A Conversation with Ciaran Tourish from Altan

Altan, one of Ireland’s premier traditional music bands is heading to the Carlisle Theater in Carlisle, PA for a performance on Tuesday, March 15, 2011 in honor of the band’s 25th anniversary. (http://www.carlisletheatre.org/) On March 1st I spoke to one of the band’s fiddlers, Ciaran Tourish, from his home in Ireland.

 Folkmama: We’re looking forward to your March 15th show in Carlisle. So many bands make constant changes in their personnel. Has Altan’s instrumentation stayed pretty constant in the last few years?

Tourish: Yes it has. We have two fiddles, an accordion, two guitars, bouzouki and of course Mairéad sings as well.  

Folkmama: So, tell me about the upcoming tour in the US,

Tourish : So basically we’re doing this tour and we’re celebrating 25 years. And we have an album with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra called Altan · 25th Anniversary Celebration. We did the record in the RTÉ studios in Dublin here and we were very pleased with it. It’s just a nice way to celebrate the 25 years. And it’s just something different. I mean, all the tunes and songs that we did were stuff that we had recorded before. We just picked our favorites. A guy called Fiachra Trench arranged the tracks. And the result is what we did with the orchestra. So that’s what we are basically touring. We are in celebratory mode I suppose you could say.

Folkmama: Altan has twin fiddles. Tell me what having two fiddles can do for a group.

Tourish: The music that we play, it’s not only Irish music but it’s from a specific part of Ireland; County Donegal in the Northwest where most of the band members are from. And Donegal does have a very strong fiddle tradition. And within that tradition there are a lot of different things that you can use the fiddles for like playing octaves and harmony and stuff like that. Where one fiddle can play the melody and another fiddle can play exactly the same melody an octave below. At the very beginning it was always a fiddle-driven band because of the nature of the music and the style that we play, and that’s the way it’s been ever since.

Folkmama: Is it pretty typical for bands from your region to have twin fiddlers?

Tourish: Well, I suppose there are not many bands from Donegal really. I mean there is a lot of music that came out of Donegal like Clannad and Enya but they were more vocal-driven bands rather than instrumental. So I suppose that you could say that Altan was the first instrumental band out there on the world stage promoting Donegal fiddle music.

 Folkmama: I was at Celtic Connections (a festival in Glasgow, Scotland) this past January and I went to a lecture which was quite fascinating called “Queen of the Bow.” The lecturer, Liz Doherty spoke about the role of woman fiddle player in traditional music from Celtic cultures. She credited female fiddlers like Natalie McMaster and the female fiddler in Altan; Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh as being real trendsetters that led the way for the large number of female fiddlers that are performing today. Would Mairéad agree with Liz Doherty’s point of view?

Tourish: I suppose if I were to speak for Mairéad I would say that she probably didn’t think too much about. Mairéad is the kind of person that if she wants to do something, she just does it. Growing up her father played the fiddle and he for one wouldn’t have had it any other way other than her playing the fiddle. I think if you go back maybe a few generations before that, women weren’t allowed to play any instrument as such because a woman’s job was to stay at home at raise a kid or something like that. We all know that times have changed now and people don’t really think much about those things anymore.

Folkmama: But it is true that there are so many more women fiddlers now. It’s amazing.

Tourish: Oh yes it is true, and it’s great. You know that fiddle used to be considered a man’s instrument, that’s the way that it was seen in the time span that you are talking about. But that is long gone. Women are some of the best fiddle players in the world now.

Folkmama: Now for someone who has never been to an Altan concert, what might they expect to hear at the March 15th concert at the Carlisle Theater?

Tourish: Well, I suppose we’re lucky to have the best of both worlds. We have the fast, upbeat instrumental music, we have some slow instrumental music, but we also have the voice—we have Mairéad singing as well. Within that there is fast and slow. There are songs that are predominately love songs. And I think although most of the songs are mostly in the Gaelic language people get the emotive side of it. People understand what the song is about purely by the way that it is delivered and by the arrangement of the songs. Even though we explain a bit about what the song is about, I suspect that if we didn’t, people would still understand or get an idea of what it was about.

Folkmama: And you are working only with traditional music? Is there some contemporary music that you are mixing in?

Tourish: Well, we do write a fair bit of our own music but it’s written in such a way to blend in with the traditional. One the CDs that we recorded before the orchestra one we had track called “The Roseville” written by our guitar player Dáithí Sproule and we also included that tune on the orchestra album, just with a different arrangement. So that gives you an idea—that’s a modern piece but it’s sort of written in such a way that it doesn’t stand out too much. It blends in with what the rest of the recordings are about.

Folkmama: Your guitar player Dáithí Sproule is from the states isn’t he?

Tourish: No, he’s from Ireland, from Derry but he has lived in the states for the last 18-20 years. In Minnesota.

Folkmama: So he just comes from the states and meets the band wherever they are touring?

 Tourish: Exactly. But we’re very lucky to have two guitarists. Our other guitarist does some of the work over in this neck of the woods. His name is Mark Kelly. But Dáithí will be with us on this tour.

Folkmama: So you fly out tomorrow?

Tourish: Yes, we start out in Dallas at the North Texas Irish Festival and make our way around the mid-west and the east coast. I’m looking forward to it, to be honest.

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