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Same Mountain, New View

by Fintan Vallely

Altan - photo not available
In March the band Altan's Donegal-style music headlined the North Texas Irish Music Festival at Dallas. After criss-crossing among the eastern USA's centres of 18th century Scots/Irish settlement, St. Patrick's Day saw them affiliate with home at Burlington, Vermont. Altan's players spend much of their lives on the road, seldom appearing in Ireland, often in Europe, and occasionally Australia and New Zealand. A long way this, from the origin of their title - Loch Altan, a tiny lake hanging between the parishes of Gaoth Dobhair and Cloghaneely in North West Donegal. Well off any beaten track, its waters reflect both Errigal and Muckish, the twin peaks of the Derryveagh mountains most familiar to tourists. A metaphor for Altan's present touring between Irish-America and Scottish-America, these distinctive slopes are part of a range which surfaces next in Scotland as the Caledonians, a link reflected again, but just as solidly, in nineteenth and twentieth century Donegal migration, music and song.

Altan was formed in 1985 by Belfast flute player Frankie Kennedy and Gaoth Dobhair fiddler Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh. Her childhood was lived among a local music and song that encouraged holiday-time visits of musicians from other Northern counties. That is how she met and inspired Kennedy, marrying him in 1981, cementing a duet which Gael Linn released in 1982 as Ceol Aduaidh. Then with Co. Fermanagh bouzouki player Ciarán Curran, Dublin fiddler Paul O'Shaughnessy and guitarist Mark Kelly, 'Altan' began proper with a Green Linnet recording of the same name in 1985. Now with eight albums and two CD selections behind them, the band feeds many mouths, including manager Tom Sherlock (formerly of Claddagh Records), and, when on tour, sound, lights and merchandising personnel too. O'Shaughnessy stepped back in 1990, replaced by Ciarán Tourish, and Mark Kelly's place on US and continental tours has been taken by ex-Derry guitarist Daithí Sproule. Accordionist Dermot Byrne, widely renowned as a prodigy on his instrument from childhood, had already guested on two of Altan's recordings before joining the band in 1994.

Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh has strong sense of loyalty to her home area, and to Donegal fiddling in particular. Taught the instrument by her father in childhood, she was reared in an atmosphere full of Irish and English language song. Opportunities to perform were presented by local tourism and summer Gaeltacht (Irish language) colleges; her repertoire came first from her father's mother Róise, a concertina player, later from fiddle player, Dinny McLaughlin who also taught Ciarán Tourish. Ciarán Curran comes from Kinawley, Co. Fermanagh, an area renowned for music and song. To the band he brought interesting repertoire learnt from his uncle Ned Curran (father of uilleann pipemaker Eamonn, who played with Dolores Keane) and also from such players as Cathal McConnell (flute player with The Boys of the Lough) and from Co. Leitrim fiddler Ben Lennon. Ciarán Tourish was born in Buncrana, began playing fiddle at the age of nine: "By accident!" he says, "My sister was going to piano lessons, and I was just sent along with her". Recordings of such as Tommy Peoples and Andy McGann were his inspiration of many years, but he had met Mairéad and Frankie while on holidays at Bunbeg from 1981 onwards. In 1986 he was playing with the band Aileach, began 'filling in' with Altan in 1988, and now with a solo album underway has been guesting with such as Matt Molloy, Martin O'Connor, Dolores Keane, Frankie Lane and Maura O'Connell. In contrast to the rural prestige of other band members, Mark Kelly comes from Raheny, a solid suburb of Dublin; his first gig with Altan was at 'trimmings' to the Listowel Writer's Week of 1983. Interested in guitar from the age of nine, his mother's earlier life as a singer in a Jazz band gave him a home life rich in the sounds of Fats Waller and Ella Fitzgerald. A passion for the Irish language brought him to the Gaeltacht where he experienced his first Traditional music through uilleann piper Mick O'Brien and his brothers Denis and Tom, soon afterwards taking up playing with them in Dublin sessions. Holiday in Donegal in 1977 introduced Kelly to 'open tuning' on guitar, its facilitating of drone notes giving him a whole new potential for playing with Traditional music. He uses no gadgets: "On principle." he says, "I have seen them abused too much, and I just don't know enough about them." For all that, he thinks his music through, however, and sees the role of guitar as "putting a harmonic framework around the tune". He likes the harmonies "to make sense - and not get in the way of the melody."

Guitarist and singer Daithí Sproule is from Derry city, his father's family with fiddlers, his mother's with singers and dancers. The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were among his first interests in music. He worked out the chords to their songs on piano, and at seventeen took up guitar. Friendship with Mícheál Ó Dómhnaill (Bothy Band) and his sisters Tríona and Maighread at the Rannafast, Donegal Gaeltacht college in 1966 led to borrowing Bert Jansch and John Renbourn's DADGAD guitar tuning. Together they played on radio and TV, opening concerts too for the Chieftains and Horslips, making their name at gigs in the legendary Tradition Club at Slattery's of Dublin. So was born the iconic Skara Brae whose solitary album was recorded in 1971. Moulding guitar into a modernist approach to traditional Irish airs and lyrics, Sproule has performed and recorded with many other great musicians since going to the US to play with James Kelly (fiddle, Patrick Street) and accordionist Paddy O'Brien in 1978. Notably, with fiddler Liz Carroll and accordionist Billy McComiskey, he formed the group Trian, and casting a wider net he played too with Ukrainian/US mandolin star Peter Ostroushko. "I never had much drive to do a solo recording" is how he justifies this productive, meandering eclecticism, "But eventually I went for it - my approach was that it would be just me doing what I do anyway, with some help from Liz and Peter." 'A Heart Made of Glass' was this album, in 1993, but his passion is still for Altan: "A great live band", he says "It still feels fresh playing on stage - but I find an increasing craftsmanlike satisfaction with getting all the little details better and better with time. I feel an ever-growing clarity with what we're doing, while at the same losing none of the happy and deep spirit of the band's music."

