Album Review: Altan, ‘Donegal’

For the past 35 years, Altan has combined reverence for the traditional tunes, ballads, poems, and songs of their County Donegal with innovation as they have brought the music to new audiences. Their new album Donegal carries on this tradition and is a tribute to the rich musical heritage of their native land.

Altan features bandleader, fiddler, and vocalist Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, vocalist and fiddler Clare Friel, accordionist Martin Tourish, guitarist Dáithí Sproule, guitarist and vocalist Mark Kelly, and mandolinist and bouzouki player Ciarán Curran. Special guests include Jim Higgins on percussion, Steve Cooney on bass, and Graham Henderson on keyboards.

Ciarán Curran’s bouzouki lines provide the melodic thread around which all the group’s other instruments weave a colorful musical quilt on the Altan’s exquisite version of the traditional reel “The Yellow Tinker,” which unfolds luxuriously to capture the tune’s poignant beauty. Layers of cascading piano notes and silvery guitar movements flow under Ní Mhaonaigh’s lilting vocals on “Liostáil mé le Sáirsint,” an ethereal piece that evokes a soldier’s longing for home. Friel’s wraithlike vocals convey the yearning for peace in Altan’s transportive rendering of Máirtín Ó Direáin’s poem “Faoiseamh a Gheobhadsa,” which was set to music by fiddler Zoe Conway and her husband, guitarist John McIntyre. The musical setting of the song captures the wild beauty of the natural surroundings in which the singer finds solace from the chaotic desolation of an urban setting.

On the medley of jigs, “Port Árainn Mhór/Port Kitty Rua Mooney,” written by Ní Mhaonaigh, the slower, meditative rhythmic tempo of “Port Árainn Mhór” blossoms into the joyous up tempo of the tarantella-like “Port Kitty Rua Mooney,” a tribute to her mother who’s dancing into her 90s. Measured fiddling opens “Miss Stewart’s,” the opening reel in the “House of Baoithín” medley, providing the thematic lines that run through the other two reels in the set: “Bonnie Annie” and “Hand Me Down the Tea Things.” Twin fiddling sways and swoops on “Bonnie Annie,” building note by note a frenetic pace until the final tune ends with a jubilant whirling and twirling. Ní Mhaonaigh’s gently flowing vocals tell the whimsical tale of a young farmer more attentive to his grain than to his wife frolicking with her lover in the barley and rye. The album dances off on the delightful medley of reels “The Letterkenny Blacksmith/John Doherty’s Favourite/Scread na Bealtine.”

Donegal captures the pensive, the melancholy, and the jubilant in Altan’s exuberant jigs and reels and in their tender, evocative, and playful ballads and songs.


Donegal is available HERE


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