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Sample Track 1:
"Molly na gCuach Ní Chuilleannáin" from 25th Anniversary Celebration
Sample Track 2:
"The Roseville" from 25th Anniversary Celebration
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Altan, 25th Anniversary Celebration (Compass Records) Ireland’s Gift to the World:
The Celtic Masters of Altan Celebrate a Quarter Century of Tradition and Innovation

The Sydney Opera House and the mist-strewn heather of Donegal. Jigging Japanese and Bill Clinton. Lonely lighthouse keepers and Dolly Parton. The roar of the Celtic Tiger and eerie fiddle tunes inspired by forest birds.

These moments and milestones capture the quarter century-long journey of Altan, one of Ireland’s most striking and reputable groups. Leaping like their homeland from earthy and moving tradition to world-wide notoriety, the acclaimed sextet celebrates a quarter century with Altan: 25th Anniversary Celebration (Compass Records), a new recording of lush, sensitive orchestrations by renowned Irish composer Fiachra Trench performed by the RTE Concert Orchestra, as well as a spring tour of North America.

It all started when singer and fiddler Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh was still in the cradle in her strongly traditional native region of Donegal, listening and trying desperately to sing to the songs her parents used to soothe her. Her family’s home was a hub for poets, musicians, and writers who would share their work into the wee hours. “People would come and stay at our house and tell stories and play songs,” Ni Mhaonaigh recalls fondly. “Sometimes it would end up like a party, with people playing outside the house until late at night. We were in the country, though, so we weren’t bothering anybody.”

The homes, fields, and forests all around were populated by traditional singers—and traditional songs. “People would say that a song was composed by a local person, and we would see the house where they lived. So there was a lot more involved than just learning tunes; we learned the social history, too.”

Ni Mhaonaigh remembers one particularly brilliant and otherworldly local composer: “There was the man who was said to be the best fiddle player around. He would go to the forest and listen to the blackbirds and tape their sounds. Maybe because he was so good, he wasn’t a part of the normal society. People revered musicians like him so much they were put into a magical sphere,” she smiles. “We come from Donegal and when the mist falls over the heather here, you can imagine that other world being very close.”

The work of traditional musicians and this sense of history, mystery, and place—the group is named for a deep lake in Donegal—Altan carried with them into smoky Dublin and Belfast clubs to the Sydney Opera House, Royal Albert Hall, and the Hollywood Bowl. Over the course of two and a half decades, the music project Ni Mhaonaigh and her late husband and longtime musical partner Frankie Kennedy began for the sheer love it grew into an ensemble that crystallizes the beauty and power of Irish tradition.

This beauty and power impressed Irish president Mary McAleese, who took the band with her on state visits, and President Bill Clinton, among many other of the world’s movers and shakers. It turned staid Japanese folk fans into frenzied dancers and mad collectors of bootlegs and rare vinyl that Ni Mhaonaigh and Kennedy barely remembered recording.

It wowed American country idols like Ricky Scaggs and Dolly Parton, whose producer approached Altan with a collaboration idea while they were passing through Nashville. “We thought some of our friends were having one over on us. We took the whole thing very lightly until he got halfway through his proposal,” Ni Mhaonaigh laughs. “It was wonderful working with her.”

The beauty and power of tradition run through the songs, jigs, and reels on Altan: 25th Anniversary Celebration (Compass Records), in a fitting tribute to the band’s methodical research, stunning musicianship, and profound passion for Celtic music and poetry from Cape Breton (“Bog an Lochain”) or Ulster (“I Wish My Love was a Red Red Rose”) and beyond.

Archives yielded gems such as “Mo Ghaoil,” a sorrowful love song in Scottish Gaelic that a local singer learned phonetically from a Scottish lighthouse keeper on Arranmore Island, off of Ireland’s northwest coast. Or “Donal agus Morag” from Rathlin Island, a rollicking account of the humorous merrymaking at a Scottish-Irish wedding, with several additional verses penned by Ni Mhaonaigh’s father and first teacher, Francie.

Francie and other musicians dear to Altan were the source of songs like “Cití na gCumann,” a song of unrequited love Ni Mhaonaigh learned from her father. Or “Is the Big Man Within?,” a tune the group got from a County Clare native living in Florida that showcases the changing time signature of a double or slip jig: “it changes abruptly in the middle. The women danced the softer one, and the men would dance the harder one,” Ni Mhaonaigh explains.

Yet Altan’s innate creativity goes beyond its impeccable treatment of traditional tunes, and can be felt in the band’s originals—songs like “The Roseville,” recalling guitarist Daíthí Sproule’s time in the Twin Cities, or Ni Mhaonaigh’s touching tribute to her late husband, “A Tune for Frankie.”

It also shines in the delicate yet rich orchestration crafted by Fiachra Trench and performed by the RTE Concert Orchestra. Though Altan had worked with a string quartet on past projects, this was the first time the group had recorded with the “luxury” of a full orchestra, as Ni Mhaonaigh puts it.

“We liked the lushness of it and the way it showed the colors of the harmonies better than, say, a guitar would. We asked Fiachra to expand the quartet arrangements he’d done for us into orchestral arrangements, and it just fit like a glove,” Ni Mhaonaigh reflects.

After two concerts, one in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall and another in Dublin’s National Hall, Altan and RTE felt they had to record the seamless yet intriguing blend, and the innovative results honor both Altan’s achievements and its musicians’ ongoing vision for Irish music.

Finding new paths for old ways is a particularly fitting role for Altan, with the great changes that have swept across Ireland as it turned from European backwater into a Celtic Tiger roaring with newfound prosperity and global culture. “I’ve seen Ireland in my lifespan go from being nearly a ‘Third World’ country to one of the top economies of Europe. It’s nice for people to not be at poverty’s door all the time, but perhaps money won’t do us a lot of good in the long run,” Ni Mhaonaigh muses. “Now with the recession, I see people being more reflective, and more in touch with who we are in this world, and asking what can we give the world that is different.

Ireland isn’t known for its opera or classical music. What we are known for is our traditional music, our language, our culture. That’s what we can give the world.”