Altan - Local Ground - Out Now
Local Ground is Altan's 10th studio album in the 20 years since they first came together as a band. Their musical friendships have been forged and proven in innumerable kitchen and pub sessions in Ireland and subsequently in folk club and concert hall stages throughout the world. They try to retain the energy and enthusiasm that originally shaped and propelled their music even after twenty years together. Live shows continue to convey a vivacious dynamism that is firmly rooted in a pride and respect for a tradition the band love and are proud to represent. This respect for their own roots is reflected in the title and content of their new album-Local Ground.
It is appropriate that the words "Local" and "Ground" are conjoined in the album title. Altan have always celebrated and valued the local in their music. Traditional music can be said to be of and from a place. This focus on the celebration of place is important to Altan. The band have always been proud of their geographical and musical roots in Donegal way up in the north west of Ireland. Donegal is strong in culture, music and language. It is a place of great beauty and the rugged landscape is reflected both in the character of the people and in the music that those people make.
There is an unbroken and venerable tradition of fiddle playing in Donegal. The music is played in homes, pubs and occasionally, more formally, on concert stages. This music essentially performs a social function. It entertains and enriches the local community. It is used for listening and for dancing. It can provide a backdrop for people to meet and talk. It is valued as being not just a rich form of personal human expression but also as acting as a form of social glue-it helps bring people together. It performs another important function in helping to strengthen local identity. The names of tunes can often carry the name of the person who played them (like Con McGinley's Highland) locally or can commemorate a significant local event or place (The March of the Meenatoitean Bull, The Humours of Castlefin).
"So it is in recognition of the importance and value of what is close to us and where we are from that we decided the name of Bernadette Kiely's beautiful painting, Local Ground, spoke to us on more than one level and would make a suitable title for our tenth album as a band", says Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh
Altan fiddle player and singer, Mairéad and her husband Dermot Byrne, who plays accordion in Altan, own a pub in the small village of Teelin in Donegal. Teelin has a rich heritage of musicians, singers and storytellers . Happily, the "Cúl a Dúin" (pronounced Cool a Doon -literally meaning "The Back of the Fort") pub is still a warm and inviting place for musicians to meet, for people to sing and dance. Informal sessions are the lifeblood of Irish music and where better to have them than in a pub owned by musicians who love to play music and sing. It is from just these kind of sessions the band emerged and it is to these sessions they return not just for fun and relaxation but also for musical inspiration.
Of course, another positive change in the personal circumstances of band members is reflected in the approach to their music. Since Altan last recorded three of the band have become parents for the first time. This has resulted in Altan taking a little more time out of their previously very busy working lives to be with their children and families. Pregnancy and parenthood have meant that some members of the band have had the opportunity to productively explore other areas of informal music making outside the band. The chance to play in more sessions, to spend more time playing with other musicians has resulted in renewed enthusiasm for music making among the members of Altan. If a tradition remains stagnant it dies. The chance to meet and play with other musicians is a vital part of the continuing good health and ongoing creativity of Irish music. Dermot and Mairead are the most recent parents in Altan and their daughter Nia is now 18 months old. Ciaran Tourish's son, Ritchie, is now two years of age while Mark Kelly is also the father of a young boy, Sam. Having children in their lives has helped band members re-evaluate what they do and how they work. For instance, on the new Altan album Mairead sings a lullaby "Dún Do Shúil/Close Your Eyes" a children's sleeping song of love and hope. Tradition, after all, begins in the cradle.
If the heart-stopping beauty of the intimacy of Mairéad's vocal on Dún Do Shúil indicates a more quiet and reflective mood it is counterbalanced by the sheer energy and dynamism that springs from some of the dance music tracks. Fiddle and whistle player Ciaran Tourish explains,
"We never ever forget who we learned this music from and where it comes from, our aim as a band is to try and convey and capture some of the infectious energy and undeniable power that made the tunes attractive to our ears in the first place."
The playful sense conveyed by the gorgeous simplicity of a tune like Sport, which features the mandolin playing of Ciaran Curran, and the childlike joy that seems to seep out of the notes in The Roseville is matched by a sonority and tragic depth in the song, As I Roved Out.
