By Roy Kasten
By Kris Wernowsky
By Chaz Kangas
By Joseph Hess
By Julie Seabaugh
By Mike Appelstein
By Rachel Brodsky
By Kelsey McClure
Altan, one of the finest traditional Irish bands you'll ever hear, has been playing and recording since the mid-1980s, and the group has grown from the original duo of fiddler and vocalist Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh and her husband, flute player Frankie Kennedy, to today's sextet of musicians.
With a musical approach centered on the old fiddle reels and jigs and rarely heard flute tunes of County Donegal in northwestern Ireland, Altan soon developed a strong following in Ireland. A series of finely crafted recordings on the Green Linnet label and tours of Europe and North America spread the word. Although the band suffered a major setback in the early 1990s from Kennedy's bout with cancer (and eventual death in 1994), he insisted that the band keep working.
Altan signed with Virgin Records in 1996 and has a new recording, Another Sky, due this February. The band's music is still focused primarily on the Donegal folk tradition, with the interplay of fiddle players Mhaonaigh and Ciaran Tourish serving as the heartbeat that drives the group. But the instrumental variety and diverse musical influences added by bouzouki player Ciaran Curran, guitarists Mark Kelly and Dáith í Sproule and accordionist Dermot Byrne bring plenty of variety to Altan's approach.
Altan has also attracted plenty of professional musicians as fans in recent years as well. Alison Krauss and Jerry Douglas appeared on Altan's last recording, Runaway Sunday; the group has worked with Ricky Skaggs; and Bonnie Raitt guests on the upcoming Another Sky. But despite Altan's ability to incorporate a variety of influences, the group's music still reflects its strong musical roots in Donegal.