Music News & Reviews

Critic's pick: The Chieftains featuring Ry Cooder, 'San Patricio'

The Emerald Isle inspiration that has made The Chieftains uncontested masters of Irish musical tradition might seem culturally removed from the war stories of 19th century Mexico. But then, chief Chieftain Paddy Moloney has, especially over the last half of his band's near half-century history, provided Irish inspiration for all-star pop summits, Asian ensembles and Nashville collaborations.

San Patricio digs into an altogether different corner of Irish tradition. Along with fellow roots music journeyman Ry Cooder (who collaborated with The Chieftains on their Grammy winning 1995 album The Long Black Veil), Moloney unearths the story of Irish immigrants that left their homeland during the Potato Famine of 1845 to begins a new life in America. Some of them were essentially drafted into fighting in the Mexican-American War only to find conditions of bigotry and poverty were little better than those existing in Ireland. Thus was born the San Patricio Battalion — Irishmen fighting alongside Mexicans against Americans.

In America, they were viewed as traitors. In Mexico, they were revered as gallant heroes. And that is simply the backstory to this fascinating cross-cultural adventure.

The closest The Chieftains have previously come to a mix of Irish tradition and anything remotely Mexican was on the 1996 album Santiago. That record explored the music of Galicia, a Celtic province near Spain. A key contributor to that album, Carlos Nunez, returns on San Patricio to play the gaita, or "Galician bagpipes." The harmonies the instrument creates when played alongside Moloney's uilleann pipes on tunes like San Campio are profoundly bittersweet.

Links also appear between the Irish and Mexican harps (on the lovely A la Orilla de un Palmar) and between Celtic reels and the Spanish rooted dance music of the zapateado (on El Chivo). Sometimes, though, it simply takes an Irishman to underscore the resolve of the San Patricio Battalion and a troupe of Mexican artists to convey the heritage of the battleground that was fought on. Thus we have San Patricio's mightiest track, a militaristic requiem titled March to Battle (Across the Rio Grande) that is colored by the Chieftains' always-hopeful musical cast, narrated stoically by Liam Neeson and fleshed out by the pipes and percussion of Banda de Gaita de Batallon.

Cooder adds similarly cool narrative to The Sands of Mexico, the popular norteno band Los Tigres Del Norte drives the festive Cancion Mixteca and Linda Ronstadt provides the Spanish elegance of A la Orilla de un Palmar. Best of all, Celtic vocal stylist Moya Brennan (formerly of Clannad) serves as a grand Irish muse for the beautiful Lullaby for the Dead.

Perhaps this isn't the pat St. Patrick's present you expected from The Chieftains. But within its 19 songs, San Patricio unleashes unexpected history, cultural unity and musical grace that shines as brilliantly from south of the border as it does from across the pond.