San Patricio: The March of the Forgotten
Chieftains founder Paddy Moloney talks with Tara Dougherty about the group’s latest album, San Patricio.
The voice that narrates the eloquent poem over the sounds of that epic march belongs to Liam Neeson. “I’ve known Liam for years, it goes back a long way. I thought his voice was just spot on for this. And I called him up and told him the story and he was just fascinated by it. … And the comment from him was ‘If you make a movie of this, I want to be John Riley, the commander.’ That was Liam. Great character, great person.”
The album is a blending of instruments and themes from the two cultures that found themselves crossed in this piece of history. It was not Moloney’s sole intention to tell the story of the San Patricios through music; he also wanted to provide a range of emotions emerging from this tale. “It’s sort of a tone poem,” Moloney said of the album. And while many of the tracks speak to the great tragedy of the story, a certain amount of levity is found on the record as well, which Moloney attributes to a recording session he had with Lila Down.
“Lila Down [the Mexican-American singer] who lives in New York, brought fifteen or sixteen great musicians into the studio and that was my first recording,” he said. “I had my Irish dancers with me, and Lila danced as well, and I realized that I should put in the happy part of this, the dancing and the various different kinds of music going on in Mexico during 1847.”
Through his research and interactions with the Mexican people, Moloney was able to see that Mexicans and Irish have more than monuments in common. In the quaintest of traditions, Moloney found these cultures intersect often in the most individual and personal ways. Moloney’s memories of traveling into the mountains to his grandmother’s farmhouse with no electricity mirrored the lifestyle of many Mexican people he came to know. “They had their oil lamps and once the work was done then the music would start and the dancing and all. So there’s a great similarity between their culture and customs and what we had back in Ireland.”
The Chieftains are masters at finding that common thread in cultures and weaving it into a musical project that sounds both unique and comfortingly familiar.
The catalog of people Moloney has worked with is extensive: Van Morrison, Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson, and Ry Cooder – the list goes on. “I could write a book because there’s endless stories of our life,” Moloney laughed.
One memory Moloney shared was of the Chieftains’ first performance at the Irish Arts Center in New York and looking out into the audience to see John Lennon, Yoko at his side, listening to them play. Eight years later, while he was recording with Stevie Wonder in London, Moloney heard the news that Lennon had been shot.
Another story Moloney told was of the night that the Rolling Stones filed into the studio in Dublin to record “Rocky Road to Dublin.” “They brought their entourage. And one o’clock in the morning the place was just swinging. I had nothing on tape, so I said to the lads, ‘Do you mind if I press the button?’ So we got the ‘Rocky Road to Dublin’ with a little bit of ‘Satisfaction’ thrown in for good measure. There was a BBC documentary last year with Keith Richards on it. And he’s saying of us, ‘These guys, they’re a year older than we are and they play this medieval music. I think it’s 18th-century stuff. They asked me to do ‘Satisfaction’ and I thought, it won’t work!’ But it did and of course we do it in concert every night. It’s one of our favorite pieces.”
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