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Altan

Biography

Altan – Biography (Courtesy of Artist’s site, 2005).
PLUS - Altan (Biography with 'The Blue Idol' 2002).

No Irish traditional band in the last dozen years has had a wider impact on audiences and music lovers throughout the world than Altan. With their exquisitely produced award-winning recordings, ranging dynamically from the most sensitive and touching old Irish songs all the way to hard hitting reels and jigs, and with their heartwarming, dynamic live performances, Altan have moved audiences from Donegal to Tokyo to Seattle. Throughout, there has been the unwavering commitment of the band to bringing the beauty of traditional music, particularly that of the Donegal fiddlers and singers, to contemporary audiences in a way that brings out all its qualities and destroys none. In fact, Altan have always believed that Irish traditional music is a modern music in every sense and its growing influence and popularity have proved them right.

The seeds of the band lie in the music and fun of gatherings and sessions in kitchens and pubs in Donegal where virtuoso music was heard in an atmosphere of respect and intimacy -- it is here that the band's heart lies still whether they are performing on tv in Australia or jamming with Ricky Skaggs on the west coast of the United States.

And if those were the seeds, the actual kernel of the band was the music and personality of band founders, Belfast flute-player, Frankie Kennedy, and Gweedore singer and fiddler, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh. As soon as anyone met them and heard their unique music in the early eighties, whether in a large noisy festival session, or in the little traditional clubs of Dublin and Belfast, it was immediately apparent there was a rare power at work. They seemed to be playing their own repertoire, in fact a combination of old Donegal fiddle music (then little known outside Donegal) and of unusual Northern flute tunes, they delivered it with a force and fullness that made it hard to believe there were only two people playing, and that combined with Frankie's immense wit and playfulness and Mairead's beauty and down-to-earth charm made an irresistible package. It quickly became clear to them and others that they could go places.

Gradually the duo grew organically into a band in the mid-eighties, forged in the bustle and crack of a thousand late-night sessions and festivals throughout Ireland -- the repertoire gave Altan (the name was taken from a deep and mysterious lake behind Errigal Mountain in Donegal) a totally unique stamp, while there was an undoubted inspiration from the great Irish bands such as the Bothy Band, Planxy and De Danann.

Altan's commitment to good natured fun was second only to their commitment to excellence in all things musical, and so the band members who were gathered in were top-notch. Altan has always been a virtuoso band. Earliest was bouzouki-player, Ciaran Curran from Co. Fermanagh, a session and festival veteran, nephew of fiddler, Ned Curran, and close friend of fiddler, Ben Lennon, and flute-player, Cathal MacConnell (of the Boys of the Lough). Like all accompanists of the time, Ciaran had invented his own style on the instrument, and his playing lies at the heart of the Altan sound, though like all great accompanists, the very perfection of what he does makes it difficult for the casual listener to notice!

With the inclusion of guitarist Mark Kelly in the mid-eighties Altan truly became a band. Though all band members have always had a deep knowledge and love of other musics, as well as Irish, ranging through rock, blues, jazz and country to classical, Mark, more than the others, had actually played other styles, and from the start he showed a gift for tastefully bringing fresh rhythms and chordings to the band arrangements. Mark and Ciaran were heard on the '87 album "Altan", which, though not officially a band album, inaugurates the band's studio sound.

But it was live work in '84 -'85 that marked the turning-point for Frankie and Mairead, encouraging them to give up their teaching jobs and go professional. Particularly influential were short trips to the United States in those years when they played concerts in New York, Minnesota, Madison, Portland and Seattle with Derry guitarist, Daithi Sproule, a Minnesota resident and like, Ciaran and Mark, an old friend. Daithi had played a big part in an earlier wave of development in the music, being one of the very first people to adapt the guitar to old Gaelic songs (many of which he learnt in the Gaeltacht of Rannafast, just a few miles from Mairead's home in Gweedore). These US concerts, played in clubs and sometimes in noisy Irish pubs, where people were expecting a very different sort of music, convinced Frankie and Mairead that no-compromise traditional music played with heart and drive could win over any audience anywhere.