For the recording of Local Ground Altan invited a few of their friends in music to play on the album. Former Bothy Band founder, Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill, plays piano on guitarist Daithi Sproule's composition The Roseville, a kind of a "Slip-Reel". Steve Cooney guests on bass. They were delighted to be able to ask the great Galician piper, Carlos Nunez, who they have shared stages with on many occasions in the past, to contribute some Gaita (Galician bagpipes) to two tracks (Is The Big Man Within and The Silver Slipper). Bodhrán maestro, Jim Higgins, provides the rhythmic pulse on many of the tracks while Graham Henderson adds some touches of keyboard colour to a set of reels. Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh says of the recording process ;
"Our approach was a relaxed one and we worked in Westland Recording Studios in Dublin." Alvin Sweeney engineered the recording sessions. Brian Masterson, who previously worked with Altan on Island Angel, Blackwater and Runaway Sunday, mixed the album. The band members themselves produced".
Since Altan were last in the studio they have been honoured to win the "BBC Radio Two Folk Awards, Traditional Band of the Year", the TG4 (Irish National Television) inaugural presentation of " The Traditional Band of the Year"award at the Irish Traditional Music Awards. Irish Music Magazine readers voted them "Best Live Band". Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh was named "Donegal Person of the Year" in 2003. Also in 2003 the band were honoured to be asked by the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, to accompany her on a State Visit to Greece. Altan were also asked by the Prime Minister of Ireland, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, in his capacity as President of the European Union, to perform at the official function in Dublin on May 1st 2004 to celebrate the accession of 12 new states to the newly expanded European Union in front of the combined Heads of State and Government for all 25 European Union member countries. May 2004 also saw the band make their first visit to China where Altan performed with Riverdance. Spring 2005 will see the band work in Japan and Korea before returning to play concerts in the USA in April.
Local Ground, New Ground
The title Local Ground comes from a painting, which is reproduced on the cover art, by the Irish artist, Bernadette Kiely. Bernadette is based in Kilkenny.
This is Altan's tenth studio album since their coming together as a band in 1985.
Fiddle player Ciaran Tourish has completed his own album which should see release in 2005-he's joined on this recording by friends from Ireland and America.
Bouzouki player Ciaran Curran was involved in producing and playing on "Farewell to Loch Erne" an excellent traditional recording featuring old friends of Altan, Gary Hastings (flute) and Seamus Quinn (fiddle).
The band also involved themselves in the release of an album of solo flute players "An Ghaoth Aduaidh/The North Wind" to honour and celebrate the memory of Frankie Kennedy, who founded Altan and who died ten years ago last September.
Brian Masterson has previously worked with Altan and also recorded with Van Morrison, Planxty, The Chieftains and many others.
Carlos Nunez, a piper of stunning technical ability, guests on two tracks on Local ground. Carlos is a multi-platinum selling artist in his native Spain. He has championed the revival of interest in the folk music of Galicia.
Galway-born Bodhrán player, Jim Higgins, has featured on the last few Altan albums and regularly tours with the band. Jim also plays in Irish band The Sawdoctors.
Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill plays piano on The Roseville. Tríona was formerly a member of the hugely influential Skara Brae, along with Altan guitarist Dáithí Sproule. She was also a member of the seminal Irish group, The Bothy Band.
Graham Henderson, who adds his subtle keyboards to the album, is a member of Donal Lunny's touring band.
Donal Lunny, who has featured either as a guest musician or producer on all of Altan's albums to date continues his long association with the band, adding his guitar lines to the opening track. Donal is one of the giant figures in recent Irish music. He's also one of the nicest people in Irish music.
Steve Cooney, who adds some bass lines to a couple of tracks on Local Ground, is originally from Melbourne Australia but has made a massive impact on Irish music in the last 20 years-from his playing in Stockton's Wing, his remarkable partnership with accordion legend Seamus Begley and his very many production credits on recent Irish albums. Steve now lives in Teelin in south Donegal.