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Altan’s take on traditional Irish music is fresh as ever

Altan is (from left) Ciarán Curran, Ciarán Tourish, Dermot Byrne, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, and Dáithí Sproule. The band has just released a new album.

"We must be doing something right.’’ That’s Altan lead singer and fiddler Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, on the phone from Dulles Airport in Washington, in the midst of a tour that will bring the band to the Somerville Theatre on Saturday, under the auspices of World Music/CRASHarts. She’s trying to explain why, after 25 years, Altan is still standing, with a stable lineup and undiminished popularity.

“I can’t start boasting about ourselves,’’ she says with a laugh, “but I know that we’re very honest about what we do, and we always try to stick to what we know best, our own music from Donegal. There’s still a demand for the music, I suppose. That would be the one thing. We get on well as a band; I suppose that’s another reason. And we’ve been very lucky. I suppose that’s the biggest reason of all.’’

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One could argue that Altan has had very little luck. Frankie Kennedy, from Belfast, and Ní Mhaonaigh, from Gaoth Dobhair in Donegal, started playing together in the early 1980s; they released their first recording as Altan in 1987. Then Kennedy was diagnosed with leukemia; he died in 1994, and Ní Mhaonaigh carried on without her husband. Altan has crossed over with the likes of Dolly Parton and Ricky Scaggs, but for the most part the band has stayed true to its Ulster roots: the usual jigs, reels, mazurkas, and Germans alternating with traditional ballads, most of them in Irish Gaelic, that Ní Mhaonaigh sings in her affectingly wispy soprano.

That’s again the recipe for the new album, which has been out just a week and a half. But the title, “Gleann Nimhe - The Poison Glen,’’ is bit of an eyebrow-raiser.

“Gleann Nimhe means ‘Poison Glen,’ ’’ she explains, “but it can also be interpreted as ‘Paradise Glen,’ or ‘Heavenly Glen.’ So there’s two interpretations. I’d say the second one is more likely. But we decided to go with ‘Poison Glen’ because it has a bit of an edge about it.’’

“It’s a glen very near my home in Donegal,’’ she continues. “It’s a beautiful place. We went there to take photographs for the album cover, and it just stuck to the album, there was something about it, so we decided to keep that title, and it’s leading to a lot of debate.’’

“Gleann Nimhe’’ doesn’t come with a lyric sheet, but Ní Mhaonaigh says that the words to all the songs are posted on the band’s website. She adds, “I’m hoping as I’m going along on the tour now to actually translate the Gaelic lyrics for everyone.’’

She herself is a native Irish speaker; the other band members are not. But don’t they sing along behind her on the album? “Oh yes,’’ she laughs, “but sure, they have to talk to me in Gaelic as well. They have no choice. No, not really, I don’t insist on it. But they all like the language. It’s important to us, to our identity, especially to me, it’s a dying language, and I do everything to promote it.’’

She’s even moved from Dublin back to Gaoth Dobhair. “I had a child [daughter Nia] about eight years ago. And I decided to go back home in order bring her up with the Gaelic language, and with the music around her, and with my family talking around her as well.’’

The lineup that’s coming to the Somerville Theatre will be a familiar one. “We’ve had the same lineup this past 20 years at least,’’ she says. “Ciarán Tourish on fiddle, and Dermot Byrne on the accordion, and Dáithí Sproule on guitar, and Ciarán Curran on bouzouki, and myself on fiddle and vocalist.’’

Sproule, when Ní Mhaonaigh passes him the phone as they wait for their rental car, elaborates, “I’ve been with the band forever, really. Before there was a band, I was playing with them. The kernel of the band was Frankie and Mairéad, and I’ve been playing with them in sessions since the early ’80s. And we probably did our first gigs together around ’83 or ’84.’’

The last track on “Gleann Nimhe,’’ “The House on the Corner,’’ is a tune Sproule wrote himself. “There’ve always been one or two tunes or songs composed by the members on the albums,’’ he points out. “But this one’s different because it’s actually a finger-picked guitar instrumental, and there’s nothing particularly Irish about it, but Mairéad liked it and the band tried it, and I’m obviously very pleased that they did it.’’

And Ní Mhaonaigh picks up that thread when she’s asked what new direction Altan might take. “One of my personal wishes,’’ she says, “would be to make an album of our own compositions, because there’s four or five of us in the band that compose a lot of music, and it would be nice to try something in that vein. I think we have the capability, it’s a matter of just pinning it down.’’

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at
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