MICHAEL LONDRA - Michael Londra . CD
produced by Steve Skinner
A self-proclaimed "posh pub singer" takes on not only singing the role of Jesus but an evangelical crusade to enlighten Irish America about poverty and hunger. Helene Dunbar talks to Michael Londra about his work with Concern and the social responsibility of artists.
Michael Londra has a host of vocal credits to his name including having been lead singer in Riverdance on Broadway. But what he really wants to be is a great trad singer. "I listen to people like Karan Casey, Niamh Parsons and Cara Dillon and I think, "I'd love to be able to sing like that but that's never gonna happen," he sighs.
So while he continues to work on his singing career, Londra has set his sights on another serious project: working to bring the plight of poverty-stricken Haiti to the attention of the Irish and Irish-Americans in particular as an ambassador of relief agency Concern Worldwide (US).
"When you grow up in Ireland you always kind of know what Concern is, "the Wexford native explains. "My original job was as a nurse working with people who had mental health issues and learning disabilities. I walked away from that for the wicked stage and it's easy to forget that real life exists out there."
For any who don't know, Concern is a non-denominational humanitarian organization dedicated to the relief, assistance and advancement of the poorest people in the developing world. Executive Director Siobhan Walsh knew of Londra through his work in Riverdance and Radiocelt.com, the internet radio station he created and directs for the Accuradio network.
"She knew I had access to Irish America so she asked if I'd become an ambassador and I jumped at the chance. She said 'that's all very well but we want you to follow through. We want you to go to Haiti and have a look at what's going on down there,' he remembers. "I went and, you know, I consider myself to be someone who has seen and done everything; nurses tend to deal with a lot, but I couldn't believe what I saw down there and I couldn't believe that I was only one hour from Miami. I've never seen such basic, hard-core poverty. There's no land that's arable, there's no access to running water, no roads…we traveled 25 miles and it took 6 hours. The reality for these people is that they have nothing, absolutely nothing.
In La Gonâve, a small island off Haiti's coast, Londra was particularly touched by one young girl. "I got up at 6am and went walking with this little girl who was 5," he recounts. "It was blisteringly hot and she was carrying a bucket as big as herself. Everyday this little girl has to walk 3 hours to fill the bucket at the nearest well to take it back home so that her family can drink. $500 would build a well for these people. That's nothing but this is the reality for these people. I was knackered at the end of that journey. I can't imagine how a 5-year-old girl does this 7 days a week."
A musician first and foremost, Londra decided to put his talents to good use. "There's only one thing I can do well so I decided I'd record a couple of songs. Because we're selling the CD to Irish America, I had no choice but to do 'Danny Boy' (his has been hailed by the Irish Emigrant newspaper as one of the best recordings ever) but the other, 'Song of Cartagena,' I wrote a couple years ago for my cousin who'd died. It's a hopeful song and the general feeling is that there is something better coming your way." The CD is available on iTunes and through Concern's website. All of the proceeds go to benefit the agency's work and it is a collaborative effort between Enterprise Ireland, The National Association of Celtic Buyers and Green Linnet.
Londra is quick to stress that the CD's release isn't solely to raise money. "It's more a vehicle for me to talk to the press and other artists who have access to the public. When I'm on a stage and have 2,000 people in front of me, I can talk about Concern or talk about poverty or hunger for two minutes out of the evening."
Far from being an end in itself, Londra views the project as a long-term one and hopes to recruit other musicians to join him. "I want to take other artists with me or other people who have an interest in Irish music or have access to the press or access to money and let them see what Concern is doing not only in Haiti but around the world." Teada has already signed on and displayed their logo on their Christmas tour posters, speaking about the importance of relief issues at their shows.
"Artists have a responsibility. I don't think its politics with me. It's a moral issue. We're morally obligated to bring up social issues, not with a view to changing people's minds, but to open their minds to new information. People can't decide if they want to help if they don't know about it. And that's the problem; they don't know about it."
If this sounds bit like two other Irish singers (Bono and Bob Geldof, just in case you've been away for the last few decades), Londra doesn't mind the comparisons. "It's not like this quest for me. There's a tendency for the public to give Bono a hard time or to give Bob Geldof a hard time. All I know is because of Bono and because of Geldof, people are talking about these issues. That's all we're looking for. The bottom line is that Bono is now a world expert and people respect him and people listen to him and he can back it up. I think that's the reason Concern asked me to go to Haiti. At least now I know what I'm talking about. I've seen the poverty." And the Irish are the right group to begin with. "Historically there's an awareness in Ireland, a very social and politically aware group of which directly results in Ireland giving more money per capita than any other nation. We're a tiny nation but we give a lot back."
Londra is so passionate about Concern's cause that you almost have to remind him that he has a thriving musical career. This past September, he sang in the US premier of the Passion Symphony, written by composer John Debney based on his score for the Mel Gibson film, The Passion of Christ and for which he was nominated for an Oscar.
The Symphony was performed with a hundred-piece orchestra and a hundred- person choir and with Londra in the role of Jesus. "It's funny because in rehearsals it was so threatening. I learned all the music in New York and literally showed up for the first rehearsal. These 200 people were all looking at me and I was terrified. Nobody told them that I was Irish. The Symphony is in Aramaic and Latin until Jesus comes in and sings in English. Because I was rehearsing and really worked up about it I wasn't really paying attention to my accent. The rehearsal was a disaster and at the end, John Debney comes and says 'I don't know if you saw the movie Michael, but James Caviezel was not from Wexford,' he recounts with a laugh. "So I had to tone down the accent. Still, it was the highlight of my musical life. I'd kind of worked up until that point and then thought 'oh maybe I can sing.' You know Irish people we tend to give ourselves a hard time."
Much to his mother's delight, Londra will perform in 2006's world tour of The Passion Symphony, including a performance at the Vatican. "I'm singing with all these opera singers and I'm essentially a posh pub singer from Wexford. It's a big thrill."
In the rest of his little free time Londra oversees the music selections for Radiocelt, teaches voice and is doing PR for the Celtic Woman tour. Oh, and he has his first solo album coming out on February 10th. Called "Celt", the album features a host of Londra's original songs. He'll also tour the album although he says "I'm a reluctant singer; it takes a lot for me to sing."
But the biggest thrill for this artist who has already done so much? "I can't believe my CD is actually going to be in a shop. I know I'm a grownup and all that but still…."