Altan | Martin Tourish “Music Is The Truest Expression Of Where We Come From”
Ahead of their Germany tour in spring 2019, Altan’s Martin Tourish took the time for a detailed Q&A which we are publishing in two parts. In Part 1, he talks about the magic of his journey with Ireland’s most legendary trad band, the origin of their music in the mountains of Donegal and the spirit of Frankie Kennedy that continues to define Altan.
Q: The history of Altan goes back as far as 1983 and is arguably the biggest success story traditional music has ever seen, considering the band were the first traditional band to be signed to a major label (Virgin), hit the Irish charts as well as the US Billboard World Music Charts and win Platinum twice. What made the band so successful over the whole three decades of its existence?
A: I wasn’t in the band since 1983, but I can give my opinion from the perspective of being a fan of the band to being a member. In the 1970s, bands such as Planxty and The Bothy Band invented a fresh and invigorating style of performing Irish traditional music. They were enormously influential. Altan were unique at the time in that they used this new format to present the music and songs from their own area, Co. Donegal. In doing so, they were the first among a number of traditional bands who would later champion the music of their own specific region; each of which has its own unique repertoire and stylistic features.
At the time, Donegal traditional music wasn’t very popular in Ireland. It was only really performed in homes, and the repertoire and style came very close to dying out entirely. Mairéad and the band treasured the people who held on to this dying tradition. I think that this is what has always given the band their drive, passion and an unbreakable sense of respect for the gift that they were given to share with the world.
Donegal is a wild, beautiful and earthy place on the Northwestern Atlantic Coast. It can be a place of extremes with the weather, with mountains and lakes that cast the light in ethereal ways and where each geographical feature seems to have a folkloric tale attached. The motto “Up here, it’s different” very adequately describes the place. The music of the area seems to capture its wildness, light and shade so fully and perfectly. Playing the music from our own area, in a sense, is the truest expression of where we come from and who we are as people.
I think that Altan’s success as a band comes from their strong sense of where they come from and not compromising what they do for passing fashions. It’s an authentic statement from the place in which it was created, over centuries. The music speaks for itself.
Q: Donegal is home to several other amazing bands and musicians, such as Clannad or the recently deceased Tommy Peoples. What were your earliest encounters with Irish traditional music in general and the music of Donegal in particular?
A: My earliest encounter with music was learning the tin whistle from my mother when I was about four years old. She only knew one tune, and it took me about a year to learn it! Irish traditional music at that time was, and to an extent still is, a subculture, although it is much more popular now. I started learning the accordion at a local marching band when I was seven and didn’t really hear Irish traditional music until I was told that a cousin of mine was a musician and playing a concert with a band called Altan. I jumped at the chance to go and on my 13th birthday, I heard Altan play for the first time, in the Rialto Theatre in Derry.
Up until this point, I wasn’t even aware of genres. It was my first introduction to Irish traditional music. I was awestruck by the power, the beauty, how fast, how delicate, how virtuosic, how sensitively the music was played. I distinctly remember not being able to move from the seat and how at that moment the music seemed to make sense of everything. I had this enormous sense of wonder and excitement and started devouring recordings from the local library, learning every tune and song, playing before going to school along with Raidió na Gaeltachta, thinking about tunes during school, playing in the car, playing after school, playing while watching TV, quietly playing after bed time. Other musicians have similar stories from around their youth, and my sense of awe for the music still hasn’t left me.
The music of Donegal made sense of the place for me. It’s a hard thing to explain but perhaps it’s similar to how the proportions of a Mozart symphony seem to echo the old buildings and the landscapes of Vienna and Salzburg. The architecture of Donegal is largely mountains and lakes. As a young teenager growing up in Donegal, I didn’t necessarily appreciate our often stormy weather, mountains and wild landscape. But the music seemed to express a beauty about these familiar things; I could hear the soft accent of the locals in it, I could sense the earthy smells of turf from it. The music gave expression to that sense of gentle inner strength you find in the people of Donegal. It’s something that probably comes from living at the edge of Ireland, Europe, or for all intents and purposes, the world.
