Angels of the Island
by John O'Regan

When Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger and Keith Richard, along with New Country songstress Nanci Griffith turn up for an album launch and the afterwards celebrations, and the launch is held in the plush confines of Lillie's Bordello (a nightclub more the home of such luminaries as Sinead O'Connor, various members of Def Leppard and soul divas Dina Carroll and Lisa Stansfield) it shows the band in question has something going for it. That the band itself is a six piece acoustic band playing predominantly traditional folk music from the Donegal area makes it all the more special. For Altan, for it is they for whom the red carpet was rolled out on this occasion, have two NAIRD awards to their credit, count blues queen Bonnie Raitt among their fan base and are without doubt the leading light in Irish trad music circles at present. If to reiterate "Time" magazine's assertion of U2 as "Rock's Hottest Ticket", then Altan have become "Celtic Music's Hottest Ticket".

It's a long way from two teachers taking a career break to spend time developing their musical output with a part-time group they had formed after cutting an album in 1987. That album was the core duo's second L.P. and their first for Green Linnet Records at that time operating from the HQ of WEA records In Glasnevin, Co. Dublin. The couple in question had a wealth of musical expertise and a lively musical tradition to call upon. Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh from Gaoth Dobhar in the Donegal gaelteacht came from a musical family, her father Francie being a fiddler who heard and preserved the older styles and passed on the older music to the younger players. It's not surprising that his influence rubbed off on his daughter, Mairead.

Growing up in Cois Cladaigh near Bunbeg in an area rich in both songs and music was a breeding ground the envy of many.

Frankie Kennedy, a young flute player from Belfast often visited to learn Irish and play music during the holidays. It was during many of these sessions that the pair met up and the combination was fortunate enough to continue during their stint as trainee teachers in St Patrick's College Drumcondra Co. Dubiln. While there, they recorded with gaelic singer Albert Fry and made their recording debut on his 1979 album "Albert Fry", as backing musicians though they were allowed some instrumental sets in their own right. The playing is imaginative and hints at the glories to come.

After graduating and marrying in 1981 they continued playing at sessions and gigs and formed a group, "Ragairne", with Donal O'Hanlon on bouzouki and Gearoid O'Maoinaigh on guitar (Mairead's brother). The band played the 1983 Belfast Folk Festival and recorded for RTE but by the time that Gael Linn issued Frankie and Mairead's debut album "Ceol Adualigh" in December1983, the band was no more. For the album they used Northern musicians Fintan MacManus on bouzouki and Belfast native Ciaran Curran or Cittern and Eithne (Enya) Ni Bhraonain and Gearoid in tow. Tha album had a strong Northern flavour in material and also in those involved. Frankie and Mairead's own music was very much based on the North with some Scottish influences. The basic thrust of the music on "Ceol Aduaigh" ("Northern Music") was lively and the flowing quality in the playing would later be a major feature of Altan's own style. The basic groundwork for the band was done on this album. The tunes featured reels and slow airs and strathspeys, also unusual local dance tunes such as Germans and Mazurkas and "Shoe The Donkey" a well known set dance. The songs featured mostly Donegal versions of songs well known in the Irish language, but In there was a sublime reading of the Munster love song "An Clar Bog Dell" with Enya on prophet five synth. The fiddle and flute frontline gelled with the stringed instruments to provide music that was fresh and lively. Most of the tunes hadn't been heard outside their native areas so it was a fresh sound in many forms. The album was well received though it was to be four years before they went into the studio again. The professions took priority though they were regular features at many of the sessions in the trad clubs and pubs In Dublin.

By 1987 Green Linnet Records was established in Dublin and was eager to extend their catalogue of Irish music and musicians They got Frankie and Mairead into the studio for their second album which was called "Altan" after a lake at the foot of Errigal Mountain In County Donegal near where Mairead was born. That was indicative of the contents of the album. Produced by Donal Lunny, it speaks volumes for the area and its fertile musical heritage and for the band to which it lent its name. This time, other musicians were In on the act including Ciaran Curran with Coolock guitarist Mark Kelly, a well respected accompanist for trad music and younger sister Anna Ni Mhaonaigh, then a member of the all female group Macalla. The album "Altan" was a choice selection of songs and tunes born the local areas and outside. With fluent and vital playing on "The Highland Man/Cliffs of Glencolumbkille/ Old Cuffe Street" set where the lead players and backing musicians gel - as Oliver P. Sweeney said in his Hot Press review "likewise the guitar and bouzouki playing of Mark Kelly and Ciaran Curran is exemplary, they give the tunes and songs a new dynamism so that you feel you are listening to a real band". Maybe he was more clued In than he had planned as it was a real band that was making this album.

