FolkWorld #46 11/2011
© Petr Pandula

Music on the Edge

Irish Folk Festival Logo

Irish band Altan has been celebrating their 25th anniversary and is touring Germany now with the Irish Folk Festival. Magnetic Music's Petr Pandula is talking with the group's singer and fiddler Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh.

Petr Pandula: Altan celebrated their 25th Anniversary last year and quite often bands look backward and not so much forward. But it seems to be different with you. You seem to be more active than ever. What are your goals for this and next year?

Mairéad: Yes, we’ve celebrated our 25th Anniversary last year…but it’s really like yesterday when we first started playing! It’s been such a great journey…we loved every second of it…we’ve had hard times and good times, but we just look at the good times. At the moment we’re working on a new album and hopefully that will be out soon!

Media all around, they say that Altan have a trade mark sound. What is the formula of the Altan trade mark?

Well. I hope that we don’t have a formula, we play music, we try and stay true to ourselves and to where we’re from…we’re from Co. Donegal. We have listened to a lot of Donegal fiddle players over the years and I have listened to a lot of Donegal singers. I’ve got songs from neighbours, I got tunes from my father and songs from him as well! So we try and not have a formula as such, we play according to what the song or the tune dictates.

Irish traditional music has so many different regional styles. Altan would be well known as a great source of instrumental music and song from Donegal. What is it in detail that makes Donegal music different to other Irish counties?

Well this is a very hard question because Irish traditional music is very strong at the moment but I think Donegal music is very different to the rest of the country. It is isolated because it is cut off politically by Northern Ireland and it only has a little road into Sligo which connects it with the rest of the country. So, really it’s on that edge, and maybe that is what is so appealing about the music, the music is on the edge, as well. The people feel isolated and they’re kind of proud to be isolated because their music then….you can hear that through the music. It’s very strong music. It has also the elements of being close to Scotland and that a lot of the Donegal people used to go to Scotland to work and therefore bring back a lot of the songs and the tunes to Donegal. So Scotland is very dominant in the style of Donegal compared to the rest of the country.

Is it true at the very beginning of Altan, you did one of your first tours outside of Ireland in Germany and Switzerland. It is along long time ago, but do you still have some memories of Germany and Switzerland?

It is a very long time ago, it was actually when East and West Germany were uniting and the wall was coming down and there was a great excitement in Germany at the time. I remember it was fabulous to be there at the time. Also we went to Switzerland and went to Basel…a beautiful city. What I really love about Germany and Switzerland…there’s a great understanding of Irish music and a great love of Irish there. It is very complimentary to us because it means that we can go to Germany and play our music and feel at home because the audience are always so good!

Is it different to perform in Germany than in Ireland or the US?

Mairéad: It’s not really, musically, it’s not really. We don’t change our music at all, it’s always the same. We play the same music everywhere we go. We play a lot in Japan, as well and I sing in Gaelic, no matter where I go and it doesn’t seem to make a difference because even in Japan there isn’t much English. So the only difference really is with the introductions in Germany…we introduce our tunes in Irish and in English and we try to make it more comprehensible so that people would be able to understand what we are about to play!

What would be some of the highlights in the Altan CV?

There have been many highlights in our career to date and hopefully a few more to come! But some of the great times we’ve had maybe singing with Dolly Parton on her two albums…her live album, HEARTSONGS and then there was another album when we sang “The Sweet Bye and Bye” on another album with her. She was such a character and she is such a character and she gave us great encouragement! She also sang on one of our own albums; THE BLUE IDOL and that’ll always remain one of the highlights. Also playing The Hollywood Bowl, two or three times , in Los Angeles, which is a very famous venue. Also, we played the Sydney Opera House in Sydney Australia and that was great fun.

To me personally, sometimes these big highlights are very small and modest….as it’s sometimes when an old fiddler will agree to join us on stage….maybe somebody that has given us an obscure tune that has never been recorded before and they’re giving us the the “thumbs up” if they join us on stage…saying I do agree with what you’ve done to my tune! To me, that’s the biggest highlight of all!!

If Altan would hold, for one day, the office of the Irish PM, what two or three changes would you like to implement in Irish politics?

If Altan were to hold the office of the PM of Ireland, first of all we always try to stay apolitical, which means that we don’t like to get involved in politics at all. We try and show our country’s culture as strong as we can through our music and our commitment to our music! But if we were to be Prime Minister for the day I think that all the Band would agree that we would stand for equality. Equality in every aspect of politics and Irish life. That everybody would be treated equally!

Photo Credits: Altan: (1) Tønder 2008 (by Walkin' Tom); (2) Portree 2004 (by The Mollis); (3) Irish Stamp 2007, (4) Promo 2011 (unknown).

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