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Gaelic Gala

Altan, the Irish group of players with 'incredible pedigrees,' will be at CSUN.


From the kitchens and pubs of Ireland comes the the award-winning traditional music of Altan, which will bring its good-natured fun to Cal State Northridge on Saturday.

One of Ireland's top traditional groups, Altan has been around since the early 1970s and has made eight CDs. Most of the tunes on the group's most recent Virgin Records album, "Another Sky," are sung in Gaelic.

"Most of the music we perform is from a living source, not an archive," said Gaelic singer Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh. "The songs I sing have been given to me by my father, uncle and neighbors. The song-giving was very organic. My father played the fiddle and my uncle would come in and sing about what was real in his life, like the harvest."

Mhaonaigh, whose father was a well-known fiddle player in Ireland, said she wants to bring a bit of her home to people who live in cities. The group spends about six months a year performing around the world.

"In Japan, they don't have any connection with Ireland, but there was sort of a release from the concrete," Mhaonaigh said. "Most of these songs were composed in a rural or relaxed situation and that actually transcends through the songs."

Paulette Gershen, an ethnomusicologist in Sherman Oaks who studied traditional music in Ireland, said Altan is not just another Irish group. "They are some of the best players with incredible pedigrees," she said.

The other band members are Ciaran Tourish, on whistle and fiddle; accordionist Dermont Byrne; Ciaran Curran on the mandolin-like bouzouki; and guitarists Daithi Sproule and Mark Kelly. Many of the musicians come from Donegal, an area rich in folklore and mythology.

"Sometimes people think we are very purist about what we do," Mhaonaigh said. "The traditional music we play is not restricted to a past era. We sing about what's happening in life. We do what the old generation did--we express ourselves and our hearts."

In that vein, the group has added the bouzouki, a traditional instrument used in Greece and played by one of Ireland's best, Curran.

One of the reasons there has been an increased interest in Irish music in the last decade is the use of Celtic music in films and dance productions, Gershen said, adding that more people are also looking for a cultural sense, even if it is imagined.

"Music creates a sense of identity," she said. "I think it's nostalgia, but often it's a nostalgia [for a lifestyle] that people haven't experienced. People like feeling connected to the past."


Altan performs Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Cal State Northridge Performing Arts Center, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge. $12-$24. Call (818) 677-2488.

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