The jigs, reels and highlands glistened with life and vitality especially Frankie' s solo on "The Cat That Ate The Candle/ Over The Water To Bessie" and the original reel from Mairead "Loch Altan". The music was well executed with a sharp precise production job from Donal Lunny. Songwise Mairead proved no slouch either, turning in quietly impressive versions of the macaronic match-making song "Ta Mo Chleamhnais A Dheanamh" and the well known "Ceol Aphiobaire" with Anna and her pristine versions of "Citi Na Gcumann". What was clear from the "Altan" album was the empathy the guests had for the music Frankie and Mairead played and their own love for it was reciprocated with a group unity that was remarkable. "In Dublin" magazine greeted the album's release with the following quote: "Mairead and Frankie are powerhouse players, and I've seen them take a dying session by the ears and shake it back to life. This is a very good album indeed". Another review hinted at the American market and how good this would be as an introduction for them. He had his finger on the pulse, that's for sure, as the U.S.A. would in time become one of Altan's stomping grounds. With the album on release, the two teachers decided on a year's career break to develop the music, as now a band called Altan officially existed and they wanted to promote the album. The momentum gathered and the gigs started getting plentiful and by Summer 1988 they were back !n the studio again this time with Phil Cunningham In the producer's chair. They had also added Paul O'Shaughnessey to the fold with a twin fiddle front line. Altan as a band were now in business and the next album was to be the one to gain them much wider audience both in Ireland, U.K. and America. With Green Linnet based in the U.S, the doors were open for touring and promotion and Seattle, Washington agoent Helen Bommarito was looking after their affairs. They toured the U.S. to great acclaim as Billy Altman in the "Connoisseur" stated: "Altan make their reels and jigs soar with relaxed optimistic joy while their ballads and airs are infused with tense fatalistic sadness. That they do so, is testament to the diversity of talent in The band".

In early 1989 "Horse With A Heart" was released and it asserted the notion that Altan were one of the brightest new hopes In traditional music. It was a gutsier and tighter album than its predecessor which is not surprising as road experience had made the difference in their roots. The sets were fiery examples of the power generated when Frankie, Mairead and Paul got down to business with Mark and Ciaran In pursuit. "The Curlew/McDermott's/Three Scones of Boxty" was propelled by Colm Murphy's bodhran rhythms. "Con Cassidy's and Nell Gow's Highlands/Moll and Tiara/McSweeney's Reels" covered the gamut from reflective laid back playing to full throttle on all cylinders. "An Feochain" was a mesmerising slow air from Frankie and the "Road To Durham" showed reserves of energy while "Paddy's Trp To Scotland/Dinkie's/The Shetland Fiddler was Altan ar their most strident, razor sharp and lethal. Tha song were choice ones too with "The Lass of Glenshee" - Mairead's first full song In English on an Altan album to date, captivating, while her solo "An T-Olilean Ur" was and still is a favourite. "A Bhean Udai Thall" experimented with heavy percussion and succeeded. In all "Horse With A Heart" was the album Altan needed to affirm their new status as a band and a force to be reckoned with.

The successful reaction to "Horse With A Heart" was not without its drawbacks. Paul O'Shaughnessey and Mark Kelly both held down full time jobs and were not available for much of the work so a compromise was reached that they would appear with the nand an home gigs and gigs that were possible for them to do. For the US trips now becoming regular, Daithi Sproule would step in on guitar and Ciaran Tourish from Buncrana would join on fiddle. Thus the Altan twin fiddle attack would remain intact.

The band was spreading its wings stateside and gaining much critical acclaim for their live shows. The music was fresh and new sounding yet very traditional. The band was a hard working road unit with tours in Germany, in UK and SCotland to complement their Irish and European work. The UK tours of mostly folk clubs with some Irish venues, were well received and their festival appearances in Scotland were highlights of the trips. They were back in the studio in the Summer of 1990 to cut their next album "The Red Crow". It was the one that broke the sluice gates open for them in the States, winning a NAIRD award - an American Indie Recording award of some stature. Q Magazine gave it the five star rating, the ultimate score on their highly objective scoreboard. For an Irish traditional band to do this was a rare feat indeed.

"The Red Crow" was recorded In Dublin with P.J. Curtis producing. It was a vibrant album that, though taking some time to register with its apparent subtlety after the immediacy of "Horse With A Heart", nevertheless reached the consciousness of listeners and became unmissable. Again Is material reflected the band's love of Northern music and songs, as 90% of the album consisted of local material. The outside pieces included some Cape Breton tunes. The material was played with the taste and finesse of a group of players totally at home with their respective music. By now, Ciaran Tourish was fully Integrated into the group so the triple fiddle front line was established well and truly. The sight of the three fiddlers leading the frey was an exciting one. The more melodic sounds ot the flute, guitar and bouzouki with Mairead's pure voice gave them an edge over many other Irish bands of the time. Tho sound was different and totally unique but was extremely melodic and listenable and completely acoustic. They had In fact paved the way for the bands who would rediscover the acoustic roots of the music. "The Red Crow" had a balance of power and refinement that was second to none.

