There’s a deeper legend behind the title of Altan’s latest album, last year’s “Gleann Nimhe — The Poison Glen.”
The title refers to a mistranslation of the Gaelic name Gleann Nimhe, a series of valleys and lakes surrounding lead vocalist and fiddler Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh’s home of Gweedore, in County Donegal, Ireland. Properly translated, the name means “heavenly glen,” but the legend surrounding the mistranslation was too good for the band to pass up.
“We like that . . . kind of putting people down the wrong route, or the darker side of the translation,” Ní Mhaonaigh said from her home in Ireland. “It also has a lot of mythical stories based on that type of thing, the Poison Glen. There is a mythical character, Balar of the Evil Eye — he was known to kill people by looking at them with an evil eye. Eventually it was prophesied that a young man eventually killed him and married his daughter. . . . But that’s just one of the stories; if you had about three years, I could tell you more.”
For nearly three decades now, Altan has been one of the leading proponents of traditional Irish music, especially the fiddle music of Donegal, and all the legends and stories found within these songs. The sextet recently celebrated its 25th anniversary with the 2010 release “25th Anniversary Celebration,” featuring classics from throughout the band’s career rerecorded with Ireland’s RTÉ Concert Orchestra.
Where: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
How Much: $28, $26 (members)
More Info: 473-1845, www.theegg.org
The band continues to tour the world, hitting Europe and the U.S. regularly and Japan every two years or so. This busy schedule is part of the reason that “Gleann Nimhe — The Poison Glen” is the band’s first new studio recording in seven years, following 2005’s “Local Ground.” This month, the group is back in the U.S., and will be at The Egg on Saturday.
Since forming in the mid-’80s, the band has relied on touring the world to make its living. Throughout its long history, the band has been able to ride the worldwide resurgence in popularity of Irish music brought on by more mainstream ventures like “Riverdance” — not to mention the band’s own groundbreaking work in the genre.
“Everywhere you go, people are familiar with the music on some sort of level, sometimes through something more commercial like ‘Riverdance,’ ” Ní Mhaonaigh said. “There seems to be an awareness of it, and that really helps bands like ourselves to go travel outside Ireland. Ireland is a very, very small country — there’s only about 5 million people here, so to depend on it for a living would be pointless.”
Originally, Altan began as a duo in the early ’80s with Ní Mhaonaigh and her then-husband, flutist Frankie Kennedy, who died of cancer in 1994. Their second album together, 1987’s “Altan,” provided them the platform to expand into a full traditional acoustic band.
Major label recording
The band began touring the U.S. and the rest of the world soon after. Before his death, Kennedy helped to secure the band a major label deal with Virgin Records in the U.K. in 1994 — making Altan the first traditional Irish band to sign a major label deal.
“[Virgin in London] had a very kind of refreshing outlook on music in general — off center, a little bit, as they settled into the genre they were signing at the time,” Ní Mhaonaigh said.
“It was very helpful as it regards to bringing our music to a larger audience, without having to dilute it in any way, or blend it with any other genres of music. That’s what they wanted, but I found that maybe elsewhere — the Virgin people elsewhere didn’t really catch that left-of-center idea. They thought that they could kind of market us in a more green situation where leprechauns would be involved. . . . That insulted us, really, because our music has to do with — it’s the music; it’s very Irish music. It has nothing to do with Hollywood or the Hollywood perception of the music.”
“Gleann Nimhe — The Poison Glen” features the by-now-familiar mix of fiddle tunes and traditional Gaelic numbers that the band has built its career around. The album features the same lineup the group has had since 1994 — Ní Mhaonaigh, fiddler Ciarán Tourish, guitarist Mark Kelly, bouzouki player Ciarán Curran, guitarist Dáithí Sproule and accordionist Dermot Byrne — and was recorded over two months, although the process was considerably longer than that.
“We tend to just take our time with these things,” Ní Mhaonaigh said.
“That album was made within two months, but after sitting down and thinking about it, we were in the process of making it for longer than that.”
In keeping with the passed-down tradition of the music, the band draws its material from older musicians, neighbors, friends and archival material that Ní Mhaonaigh has access to.
“We sometimes end up playing tunes that some of us have been playing for years; sometimes we find tunes from older musicians,” she said. “My father is a great source of tunes — he’s dead now, but he still is a great source of tunes. So it’s from neighbors; it happens organically. We might hear a tune in a session, or I’ll go to into the archives — I have a lot of archival material that I’m able to listen back to.”
Working with youth
The band is also helping to keep these musical traditions alive through its work with younger musicians. Last year, the Donegal County Council asked the group to work with the area’s secondary schools, which culminated in a concert at the end of the program.
“We spent a lot of time coming back to them with the materials, putting a bit of finesse on their singing, giving them material, just talking about ensemble playing,” Ní Mhaonaigh said.
“It was actually really worthwhile — I thought it was the most worthwhile project we’ve ever done. When you hear children and others learning from you, and then you hear them yourself, that’s very fulfilling, and we’d like to do more of that. That’s what it’s all about, especially in something like traditional music.”