A Little Bit Of Green Countryside
Cathy Bell talks with with Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh about Altan


Curran, Byrne and Tourish
"If it wasn't for the band and the music I wouldn't have gotten through it as well as I have. Music is a blessing to anyone who has been struck emotionally. Words seem to be redundant because all of your past experiences cannot prepare you. Music seems to go deeper."

September 1994 was a defining moment for Irish band, Altan. Co-founder and flute player, Frankie Kennedy finally succumbed to the bone cancer he had been fighting for two years. For his wife, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, Altan's vocalist and fiddle player, there was never any question of the band not continuing after he was gone.

"He saw the growing public awareness of the band when he was on treatment and he insisted that we kept playing even if he couldn't always come along. He was a completely selfless man. Our music has helped us through a very hard time. It's helped the band, they've lost more than a friend. It's made us stronger people, and better musicians. I think when something like this happens, it makes you realize that we're all going to die and it makes you work harder at what you believe in."

Altan
Ni Mhaonaigh and Sproule

Altan currently comprises the cream of Irish musicians: fiddler Ciaran Tourish, Ciaran Curran on bouzouki, Dermot Byrne on accordion, and guitarists Daithi Sproule and Mark Kelly. On the eve of their second Australian tour, they are currently having a break in Ireland, having just completed an exhausting round of touring. Mairead explained how they've learned to cope with the pressures of constant touring.

"All the band members I've known all my life, playing music in a social way. In our band, because we've been through such a tragedy, it's made us realize how trivial the little things are. We all try to compromise to please each other. We give each other space when we're tired."

Altan emerged from the personal and musical partnership of Mairead and Frankie. They met when she was 15 years old and became immediate artistic allies. After making two albums under different names, they recorded Altan in 1987. The positive response encouraged them to turn professional and form the group Altan. Through several line up changes and eight albums, they emerged in fresh contrast to some of the pseudo mystical and New Age elements that have dominated Irish music, particularly in the early 90's.

A recent development in the band has been the writing of their own original material, featuring quite prominently on their most recent album Runaway Sunday. Once again, Mairead's tragic loss appears to have been the catalyst.

"I've been writing tunes all my life, it was the lyrics I had a problem with. I think I was afraid to show my true self. I think it was my husband's death that allowed me to be honest. I didn't intend to put the track 'Time has Passed' on the album. It was really written for me, to help me through, but everyone really liked it so it was included. 'A Moment in Time' is a celebration of the musicians who've helped and inspired us and asked for nothing in return. The songs are the same style as the music I've been listening to all my life. It may be a step forward but it doesn't seem to clash with the other music. The greatest compliment is when people don't realize that the songs are original."

In 1995, Altan signed a five album deal with Virgin records. Their 1996 album Blackwater made the Irish popular charts and also the US Billboard World Music Charts. Both Blackwater and Runaway Sunday have gone platinum, an incredible feat for what is essentially a non-commercial band.

"It was a huge thing for a major label to ask a traditional Irish band to go on their label. They didn't interfere, they said you know what you do best. We seem to have a long shelf life so it makes a lot of economic sense to have a band who sell lots of albums on their label. We've never felt any pressure to change what we do."

Perhaps it is the support of a major label which has allowed them the freedom to experiment with different musical approaches. They've recorded with Dolly Parton on her album 'Heart Songs' and their own album 'Runaway Sunday' featured quite a few eminent American musicians such as Allison Krauss and Jerry Douglas. Late last year they also performed some dates with Mary Chapin Carpenter.

With the massive surge of interest in Irish music over recent years, I asked Mairead where she saw Irish music heading. "It's becoming an international music. A lot of musicians are playing it, who are not Irish. People are enjoying playing it they get a lot of freedom out of it. They see the rural side of it. When you're stuck in a concrete building working 9-5, it can help you feel better if you can imagine a little bit of green countryside."

With this popularization of her own cultural heritage, is she concerned that it may lose it's intrinsic value?

"No, these things come in waves. It's popular at the moment. What I see is that it helps to maintain the flow of the music. A lot of the music is non-commercial anyway. Even if we gave up Altan tomorrow, we'd still be playing music. So the music doesn't stop when the dollar stops. Most of the best Irish music is played by people in their own homes and at sessions. That will never stop and young people are picking up instruments all over the country. I think Riverdance was great because it was the first time that Irish musicians got paid properly for their work."


Cathy Bell write a weekly roots music column for the Australian magazines 'The Scene' and 'Rhythms.'

Photo: Dave McKean, © 1997, courtesy of Virgin Records

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