Altan - Irish music with vitamins


Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh is a strong believer in music’s vitamin-giving properties. The singer, fiddler and driving force of the leading Irish band of their generation, Altan, over the past thirty years, Ní Mhaonaigh is chatting ahead of another flight from Donegal Airport at Carrickfinn, near where she lives, to join the band on another leg of what must seem like their own never-ending tour.


“Travelling’s an inescapable part of our lives,” she says, “but playing music’s a great way of seeing the world, a wonderful passport really. It’s always a joy to play and the great thing is that, no matter how tired you feel, even after taking three flights to get to the gig, the energy of the music takes over. It’s incredibly uplifting and it brings you to a better place where everything seems to be equal and everything’s clear. There’s nothing better and it’s certainly been a healing thing for me over the years.”


Being back in Donegal after spells in Dublin, Ní Mhaonaigh is, she says, back at the source. From the earliest days of Altan, the tunes and songs she learned at home in Gweedore have formed the backbone of the band’s repertoire. They were blended in the beginning with her late husband and band co-founder, Frankie Kennedy’s knowledge of flute tunes from Northern Ireland and helped to give the band its distinctive freshness and vitality.


“Living here again has made me play more,” says Ní Mhaonaigh. “When I’m not travelling I'll be learning tunes or trying to remember old ones or composing new ones and the Scottish connection is never far away. We get the rain from Scotland, of course, but there’s a huge Scottish connection here and I sometimes think the Scottish people understand our music more than anybody else because a lot of our music was brought back here from Scotland – what we call highlands are really strathspeys – and there are songs we sing that have Scottish origins.”


Her own family have links to Scotland, although this isn’t exactly rare among Donegal people. She has uncles who worked on hydroelectric dams, her maternal grandmother was born in Glasgow, to Irish parents, and her mother worked in Glasgow in her teens. Indeed, when Ní Mhaonaigh and her colleagues in Tea with the Maggies, a supergroup of Donegal talents comprising Clannad’s Maire Brennan and the Ni Dhomhnaill sisters, Triona and Maighread, played at Celtic Connections a few years ago, they all felt they were singing to their relatives.


It’s another musical connection that’s been occupying Altan more recently, however: their latest album, The Widening Gyre, explores the links between Irish music and the Appalachian tradition and features guests including old-time fiddle specialist Bruce Molsky, bluegrass greats Tim O’Brien,  Alison Brown, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Darol Anger, and singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter.


Growing up not so far from Malin Head, Ireland’s most northerly point where boat loads of her countryfolk caught their last sight of their homeland en route to North America, Ní Mhaonaigh was always acutely aware of the history of Irish people leaving for the U.S. But as Altan made their first American tours and met up and played with musicians from Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee the closeness of the musical links became very clear.


“Someone would sing Barbara Allen, say, with a slightly different melody or play a tune we recognised but with a different stress or accent and we realised that we were just a step away from Appalachian music because it had gone over there from Ireland, Scotland and England,” she says. “And The Widening Gyre, a phrase we borrowed from W.B. Yeats, seemed an appropriate description of us taking Donegal’s culture out to the world.”


As well as featuring luminaries of the Americana music scene, The Widening Gyre introduces a new face – and a new voice – to Altan audiences, accordionist Martin Tourish, who replaces Dermot Byrne, who in turn stepped in when Frankie Kennedy succumbed to cancer in 1994. A second cousin of the band’s long-serving fiddler, Ciaran Tourish, Martin is the classic case of a fan getting a dream gig with his favourite band.


“We love him because he brings our average age down quite a bit,” says Ní Mhaonaigh, laughing. “He’s been following the band since he was a really young fella but he’s grown into a very accomplished musician and is now a doctor of music, in fact. He’s played jazz and classical music and he’s a really great composer, and because he plays piano accordion, where Dermot played button keyed accordion, he adds a different voice to our sound, gives us a new edge.”


From The Herald, May 20, 2015.


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