Irish traditionalists Altan perform at St. Patrick's Day Celebration at Fairfield University's Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts


Image: Altan

Altan, whose precision, grace and authenticity have made them one of the premiere Celtic bands in the world, will perform a St. Patrick's Day Celebration on Sunday, March 14, at 3 p.m. at Fairfield University's Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts. This is Altan's only Connecticut concert this season.

Named for a mysterious lake behind Errigal Mountain in County Donegal, Altan has always been true to its roots, reveling in the intimacy of the music that sprang from the peat fire-warmed kitchens and pubs of this windswept corner of northwestern Ireland. The band takes pride in passing Gaelic lyrics, fiddle riffs and tin whistle tunes down to the next generation, be it their Irish neighbors or fans around the globe. In doing so, they've risen to the highest ranks of Celtic music, joining a handful of traditionalists giving ancient melodies a thoroughly modern immediacy and resonance.

"They're poised for greatness and under no circumstances should they be missed in concert," wrote a reviewer for the Irish Echo in New York City.

At Altan's heart is Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, a stellar fiddle player with an ethereal voice who started the group with Frankie Kennedy, a flute player. Ní Mhaonaigh hails from Gaoth Dobhair, a Gaeltacht, or Irish-speaking region, in County Donegal. With Kennedy, who grew up in Belfast, she forged a repertoire of little-known Donegal fiddle music and Northern flute tunes they'd learned from the many musicians in their families.

While there are hundreds of Celtic traditionalists in Ireland today, by the early 1980s the pair was gaining a reputation for power and musical excellence in the snug pubs of Belfast and Dublin and the noisy music festivals around the country. Inspired by the international success of The Bothy Band, Planxty and De Dannan, the group continued to mature and gather new members. Button accordionist Dermot Byrne, fiddler/tin whistle player Ciarán Tourish, Dáithí Sproule on guitar and vocals, and Jim Higgins on bodhrán, a Celtic drum, round out the traditional sound in the current lineup. Ciaran Curran of County Fermanagh brings the unusual sounds of the bouzouki, an instrument usually associated with Greek music, to the mix.

Altan suffered a tragic blow in the 1990s, when Kennedy was diagnosed with cancer. He died in 1994, leaving the group grieving, but determined to honor and build on his legacy.

The group has recorded 10 albums over the years with current and past members and guest artists, each time adding another layer to its sound, which is tough to categorize. Since Kennedy and Ní Mhaonaigh released "Altan" in 1987, the group has delighted folk, world and rock music fans with memorable CDs such as 1990's "The Red Crow," 1996's "Blackwater," and its most recent, "The Blue Idol," released in 2002.

"Blackwater," the group's first release after Kennedy's death, includes one of its most haunting pieces, "A Tune for Frankie," which closes the album. Though brief, it has a lasting effect on fans and critics alike.

"The final piece is simply the most captivating, resonant and beautiful pieces of music Altan have played, and makes useless for three and a half minutes the history of rock 'n' roll," wrote a reviewer in Great Britain's Mojo.

But Altan is equally at home in front of a live audience. Fans are often struck by the band's genuine camaraderie and the mutual respect among the members. With each member a virtuoso, the musicians have a unique gift of blending seamlessly and forming a tight performing unit. The group takes on touching old Irish songs and rollicking jigs and reels with the same passion and an obvious love of performing.

In order to keep from getting stale or predictable in concert, members announce songs from the stage, preferring a flowing set list that preserves rapport with the audience and encourages the spontaneity key to the Celtic tradition. With their latest album featuring country singer Dolly Parton and arrangements including the Australian didgeridoo and the decidedly un-Celtic saxophone, Altan continues to stretch Irish music's potential.

The band's inclusive tendencies make perfect sense to Ní Mhaonaigh, who sees traditional music as a fluid thing, not a trip back in time.

"You see, traditional music is ongoing; we're just coming in and out of it," she told The Boston Globe. "The tradition is such an ongoing phenomenon that it kind of brings everything in, then spits out all the bad parts and continues its journey. We're only a little part of that journey, so the best measuring stick for us is to just play music that we really love ourselves."

Tickets are $30. For tickets, call the Quick Center box office at (203) 254-4010 or toll free at 1-877-ARTS-396. For more information, visit the website, www.quickcenter.com

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Media Contact: Nancy Habetz, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2647, nhabetz@fairfield.edu

Posted on February 13, 2004

Vol. 36, No. 187