By Alan Sculley
IN 1994, the members of Altan faced one of the most difficult moments a band can encounter. Flute player Frankie Kennedy, who had founded the Irish group in 1983 with his wife, singer/violinist Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, succumbed to bone cancer. The loss of Kennedy, obviously, took a huge emotional toll on the group, and it also deprived Altan of the band member who, along with Ni Mhaonaigh, had been the creative catalyst for the group's music.
But despite losing someone who had been such a formidable presence, Ni Mhaonaigh says the group never considered splitting up. In fact, she says the loss of her husband may have actually strengthened the band and helped Altan--who already were established as the world's leading practitioners of the traditional Donegal style of Irish music--to further solidify their place in the music world.
"I remember when he died we just said we'll continue. We didn't mention a new flute player, not one person," Ni Mhaonaigh says. "And we just felt we would have to get on with the void of no flute, which was a hard thing to do, but we realized afterwards that nobody could really replace him. And we all kind of . . . this is the strangest thing, I think--the band [members] are playing as good of music or better music than we did prior to his [passing] because everyone kind of tried harder.
"Everyone seems to just fly."
Part of the inspiration for carrying Altan forward came from Kennedy himself. After he was diagnosed with cancer in 1992, he made it clear he didn't want Altan to die with him. "We had to reach deeper inside to gain the strength, yeah," Ni Mhaonaigh says. "And I feel his spirit is with us as well, which was very strong."
Kennedy undoubtedly would be pleased with what Altan have accomplished over the past half-dozen years. But even before his death, the group had amassed achievements exceeded perhaps only by one other traditional Irish group--the Chieftains.
Altan were formed in 1983 as a duo by Kennedy and Ni Mhaonaigh with the sole purpose of playing the traditional music of the Donegal region of Ireland. Both Kennedy and Ni Mhaonaigh were teaching school in Dublin at the time, and there were no grand ambitions for a musical career. "There wasn't this huge game plan at the beginning," Ni Mhaonaigh says. "It was just to play music with all our hearts, and hopefully people would understand what we were about."
THERE WERE GOOD REASONS for modest expectations. Located in the northernmost region of Ireland, Donegal had always been isolated from the rest of the country. The distinctive music that developed there--the Donegal style is defined by the quick, single-stroke bowing and staccato triplets of violins and a strong Scottish influence that occurred with the intermingling of musicians from Donegal and its neighbor to the northeast, Scotland--had never spread much into other parts of Ireland. So obviously bringing Donegal music to the world seemed pretty far-fetched when the music hadn't even spread to other Irish counties.
Yet Kennedy and Ni Mhaonaigh made an impact almost immediately. They debuted as a duo in 1983 on the Irish label Gael-Linn Records with Songs from the North, an album of traditional dance tunes and songs sung in Gaelic by Ni Mhaonaigh. Live shows followed--including some short trips to the United States--and this compelled Kennedy and Ni Mhaonaigh to quit teaching and pursue music full time.
By 1987, they had landed a deal with Green Linnet Records, a label with worldwide distribution, and had brought in guitarist Mark Kelly and bouzouki player Ciaran Curran to play on a second album, which was titled Altan.
Soon afterward, Altan became a full-fledged band, with Curran, guitarist Daithi Sproule, and violinist Ciaran Tourish eventually joining as core members. Four more critically acclaimed albums were released between 1989 and 1993 on Green Linnet before Kennedy fell victim to cancer.
Despite this devastating blow, Altan's career moved forward, as the group, with Dermot Byrne joining on accordion, landed a major label record deal with Virgin. Two CDs for that label, Blackwater (1996) and Runaway Sunday (1997), considerably expanded the group's worldwide following and set the stage for the release this spring of a new studio CD, Another Sky, which will be released soon on Narada Records.
TODAY, Altan have become firmly established as the premier practitioners of the Donegal style, and in addition to garnering a worldwide following, they've also seen a rewarding change in their Irish homeland. "The Donegal style was very much ignored in Ireland for years or not known about," Ni Mhaonaigh says. "And now--well for a few years now--it's been the 'in' thing to do. It's a nice way to be, because this music that was played only in little pockets all over Donegal and very isolated areas is now being played all over Dublin and Cork and Galway. It's a nice change."
With the highly appealing Another Sky, Ni Mhaonaigh explains she and the other members of Altan are making a conscious attempt to reach more music fans who may never have heard the Donegal style of Irish music. Like the band's other CDs, Another Sky includes its share of fast-paced jigs and reels, but it also focuses on ballads that could appeal to people who don't consider themselves Irish music fans.
"Our aspiration is to play good music, and we just love what we play and it's what we know best," she said. "We're not on any huge crusade. We do love the Gaelic language. We do love the music, and if people like it, then we're totally pleased."
Altan perform Friday, Feb. 11, at 8 p.m., at the Luther Burbank Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. $20-$24.50. 546-3600.
From the February 3-9, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.