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With a Celtic spirit culled from the rich musical traditions of their native County Donegal, Altan explores the expanse of Irish music, from lovely old tunes to lively jigs and reels. 

Their exquisitely produced, award-winning recordings and their heartwarming, dynamic live performances have captivated audiences from Donegal to Tokyo to Seattle. Throughout, there has been the unwavering commitment of the band to bringing the beauty of traditional music, particularly that of Donegal fiddlers and singers, to contemporary audiences in a way that shines a unique light on its qualities. In fact, the members of Altan have always believed that Irish traditional music is a modern genre in every sense, and its growing influence and popularity have proved them right. 

The seeds of the band lie in the music and fun of gatherings and sessions in kitchens and pubs in Donegal, where virtuoso music was heard in an atmosphere of respect and intimacy. It is here that the band’s heart lies still, whether they are performing on live television in Australia or jamming with Ricky Skaggs in the United States. 

Biography 

On one of his many visits to the Donegal Gaeltacht of Gaoth Dobhair, Belfast-born flute player Frankie Kennedy met fiddler and singer Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, sparking off a deep musical connection, a marriage, and a journey to bring the unique repertoire of Donegal music to the world. In the mid-1980s, Ní Mhaonaigh and Kennedy recruited from Fermanagh bouzouki player Ciaran Curran, whose intricate counterpoint is at the center of the Altan sound, and guitarist Mark Kelly from Dublin, whose mastery of a wide palette of guitar styles and harmonic vocabulary add a breadth and depth of color. As a band, Altan played their first concert on June 1, 1985, in St. John’s Church in Listowel, County Kerry, at the famous Listowel Writers Week. 

The group’s eponymous debut was released in 1987, followed quickly by Horse with A Heart, which saw the inclusion of Paul O’Saughnessy on fiddle and lending his stunning virtuosity and in-depth knowledge of the Donegal style. In 1992, the album Harvest Storm brought with it Dáithí Sproule on guitar, himself one of the pioneers of guitar in Irish traditional and folk music. Their 1993 release, Island Angel, became the second biggest-selling world music album in 1994. Shortly after its release, the legendary accordionist Dermot Byrne joined the band. Sadly, Kennedy died on September 19, 1994, but his vision, artistry, and sense of fun is still at the heart of Altan, and his legacy is carried and celebrated in every note. 

A 1996 record deal with Virgin catapulted the band on an extensive touring schedule over the subsequent decade. This period saw them working with great American performers like Dolly Parton. Martin Tourish, a past TG4 Young Musician of the Year, took the accordion seat in late 2013. The band explored connections between traditional Irish and bluegrass music with The Widening Gyre, recorded in Nashville with American musicians, such as Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jerry Douglas, and Alison Brown. In 2016, they performed at The Grand Ole Opry with Ricky Skaggs. 

Altan has traveled with Irish presidents on state visits to Japan, North Korea, and Italy. And in 2006, the Irish government honored Altan with an official postal stamp to celebrate their contribution to the Irish culture. In 2008, Ní Mhaonaigh was awarded the coveted TG4 Gradaim Ceoil (Music Award) 2017, the highest accolade a traditional musician can receive in Ireland. 

The band’s 2017 book, Altan: The Tunes, features a collection of 222 melodies from Altan’s 30-year history alongside transcribed dance music and interviews with the band members. Containing a detailed commentary on each of the tunes, it is the only collection of Donegal music currently in print. 

The band’s latest album, The Gap of Dreams, celebrates the roots of its music in Donegal folklore. The title refers to that “gap” between this and the “other world,” which older fiddlers noted as the source for their music and inspiration, poetically describing encounters with the fairy folk or listening to tunes on the wind. In creativity, the “gap of dreams” is never shut. 

location

Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts | Virginia G. Piper Theater
7380 E 2nd St
Scottsdale, AZ 85251

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