From Burt, Buncrana, Co. Donegal, accordionist Dermot Byrne was never formally taught, but "just picked it up", noodling tunes out of his father's accordion from the age of four. Something of a prodigy, if a modest one, he recalls having "given up competitions by the age of eight", and was fortunate to have experienced through his father's rambles, weekends spent in Teelin or Glencolmcille with major players like fiddlers John Doherty, James Byrne and Con Cassidy. Studying tool-making brought him to Ennis, Co. Clare in 1986, to Galway in 1990 where he played first with Frankie Gavin, then John Faulkner, guesting too with Altan. Tragedy, sadly, marked his coming to Altan, for his first tour was horrifically marked by the death of his brother and girlfriend in a traffic accident. By 1994, when band leader Frankie Kennedy succumbed after a stubborn battle with cancer, a deep, emotional 'family' bonding had been knit into the lives and music of Altan's like-minded troubadours.

Donegal is 'the place' common to all of the players' experience, and it is that county's music which defines Altan's image. With Mairéad now holding the centre of stage, anything less might seem inconceivable, for she has an intense loyalty to her home area's fiddling and song. Her father Francie indeed remains a valuable referee and ally to the band's style and repertoire. Thus, if Altan's newest album 'Another Sky' hints at change, partly driven by the need to expand their listenership, this has not happened without much consultation and approval seeking: "We wanted to develop the music in a different way - since we play so many dance tunes on the other albums - to see if there were other potentially-challenging moods that we haven't tuned in to yet" says Mairéad. "My father agreed. 'You've already done all the reels and jigs,' he said, 'you may as well try another balance". Patriarchal imprimatur or no, Altan is a democratic institution too, and the band members' like-mindedness is what directs their course.

Holding on to the sense of place, and to the old and meaningful, are their hallmarks. Yet, Another Sky manages to retain the same landscape, only studies it in an unfamiliar light: a dramatically-unusual view of Errigal on the latest album's sleeve is a striking visual representation of this. The balance of eight songs and five melody tracks reverses their earlier priorities, but with no sacrifice to instrumental work, for the vocals are rich with interlaced accompaniments and strong codas. This was considerably aided by recording at home at their convenience, using their own compact, digital studio: "It was a great comfort to be able to work out songs in your own house", says Mairéad, "without the pressure of wondering 'Am I holding back anybody here?' - because it's your own time". Perhaps the most risky change for the band is, however, the inclusion of English-language and non-traditional songs: "Ten years ago I wouldn't be able to do them", says Mairéad, "because I'd ingrained in my head 'I only do Traditional songs'. But we were trying to find material that would widen the audience, and that's our biggest challenge as a Traditional band". This decision sees one of English singer Nic Jones' favourites (an old song) sitting with Robbie Burns' mantric Green Grow the Rushes O, (still played in Donegal as a 'highland' dance tune).

The ink on Steve Cooney's almost-Pop 'Island Girl' is hardly dry by comparison, and Bob Dylan's 'Girl From the North Country' mixes old theme and new expression: "I'd never heard it", says Mairéad, "and when Daithí Sproule first sang it to me I thought it was Traditional. But he wouldn't let me listen to Dylan's version until after I'd it recorded. And it's completely different!". It is this take on interpretation that renders the familiar forever interesting, and indeed the 'oral' still does remain centre to the band's acquisition of repertoire. Typical of this, the highly-unusual Beidh Aonach Amarach is sourced from Inismór island sean nós singer Treasa Ní Mhiolláin (Co. Galway) via Brian Ó Dómhnaill of Annagry, Co. Donegal. And perhaps a final, quirky irony is the inclusion of a string quartet arrangement by Fiachra Trench on 'Ten Thousand Miles'. This sets the song almost out on a limb with an aristocratic stylistic individuality, but eventually does restore the band's melody base by exiting on two tunes selections.

Tunes do offer other aspects of change. One of them - 'The Okpik Waltz', an old Inuit piece coming via the USA - shows that there is still ample material already out there, just waiting for a productive new livery. Another - 'Waves of Gola', by band member Mark Kelly - notes that, like Ciarán Tourish's 'Siún's Reel', the band members themselves also make good tunes. And beyond that again, the inclusion of guests such as Bonnie Raitt on slide guitar, Jerry Douglas on dobro, Jimmy Higgins on bodhrán, Mick Kinsella on harmonica, Mick O'Brien on pipes and Donal Lunny on keyboards shows off not only variety of influences and experience, but intelligent and delicate disposition of these. Something of a 'transformer', Altan manages 'all change', yet still maintains a tight grip on its axis in the commercial-world's spin dryer.

Scottish dance music was popular in Ireland in the middle 1900s. Irish national radio's broadcasting policy, and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann's competition adjudication, both shaped a hegemony for Sligo and Clare ethos within the popular view of Traditional music up to the late 1980s. Altan have not only upturned that, but have gone on to popularise regional Donegal music into a huge international following. They play to average audiences of more than a thousand, and, arguably, are now second only to the Chieftains in their field. By touring their music and distributing it widely on album, Altan extend the notion of the 'Popular' itself. But the gist of their wonderfully-layered accompaniments and linked tunes confirms that their feet are still on the sod 'some where up north'. Or, if not, somewhere Irish and Scottish northerners have gone to. Altan's family is music, into it all their best energies go. In the words of its strong-willed mover Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh: "Traditional music doesn't stop when you come off the stage. It's in your head all the time".

Fintan Vallely

Links, further information and recordings:

Living Tradition Review of 'Another Sky'