Altan brings their modern take on Celtic songs to Playhouse

For more than 30 years, Altan has been winning audiences over with its heartwarming take on Celtic music and dynamic live performances that has all the heart of traditional Irish music but infuses with a contemporary flavor. The band took its name after the lake Altan at the base of Errigal, the highest mountain in Donegal, Ireland. Altan will perform a rousing set at the Ridgefield Playhouse on Feb. 26. Andrea Valluzzo talked with lead singer/fiddler Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh and guitarist Dáithí Sproule about Altan’s upcoming show.

Andrea Valluzzo: What can audiences expect at this show?

Mairead Ní Mhaonaigh: Audiences will be given a flavor of the strong musical tradition of County Donegal, recognized now as one of the main influential musical styles in Ireland. Altan, over our 30-plus years, has helped to put this style of music and song on that platform.

Dáithí Sproule: We really enjoy playing live so we hope the audience will see and hear that, and feel the passion we bring to our traditional music. We always perform a wide range of rhythms and feelings from very lively and gutsy to sad and delicate — and of course, with a sense of fun!

AV: Do you see your music as traditional or modern?

MNM: I feel that we have listened and learned the music to the best of our ability. But we have also put our own influences on it which gives it life and flight and keeps the music fresh for the next generation to do exactly the same to it. It definitely is our own take on the old music! That’s why traditional music is alive and well in Ireland. It’s a continuous note!

DS: Irish traditional music IS modern music — it’s alive now, still vibrant and creative. You might say that all living traditional music is modern music and that all modern music — in fact — all music — is traditional. Great music always learns from and respects the great players and composers that went before. Of course, the term “Irish traditional music” also refers to a specific genre or style which we cherish and, to an extent, want to protect!!

AV: Where do your most joyful moments in performing come from?

MNM: In fairness, I adore performing in an informal way and connecting with other musicians in jam sessions. The music becomes a conversation and bounces off each other and it’s where you can learn the little nuances of the music and hear a well-known, familiar tune with new ears!

DS: I think the most special moments for me are when we’re presenting a piece that has a special feeling or beauty for me and when it seems the audience has shared that feeling or experience through our performance.

AV: Mairead, tell us about the Donegal fiddle tradition and its importance today.

MNM: I’ve been steeped in the Donegal fiddle tradition since I was a child. My father played, I seeked out other older players to learn from and study their various techniques. What really inspired me was their sense of fun, play and humanity. Anyone can learn the fiddle and copy a style, but it’s deeper than that: it has emotion, camaraderie, understanding and empathy.

AV: Daithe, is DADGAD guitar tuning exclusive to Celtic music?

DS: We are told that DADGAD tuning was invented by English guitarist Davy Graham, when he was trying to capture on guitar some of the feel and sound of music he had heard in Morocco. I came across it in the late 60s in the sleeve notes of Bert Jansch albums and used it to accompany some traditional songs. I also found in it some of the sounds that I heard on Joni Mitchell’s wonderful “Blue” album when I was composing songs — sounds that were actually made by a lap dulcimer, I realized later! At some point in the early 70s, I accidentally discovered that DADGAD worked really well for accompanying Irish dance music. I liked the way I could harmonize the tunes without full chords and with drony effects.