St. Patrick’s Day season typically finds Boston overrun with bands doing a rowdy, rocking version of Irish music. Rest assured that Altan, one of Ireland’s top traditional bands, does none of this.
Altan can play lively jigs and reels between their ballads, but there’s always been something haunting and mysterious at the heart of their sound. Credit that to the golden voice of violinist and vocalist Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, and the band’s Donegal heritage. “We are cut off by the mountains from the rest of Ireland so there is isolation, both geographical and political,” she said this week. “Even for the Irish it’s a pretty mysterious place. We have a lot of violin pieces that no one else plays.
As a traditional singer, she brings to life lyrics that have been around for centuries. “When I sing a song, I first think of the person from whom I received it and the place where it was born. These Gaelic songs are not ballads with stories, rather they have magic. They are like small photographs of a loved one or a place. You make up the rest of the story in your own head.
Even before they were a band, Altan was a love affair: Ni Mhaonaigh started performing as a teenager and one of her biggest admirers was Frankie Kennedy, who learned the flute just to be with her . In time, he mastered the instrument and became her musical partner as well as her husband. “It was a perfect match. He was from Belfast, where they had this tradition of playing the flute, but he wasn’t playing music at all when we met. He knew what my life was going to be like, and he didn’t want to twiddle their thumbs while I was doing sessions.The pair first came to Boston in 1981, when they played low-key shows and frequented the Burren in Davis Square.
Kennedy died of bone cancer in 1994, wanting the band to continue. There have been other personnel changes since, but Ni Mhaonaigh says their spirit is intact. “We feel like they’re different people but the same music. We approach music in exactly the same way; if we don’t like a song, we won’t play it. They branched out a bit though, doing some recordings with Dolly Parton in Nashville. “I wasn’t a big fan of country and western, to be honest with you. But America is a big melting pot and our music was really only a step away from each other.
Ni Mhaonaigh’s tastes are more varied than you might think; she even made a point of visiting David Bowie’s former home during a recent visit to Berlin. But she generally kept Altan at a safe distance from the pop and rock crossover.
“We listened to a lot of punk and pop, all kinds of music. But Irish music doesn’t need to be watered down in any way, what you need to give people is what you love and what inspires you. Sometimes you see Irish music going a certain way – too much cloverleaf and greenery and people talking begorrah. That’s not what it’s about, it’s about real people and real emotions. You don’t have to make a cabaret show out of it.
Altan at the Somerville Theatre, Friday at 8 p.m. Tickets: $40; globalartslive.org.