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Guest Blog by Tony Montague
Saturday February 24, 2018

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This is the first post of an occasional blog for the Rogue Folk Club.

I write for three different mags – The Georgia Straight in Vancouver, Penguin Eggs a Canadian quarterly, and fRoots in the UK which is about to go quarterly too. To interview an artist I usually have 12 – 20 questions prepared, as the worst thing that can happen with an interview – other than not happening at all – is not having enough material to build a good article. 

Many musicians feel awkward expressing themselves in words rather than music; and if English or French is not their first language the answers may be short and terse. On the other foot, if the interviewee has a lot to say then with so many questions asked  I end up with much more than I can use (and I transcribe pretty much everything). Sometimes the best part of an interview has to be left out as it overflows the wordcount. 

I want to post a selection of these longer interviews - starting with Altan, from Donegal, who play two shows at The Rogue this month. In the next blog I'll focus on Cassie and Maggie, the sisters from Nova Scotia who came to the Rogue in 2016. I also want to post an occasional article from the archives, and the first of these will be on the late great South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. 

Cheers, Tony Montague

ALTAN The distance between the windswept northwest coast of Ireland and the mountains of Appalachia is shorter than you might think, musically at least. When Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh - lead vocalist, fiddler, and founding member of Irish quintet Altan – began touring with the band in the US in the late ‘80s, she was amazed to hear songs and tunes almost identical to those she learned growing up in the Gaelic-speaking village of Gweedore in County Donegal. 

As Ní Mhaonaigh and Altan continued to visit the US regularly they developed friendships with a number of major artists, also inspired by a realization of the close links. In 1994 country diva Dolly Parton invited her to Tennessee to sing on the album Heartsongs: Live from Home. “It meant a lot of rehearsals with the likes of the Del McCoury band, and Alison Krauss and Union Station,” Ní Mhaonaigh recalls. “We got to know those people over that time, and realized we had so many tunes and songs in common.”

“A few years later Dolly asked us to do her Little Sparrow album with her in L.A. Then we had her singing “The Pretty Young Girl” on our own album Blue Idol [2002].

We were born and bred in Donegal, and we play these same tunes. When I sang Dolly’s version of [the ballad] “Barbara Allen” to my father he said ‘that’s exactly the same as your grandmother had’. So the connection is really strong.”

On the recently-released Widening Gyre, Altan is once more exploring the interface of Irish and Appalachian music. The band recorded the album in Nashville with a host of American friends and guests – including Tim O’Brien, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bryan Sutton, Bruce Molsky, Stuart Duncan, Alison Brown, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and progressive-bluegrass fiddler Darol Anger. “Darol‘s a chameleon – he can blend into anything he wants to,” says Ní Mhaonaigh. “He’s such a creative musician – he really coloured the tunes. And when Stuart Duncan arrived - the other great fiddler from Nashville on the album - he was saying ‘there are already two fiddlers, what am I going to do?’ Next thing he came in and gave exactly what we wanted - colour and variety. We’ve made many lifelong friends like that through music, and that’s what Widening Gyre celebrates.”

But while its networks joyfully span cultures and continents Altan – which currently features Ní Mhaonaigh, fellow-fiddler Ciaran Tourish, new member accordionist  Martin Tourish, guitarists Mark Kelly and Daithí Sproule, and bouzouki-player Ciarán Curran - remains very much rooted in home soil in Donegal. The Gaelic “Cúirt Robin Finlay” is – according to Ní Mhaonaigh - “a love song to a mountain” in the county. It is here you will find happiness, health, love and gold, as one line reads in translation. She collected it in the field, at the beginning of her career in the ‘80s, from the singer Máire Rua Ní Mhaigh. 

“There was a lot of singing in my family, which was passed down to me. But when I got interested in getting more unusual material I went seeking, and I did the same with the tunes. It wasn’t deliberate – I’d be playing music with someone and say ‘that’s a gorgeous tune’, and they’d say ‘would you like it?’, and teach it to you. I’ve done that over the years – I love finding unusual gems. And “Cúirt Robin Finlay” had never been recorded. Máire Rua lived in the Blue Stack Mountains. She was lovely to talk to, and gave me that song with such a beautiful melody.”

Is there still material out there in rural Donegal to be found?  “Always,” Ní Mhaonaigh insists. “You always come across people with tunes or versions of tunes you’ve never heard before. Something we’re proud of in Altan is that we have collected, and put out, a lot of tunes that were never scored, collected – or recorded.”

Not all the songs on Widening Gyre are traditional. “Far beyond Carrickfinn” – on which she’s joined by Glasgow singer Eddi Reader - was written by Ní Mhaonaigh’s  friends, Ian Smith and Enda Cullen. Its inspiration is Mairéad’s father and musical mentor and companion Francie, who died in 2006.

“I mentioned to Ian that the night my father passed away I came home feeling very low, and that next thing a shooting star went over my head. My father was very much into the stars and constellations, and knew all the Gaelic names for them. It seemed so right for him to send me this message that he was OK. Ian knew him very well, and wrote that song, but I couldn’t go near it until recently because it was too emotional for me.”

Ní Mhaonaigh likes to keep a personal touch with her own compositions. The last of the blistering opening set of reels on the album is “The Friel Deal’ dedicated to longtime family friends. “The Friel sisters are a fantastic young trio from Glasgow, of Donegal parentage, and I’ve known them since they were children, coming over to Donegal. I wanted to thank them for all they’ve done for me and my family over the years by giving them a tune. We’ve made lifelong friends through music, and that’s what Widening Gyre celebrates.”

Inspiration also comes from Irish literature.  On “The White Birds” Ní Mhaonaigh, with Mary Chapin Carpenter, sings a love poem by the great Irish writer William Butler Yeats [1865-1939], set to music. And the title itself – a gyre is a spiraling motion – is taken from The Second Coming, one of his most famous poems. It carries a personal aptness and resonance for Ní Mhaonaigh.

“I’ve always been a huge fan. I love his romanticism, and he was such a part of the revival of our [Irish] culture, and part of the 1916 Easter Rising. The poem was written after the world war when he just felt things were falling apart, life as he knew it. But then, ‘the widening gyre’. That image of spiraling energy is so strong, and it just brought everything in. My image of the album is the widening circle of music and friends, and how our lives have evolved from that little beginning to this universal thing that’s happening.”