ALTAN BIOGRAPHY 2006.
Twenty one years since their first informal tunes in sessions and pubs Altan continue to go from strength to strength. 2006 sees Irish traditional music’s most well travelled band celebrating a significant anniversary. “It was’nt our intention to even play as a band when we initially sat down together to play” say’s Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, the band leader and one of the most recognisable faces in Irish music, “We just wanted to have fun, explore Donegal music, play tunes that others were not apparently interested in and enjoy each others company. Happily, we’re still doing just that.” While 2005 saw the band touring in Japan, Korea, the USA and Europe the schedule has not let up in early 2006. A sell out show at The Sydney Opera House in January, a special celebratory concert at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall where the band were able to call on their long time friends Mary Black and Paul Brady to join them was followed with some festival dates in France and Ireland. Not content with marking time or standing still the band are working with well-known Dublin based arranger and composer Fiachra Trench (who has written and worked with Van Morrison and The Corrs, among others) to put together a programme of material with the Ulster Orchestra. It’s a fresh challenge for Altan and as they enter their 21st year as a band it is, as Mairéad says, “just the thing to keep us on our toes-we’re really looking forward to playing The Waterfront Hall, Belfast this coming March 17”.
Altan are one of Ireland’s musical treasures. Since coming together in Donegal as young musicians 20 years ago they have developed a music typified by hard driving, rhythmical jigs and reels combined with the heart wrenching beauty of traditional songs sung in Gaelic and English that has conquered audiences all around the world. Altan’s music is defined by the twin fiddles of Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh and Ciaran Tourish and counterpointed by the fluid and inventive accordion playing of Dermot Byrne. Guitar and bouzouki provide the rock solid rhythm section that underpins the music. Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh (pronounced MahRade Knee WayKnee) is also the bands vocalist.
Local Ground is Altan's 10th studio album in the 20 years since they first came together as a band. Their musical friendships were forged and proven in innumerable kitchen and pub sessions in Ireland. Their albums routinely top folk and world music charts and they still remain at the cutting edge of Irish music. Few bands can manage to retain the energy and enthusiasm that originally shaped and propelled their music after twenty years together. Altan can. Their live shows continue to convey a vivacious dynamism that is firmly rooted in a pride and respect for a tradition they love and are proud to represent. This respect for their own roots is reflected in the title and content of their new album-Local Ground.
It is appropriate that the words “Local” and “Ground” are conjoined in the album title. Altan have always celebrated and valued the local in their music. Indeed the band take their name from a lake in Donegal lying at the foot of the sacred Mount Errigle. Traditional music can be said to be of and from a place. This focus on the celebration of place is important to Altan. The band have always been proud of their geographical and musical roots in Donegal in the north west of Ireland. Donegal is strong in culture, music and language. It is a place of great beauty and the rugged landscape is reflected both in the character of the people and in the music that those people make. There is an unbroken and venerable tradition of fiddle playing in Donegal. The music is played in homes, pubs and occasionally, more formally, on concert stages. This music essentially performs a social function-it entertains and enriches the local community. It is used for listening and for dancing. It can provide a backdrop for people to meet and talk. It is valued as being not just a rich form of personal human expression but also as acting as a form of social glue-it helps bring people together. It performs another important function in helping to strengthen local identity.
Band leader, fiddle player and singer, Mairéad and her husband Dermot Byrne, who plays accordion in Altan, own a pub in the small village of Teelin in Donegal. Teelin has a rich heritage of musicians, singers and storytellers . Happily, the “Cúl a Dúin” (pronounced Cool a Doon -literally meaning “The Back of the Fort”) pub is still a warm and inviting place for musicians to meet, for people to sing and dance. Informal sessions are the lifeblood of Irish music and where better to have them than in a pub owned by musicians who love to play music and sing. It is from just these kind of sessions the band emerged and it is to these sessions they return not just for fun and relaxation but also for musical inspiration.
Fiddle player Ciaran Tourish explains, "We never ever forget who we learned this music from and where it comes from, our aim as a band is to try and convey and capture some of the infectious energy and undeniable power that made the tunes attractive to our ears in the first place."