Altan had indeed grown up very much in public, and this was their coming of age. The sound was sharper than before and the subtlety, which was such a major internal dynamic of the band, was its most engaging factor. The tunes on "The Red Crow" were rooted In the grounds of tradition and carried the latent excitement within them, the band's no frills approach bringing their charms to life. From the opening guitar and bouzouki runs, to "Yellow Tinker/Lady Montgomery/The Merry Harriers", the band sets itself to empowering the music with their own inflections and personality. "Con Cassidy's/Dusty Miller" and the epic "Wedding Jig" set (all 6.45 minutes of it) are Altan in their prime.

This time the songs featured the well known "FIower of Magerally" where Mairead's vocal neatly counter point Marie Askin's piano. "Mallal Chroch Shli" is shimmeringly captivating while "Inis Dhun Ramha" and "Mall Dubh A'Ghleanna" kick Into overdrive. The playing was crisp as ever and the understated guest appearance from Johnny McDonagh and Dermot Byrne and Niall Toner all underscored the music beautifully.

Earl Hitchner in New York's "Irish Voice conceded It as their best album yet: "Altan's crowning achievement to date on record. With it, they move front and centre among all bands now playing Irish traditional music".

1991 and 1992 saw some rigorous touring, covering all their now established bases In the U.K., U.S and at home. Though Altan do not play a Iot In Ireland, they did a residency at The Purty Loft In Dun Laoghaire. However, though they were getting airplay, most of the action was going on for them outside Ireland. Paul O'Shaughnessey stayed on for their 1992 album "Harvest Storm" their next NAIRD award winner. For a band playing traditional music, Altan had recorded three albums In the space of less than three years, and observed a punishing road schedule. Paul left the band in 1993 and was replaced by Dermot Byrne, an accordion player from Donegal who helped broaden the band's musical outlook, adding a new slant to their sound. For the first time, an accordion was part of the Altan touring line up and this helped the melodic flair of the group to become more evident.

"Harvest Storm" was an advancement on the "Red Crow". and helped consolidate their standing both at home and in the U.S. Green Linnet themselves,were equally proud of their award winning act and once more Earl Hitchner was in print offering his assertation "The Premier Traditional Band In Ireland Today". The music on display was riveting; that affirmed their devotion to the roots and local style of playing. It also showed that in no way were they going to change the outlook, even with any major success they may have achieved, what comes first and foremost ih Altan's book is the music itself and their application to it. "Harvest Storm'' was their finest effort so far, recapturing the gut leveI attack that made "Horse With A Heart' such an immediately attractive proposition.

The music was delivered with the usual attention to the Northern roots yet it had the by now familiar Altan sound to it. "Pretty Peg" and "Harvest Storm" saw their energy level reach boiling point while the sublime "Dobbin's Flowery Vale" closed the album in a thoughtful fashion. "The Snowy Path" showed the subtlety of their own compositions, "Si Do Mhaimeol" saw Laim O'Maonlai (no mean sean nos singer himself) involved, while Daithi Sproule and Tommy Hayes along with Don Lunny and dancer Freda Greer were also featured. "Harvest Storm" was Altan showing no lack of consistency in their material and winning another U.S NAIRD award tor the second time in a row.

In 1991 they recorded some music for the BBC documentary series "Bringing It All Back Home". One of the major criticisms of that series was its lack of acknowledgement of the Northern roots of Irish traditional music, however, as Altan had recorded for the series the balance was altered. Then tragedy struck in 1992, when Frankie Kennedy was hospitalised but made a sufficient recovery to join the band on tour later In the year. Their next album "Island Angel" recently released by Green Linnet shows them embracing the technological age with a video for "Dulaman", one of the songs on the album. Mairead recently quoted to Richard Taylor in The Sunday Press, "It's about seaweed actually. You can smoke seaweed if you want. I really enjoy seeing people's faces when you tell them that the song they've just been listening to wasn't about anything In particular".

"lsland Angel" sees a band constantly growing and installing a killer attitude In their work. They do not want to rest on their laurels, they are always improving their craft be it playing or composing. Altan have set their standards impeccably high and they are upkeeping them with "Island Angel". This is Irish music and songs played with sensitivity, ability and respect for the music and where it comes from.

The word Altan means a streamlet but for them it's the ocean from whence they find their jewels. They are precious too and let's hope the river never runs dry.

Courtesy of 'The Living Tradition' magazine.

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