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PREVIEW: Altan at the Dakota – Bringing Donegal Music to the World

A promotional photo of the Irish traditional music ensemble Altan.

The Irish folk band Altan will play a two-show engagement at The Dakota in Minneapolis on Saturday, October 29. Altan, which specializes in traditional music from County Donegal in Ireland, will perform with special guest Clare Friel in 6 PM and 8 PM concerts.

Altan (f. 1987) has three and a half decades of music-making and a dozen albums to its name, the most recent being the excellent The Gap of Dreams (2018).  The ensemble received Ireland’s Band of the Year in 2001, and its founding member, lead singer, and fiddler, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, was named Traditional Musician of the Year in 2017. Oft-described as Irish cultural ambassadors, Altan has accompanied the Irish President on state visits and even performed at the White House. Also, in a rarity, they even appeared on an Irish stamp in 2006. However, Mairéad insists that the group does not see itself in terms of some special role; “if one takes oneself too seriously,” she says, “the music dies”. Instead, she says, they are just musicians who play the music they love.

That Minneapolis is one of the stops on Altan’s North American tour may be due to the presence of Dáithí Sproule – a renowned guitar player and singer, and a member of Altan since 1992. While Sproule hails from Derry in Ireland, he has lived for many years in Minnesota, where he has taught at the University of Minnesota and the University of St. Thomas, and is an instructor at the Center for Irish Music in St. Paul. Other members of this all-star group are Ciarán Curran on bouzouki (a traditional Greek strummed instrument, which crossed over into traditional Irish music-making streams in the 1950s), Mark Kelly on guitar, and Martin Tourish on accordion.  For the performance at The Dakota, fiddler Clare Friel, member of The Friel Sisters and 2018 Young Musician of the Year, will also be playing with the group.

In a recent interview, Mairéad said that Altan has been working on a new album for some time– something understandably slowed down by the Pandemic. During the lockdown, the group interacted by Zoom calls and exchanged recordings, but for the sort of dance music at which Altan excels, it is crucial to play together and in person. Mairéad added that, although Altan has gotten better exploiting the advantages of a recording studio over the years, the ensemble members still prefer to record in as near as possible an environment to live sound.

Altan specializes in traditional Irish music, but its concerts include performances of folk tunes from a wide variety of sources. The group’s collaborators over the years encompass a wide range of musicians, including Dolly Parton, Ricky Skaggs, and Bonnie Raitt. Amongst their best songs is a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country”.  Their 2015 album The Widening Gyre also featured American roots music, in particular, bluegrass fiddle. These performances and recordings highlight some of the commonalities between different folk music traditions. As Mairéad opined, musicians can feel a bond in the music, even when they cannot understand the words of one another’s songs.

When asked how she hoped Altan would be remembered 20 or 30 years from now, Mairéad replied, “As a group that was true to ourselves, played good music, and people enjoyed hearing us.” Our own chance to enjoy hearing them play live comes soon, and is not to be missed.

Brian Bix