Even at that young age, it was as though everything had come together and made sense as a whole. It was what I had to do and needed to do. I sought out the traditional musicians, who amazed me with their kindness and generosity and brought me to sessions deep in the mountains in the remote Irish speaking regions. As a teenager, once night fell, I would go on these journeys across Donegal where fiddle tunes and songs would punctuate the hours of darkness. The tunes and songs all had stories, some of which had a supernatural component and so the stormy, barren place became transformed into a landscape of magic for my young mind.
I remember playing in a session with Tommy Peoples, who was always the most gracious and generous person, leaning in to quieten the din of people talking in a country pub and hearing the sparks of magic he was quietly creating. I recorded with Moya Brennan from Clannad for the first time only last night actually! We recorded, along with Cormac de Barra, in Dublin City, but for a few hours, I was back in that magical, familiar place.
Q: Altan have been through various line-ups and made it through the loss of co-founder and lead singer Frankie Kennedy who died, far too young, in 1994. Was it ever a question whether the band would continue to perform after the tragic passing of one of its defining personalities?
A: I personally don’t know how Mairéad and the band continued to perform after Frankie’s passing. In another sense, it feels to me as though Frankie is still very much with the band. On every trip, the band members retell his limitless jokes, leaving us and anyone else who’s around unable to stand up straight with laughter! Frankie’s unique wisdom still informs the vision and aesthetic of the band that he and Mairéad created. Frankie wanted the band to continue. Perhaps this gentle inner strength I mentioned earlier, which is woven into the fabric of the music, is what carried Altan. I feel that Mairéad’s words in the introduction of our book Altan: The Tunes, expresses this better than anything I could say:
“We play music which came from people that we loved and respected and were proud to know as friends. As is the cycle of life, a lot of these wonderful musicians are no longer with us, but their music and memories and stories remain. Their legacy is what is here in this book and above all we try to carry their humanity in every note.
Q: Tell us a bit about your own musical work. You’re the first piano accordionist to ever win the highly prestigious ‘Young Musician of the Year’ award, the holder of a PhD degree and a prolific composer, producer and performer of many different types of music with a very versatile track record. What are you currently working on? And how did the collaboration with Altan come about?
A: I guested with Altan and Eddi Reader at Temple Bar Trad Fest in 2011 and sang my song An Ghealóg to Mairéad afterwards at a session. I was amazed when the band recorded it on their album The Poison Glen and I performed the song with them as a guest a few times around Ireland. I was so nervous to play music with my heroes! As the wonderful Dermot Byrne began to pursue solo work, I filled in for him for some concerts. Then at the end of 2013, one week after handing in my PhD thesis, I found myself on a tour of Germany and I’ve been playing with the band since then. It’s a very strange thing to join your favourite band and still, I can’t believe how lucky I am. We played to 2.000 people in an ancient amphitheater in Lyon two years ago where the whole audience sang the chorus to An Ghealóg, the song that started my journey with Altan. It is still the most magical journey and I feel enormously privileged to be a part of it.
Since the start of 2019, I’ve already had some great musical adventures. I was delighted to record with Moya Brennan and Cormac de Barra last night. I’ve been working on another album of folkloric songs with the sean-nós singer Lorcan MacMathuna, reimagined the poetry of Thomas Moore in the National Theatre with the tenor Simon Morgan, played with No Crows and Steve Wickham (The Waterboys) in Sligo, I’ve been playing with the contemporary Eastern European folk group Yurodny and performing with Triona Marshall, the harpist with The Chieftains. I’ve had the premier of a new work, Castle of Light, performed by a group of young Donegal musicians, and I’ve been running a nationwide education project with the National Concert Hall that is bringing Cormac de Barra and myself all around Ireland. It’s been very busy so far, with much more to come, but it’s such an incredible joy to work with those I admire so much as musicians and people.
Catch Altan in a city near you:
March 28th, Nürnberg, Gutmann am Dutzendteich
March 29th, Berlin, Quasimodo
March 31st, Oldenburg, Kulturzentrum Pfl
April 1st, Hamburg, Die Fabrik
April 2nd, Oberhausen, Zentrum Altenberg
April 3rd, Esslingen, Dieselstrasse
April 4th, Mainz, Frankfurter Hof
Read Part 2 of our Q&A with Martin Tourish here.