For the recording of Local Ground Altan invited a few of their friends in music to play on the album. Former Bothy Band founder,Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill, plays piano on guitarist Daithi Sproule’s composition The Roseville, a kind of a "Slip-Reel". Steve Cooney guests on bass. We were delighted to be able to ask the great Galician piper,Carlos Nunez, who we have shared stages with on many occasions in the past, to contribute some Gaita (Galician bagpipes) to two tracks (Is The Big Man Within and The Silver Slipper). Bodhrán maestro, Jim Higgins, provides the rhythmic pulse on many of the tracks while Graham Henderson adds some touches of keyboard colour to a set of reels. Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh says of the recording process "Our approach was a relaxed one and we worked in Westland Recording Studios in Dublin. Alvin Sweeney engineered the recording sessions. Brian Masterson, who previously worked with Altan on Island Angel mixed the album. The band members produce".
Since Altan were last in the studio they have been honoured to win the “BBC Radio Two Folk Awards- Traditional Band of the Year”, the TG4 (Irish National Television) inaugaral presentation of “ The Traditional Band of the Year”award at the Irish Traditional Music Awards. Irish Music Magazine readers voted them “Best Live Band”. Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh was named “Donegal Person of the Year” in 2003. Also in 2003 the band were honoured to be asked by the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, to accompany her on a State Visit to Greece. Altan were also asked by the Prime Minister of Ireland, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, in his capacity as President of the European Union, to perform at the official function in Dublin on May 1st 2004 to celebrate the accession of 12 new states to the newly expanded European Union in front of the combined Heads of State and Government for all 25 European Union member countries. May 2004 also saw the band make their first visit to China where Altan performed with Riverdance. Spring 2005 will see the band work in Japan and Korea before returning to play concerts in the USA in April.
Altan have recorded with Dolly Parton, Enya, Alison Krauss, The Chieftains, Tim O’Brien, Paul Brady, Donal Lunny, Soul Flower Union, Luka Bloom, Maura O’Connell, Mary Black, Yasukatsu Oshima.
Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh is regarded as one of the finest exponents of the Donegal fiddle style. She was taught by her father Francie, who in turn learnt a lot of local tunes from his mother Roise. Mairead also came under the influence of renowned Donegal fiddle player Dinny McLaughlin. Mairead is from the Gaelic speaking part of Donegal and Irish is her first language. She has learnt and collected songs from her family and neighbours. Apart from her Altan recordings Mairead has presented television and radio shows in Ireland. she has guested on innumerable albums.
Ciaran Tourish- is from Buncrana in county Donegal. He too was taught fiddle by Dinny McLaughlin having first mastered the tin whistle. Ciaran has developed a style of fiddle playing that remains true to the tradition of Donegal while imbued with influences from other areas of music including bluegrass. Ciaran has recently recorded a solo album released on Compass Records and entitled “Down the Line”
Dermot Byrne- Astonishingly agile and sensitive accordion player from Burt in North Donegal with family roots in Teelin, one of the richest areas in Ireland for music, lore, language and culture. Dermot has formed muisical partnerships outside of Altan with such players as Con Cassidy, James Byrne, Sharon Shannon, Dermot McLaughlin, Steve Cooney, Dezi Donnelly and apart from his own solo album has recently recorded Two Worlds United with Canadian traditional fiddler Pierre Schryer.
Ciaran Curran-Altan’s bouzouki and mandolin player hails from Kinawley in County Fermanagh an area with a strong tradition of music and song. Ciaran brings his strong family music tradition to bear on an instrument relatively new to Irish music. Ciaran’s uncle, Ned Curran, was a great fiddle player and had a store of unusual tunes. His neighbou and friend Cathal MacConnell, flute player with The Boys of the Lough influenced Ciaran’s music as did other neighbours like fiddle players Ben Lennon, Seamus Quinn and singer Gabriel McArdle. He recorded the classic “Dog Big, Dog Little” record alongside this trio of local musicians.
Mark Kelly is the Dubliner in the band. Since his teens he has involved himself in Irish music and alongside his growing interest in playing guitar in traditional music sessions Mark has always maintained an interest in rock and jazz music. His mother was a jazz singer and Mark’s understated sensitive song arrangements are central to Altan’s sound.
Daithi Sproule- Guitar player from Derry no living in Massachusetts. Daithi was one of the pioneers of DADGAD style guitar playing in Ireland along with Micheal O Domhnaill in the seminal Irish traditional band Skara Brae. Hugely in demand as a backing musician Daithi has recorded albums with Irish greats like Tommy Peoples, Liz Carroll, Billy McCumiskey and James Kelly.
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