In succeeding years, the band recorded albums for Green Linnet, all of which won accolades and awards and appeared in the Billboard charts -- their collaborators on these albums were of the highest calibre and it shows: Donal Lunny, Brian Masterson and Steve Cooney in particular made great contributions over the years. Another friend played with the band for several years, master fiddler, Paul O'Shaughnessey, a dazzling and fiery player with a deep knowledge of Donegal music. The two-fiddle sound stuck, so when, as Altan toured more and more widely, Paul had to leave due to pressure of work, his place was taken by another great young Donegal fiddler, Ciaran Tourish, a player with a special love for the weaving of spontaneous harmony and counterpoint round the melodies of the other lead players.

Through the years audiences are continually struck by the genuine camaraderie and mutual respect among the members of Altan, and this has been vitally important to the band themselves as well as producing a marked effect on live audiences. So when a final element was added to the sound in the early nineties it was another old friend, though not old in years, since the band had known him and his music since he was a boy. Accordion-player Dermot Byrne, another Donegal man was weaned on the music of an older generation of Donegal fiddlers, the Doherty's, the Byrne's and the Cassidy's. While Dermot's status as a complete virtuoso had been secure for many years before he joined the band, it is also part of his gift that he is able to blend seamlessly with other musicians, so Altan just seemed to get tighter and tighter as a performing unit.

Sadly, in the early nineties Altan was dealt a devastating blow, when band leader and manager, Frankie Kennedy, at the height of his powers as a brilliant and innovative flute-player and just when his and Mairead's musical dreams were being realised, was diagnosed with cancer. Through a long illness, the band, at Frankie's insistence, continued to tour and perform with Frankie's participation whenever possible. No words can describe the effects of his illness and loss on the band, but he continues to be a presence and inspiration in Altan's life and music -- more than anything else, Frankie was a lover of life and perhaps the deepest message of all music is that life goes on – no matter what.

Altan's international status and success found a very practical recognition when they were signed in 1996 to Virgin Records, the first Irish band of their kind to be signed by a major label. The band gained gold and platinum albums in Ireland and toured larger venues, literally thoughout the world, with tours in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Europe as well as regular successful U.S. tours.

In spite of a hectic touring and recording schedule, Altan continue fresh in their vision of bringing the beauty and joy of traditional music to audiences everywhere, and have always promised themselves to continue as long as it's fun -- fortunately, it still is!




For the geographically minded:
Loch Altan is situated in north-western Donegal on the border of the parishes of Dobhair and Cloughaneely. The lake lies in the shadow of Errigal and Musckish - two of the main mountains in the Derryveagh Range that spread north-east towards the Caledonian mountains in Scotland.

This is a very appropriate background to the band Altan, as this picturesque area is the source and inspiration for their music and song. The connection with Scotland is not alone geographical but also historical. Scotland, like Ireland, was also a gaelic speaking area, being one of the Celtic nations. In more recent years Donegal people have had to go to Scotland for work, mostly labouring on farms and construction work.

While there, they mixed with the local people and exchanged and learned songs and stories, brought them home to Donegal and gave them their own accent. Nowadays, Altan travel the world bringing their rich traditional music and old Gaelic songs to theatres and venues from New York to Hong Kong.

PLUS
Altan (Biography with 'The Blue Idol' 2002).

Altan, who have been hailed by The Irish Times as “the most dynamic and exciting band playing Irish music today” were formed by the husband and wife team of Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh (fiddle and vocals) and Frankie Kennedy (flute) in the mid 1980’s. Frankie succumbed to cancer in 1994 but Mairéad continues to lead the band and 2002 sees the release of their ninth album “The Blue Idol” (Virgin / Venture).

