic song, sung in both Irish and English. Dónal Kearney of the IIMS said: “The songwriting process was a pleasure from start to finish. We wanted to fuse various influences for the track. This was easy given the background and expertise of the musicians involved. The music and text is completely original, with a few direct lyrical influences from old sean nós songs including An Bonnán BuíAn raibh tú ag an gCarraig? and Táim sínte ar do thuama. However, the sound leans more towards jazz, soul and contemporary classical music.”

The track features performances from Paul Oakley Stovall (vocals), Nikhil Saboo (guitar, vocals), Dónal Kearney (vocals), Michael T. Dawson (piano, vocals), Sarah May Rogers (fiddle) and Hugh Clarke (strings, percussion).

The song premiered at the international Douglass Week festival in February 2021, deservedly putting Balbriggan on the map alongside other prestigious arts venues in Europe and the USA.

The video itself shows how the songwriters found a way to work in spite of the pandemic; masks, distancing, and video calls! In Dónal’s words:

“I was actually co-writing while isolating at home. Michael was leading the recording session in the Irish Institute of Music and Song studio in Balbriggan, and I dialled in over Zoom. You can see the set-up in the video we produced. It was definitely a new way to work, but we’re so proud of what we achieved. Nikhil and Paul are hugely talented and generous individuals and they loved their stay in Balbriggan.”

The song commission was supported by Our Balbriggan with thanks to Wildflower Pictures. The Irish Institute of Music and Song is headquartered in Balbriggan, Ireland’s youngest and most culturally diverse town. To find out more about the Artist-in-Residence programme, visit www.irishinstituteofmusic.com.