Their last album “Another Sky” was adjudged Best Folk/Traditional album of 2000 by both Hot Press and The Irish Times and topped folk and world music charts internationally. “The Blue Idol” represents a further development by a band who have managed to remain at the cutting edge of celtic music since their inception. This time out Mairéad invited some guest singers to duet with her. Paul Brady shares vocal duties on a stunning version of the traditional song “Daily Growing”. Country superstar Dolly Parton sings on “The Pretty Young Girl”, a translation of one of Ireland’s great Gaelic folk songs. Dolly invited Altan to play on her critically acclaimed “Little Sparrow” album released last year and here she returns the favour. Mairéad’s sister, Anna Ní Mhaonaigh, sings on “Cuach mo Londubh Buí” and adds an uncanny understanding and intuition that only family members seem to share.

Altan have managed the tricky task of developing an international audience for what is essentially an unadorned and straightforward presentation of the traditional music and song they grew up with while maintaining the respect of their peers and friends in the world of Irish music. “We stick to what we know best but all the time seek to push the boundaries just a bit, keeping it interesting for us and our audiences” explains the bands fiddle player Ciaran Tourish. On The Blue Idol the power and excitement of the backroom pub sessions the band cut their musical teeth on is recreated. Reels, jigs and highlands were recorded live in the studio and the dynamism is palpable.
Irish Music magazine readers voted Altan Best Live Band of 2001 and on “The Blue Idol” we get a sense of the energy that good dance music should have. Steady driving rhythm combined with flawless playing, intuitive understanding and graceful interpretation marks the dance tunes on this album. The key change on the final reel of “The Trip to Cullenstown” kicks in like an adrenalin surge. The “Gweebarra Reel” that follows the more relaxed and almost jazz tinged slip-jig “Comb Your Hair and Curl It” threatens to go off the scale such is the passion and energy the band unleash.

Ciaran Curran who was a founding member of the band creates an intricate bouzouki line that underpins the song “Uncle Rat”. Curran combines with guitar players Mark Kelly and Dáithí Sproule to provide the rhythmic backbone that supports the twin fiddles of Ní Mhaonaigh and Tourish and the brilliant accordion playing of Dermot Byrne. On Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh’s own tune “Sláinte Theilinn”(A Health to Teelin) Dermot Byrne displays an empathy and musical intelligence that verges on the breathtaking.

Altan respect the past and their sources, mentors and teachers and honour them in playing the music that has been handed down by them. Mairead cites her father, Francie (himself a fine fiddler) as inspirational. The great players of Donegal like John Doherty and Con Cassidy who band members knew and learned from are remembered through their music.Yet Altan manage to imbue a freshness of approach that manages to redefine and reinvigorate that tradition. The material on “The Blue Idol” is proof that the rich and venerable tradition of Irish music continues to develop and evolve and has never been better placed to continue to charm and excite audiences all over the world.

Among the guest musicians joining Altan on “The Blue Idol” are the bodhrán player Jim Higgins, Donal Lunny adds his magic touch on keyboards and Harry Bradley, the young Belfast flute player adds a breathy, urgent impetus on a few tracks. The great uilleann piper Liam O’Flynn, who as a member of legendary Irish folk band Planxty etablished a international audience for uilleann piping, plays on the Mark Kelly/Ciaran Tourish composition “Roaring Water”.



The Blue Idol was recorded in Clonmannon House, a 200 year old Georgian house set in the beautiful County Wicklow countryside just south of Dublin. The band took up residence there for the duration of the recording and the tranquil surroundings allowed for what Mairéad describes as “the best and most relaxed recording environment we’ve ever been in”. Ciaran Tourish, who plays fiddle and whistles with Altan was so taken with the place that he negotiated a lease with the owners and along with engineers Alastair McMillan and Gary Paczosa will continue to promote Clonmannon as a superb recording facility. The album was produced by the band and Nashville based Gary Paczosa engineered.






You can listen to short samples from some of the tracks from this artist using the player below.

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