In a moment that history books would rate as a minuscule act of defiance, famed Irish band the Chieftains found a measure of bravery and dedication they deemed worthy of a solemn memorial etched into song. Thus was born the idea for the group’s latest album, San Patricio.
“Twenty-five years ago I was researching music of the American Civil War and I came across this intriguing, fascinating, untold piece of history called the San Patricio Battalion,” Paddy Moloney explains in a telephone conversation from his home in Florida.
Irish soldiers, among them Sergeant John Riley, defected from their unit in the American Army to join forces with the Mexican side during the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848. They were mostly Irish immigrants escaping the Irish famine, and among the reasons put forth for their defection, gleaned from Riley’s letters, was mistreatment from their Protestant generals who refused to allow them to attend mass, and a shared religion and sympathy for the Mexican cause. The Battalion, under Riley, fought gallantly, but ultimately the alliance the San Patricios made with the Catholic Mexicans would prove to be their undoing. After their final stand against the American Army in 1847, many were captured, branded with the letter D on their faces and hanged.
“It’s amazing, all of Mexico knows about the San Patricios, while in the States [the San Patricios] are sort of forgotten, passed over. It’s a shameful thing, almost sort of a complex,” Moloney said.
Taken by this story, Moloney began to research the music of Mexico from the 19th century. Fusing the sounds of nine regions of the country along with the Chieftains’ own Irish flavor, Moloney recruited Ry Cooder, Los Tigres del Norte, Lila Down, Liam Neeson and dozens of other collaborators from Mexico, the States and Ireland to contribute to the album.
“As I would’ve with any project, I was living with it, entering into the whole feel of it and letting my mind run a little wild …Then on a trip to Mexico City, I started hearing the European influence in Mexican music of that period, the late 19th century.
“There’s this great fusion between Mexican music and the people and culture, and the Irish. A lot of the music is so similar to that in Ireland. I listened to hundreds of CDs and groups during my research and I’d be able to pick up pieces, like, ‘Oh, that’s a line from this jig.’ It’s fascinating the mixture of Irish instruments and Mexican instruments, they blend so well together and I think people enjoy that.”
At a museum in Churubusco, the site of the Battalion’s final stand, the San Patricio Pipe Band, dressed in the uniform of the San Patricios, march in and out of the museum every Sunday. Seeing this led Moloney to write his own march, which appears on the album.
“When I was doing the march I was starting to put extra musicians on it. I went to San Francisco and Los Angeles and it started to get bigger. It’s massive. There are almost ninety musicians on that march. … It ends up rather sadly, unfortunately, it goes into a dark sort of minor key at the end with a rattle of bones. But I thought maybe throughout that instead of having somebody sing, it would be lovely to have somebody with a great voice narrate three different pieces, three short verses.”
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.”
More recently, the Chieftains were asked by jazz pianist Herbie Hancock to lend a hand to his version of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They are A-changin’.” Due out later this year, the track includes a “little flavor of traditional Irish music” along with some African musicians and several other collaborations.
The energy and the authenticity of the music are what Moloney strives for. “I don’t usually go straight out for someone to record something for the sake of who they are,” he said. “I always work towards a CD that is almost like a live concert so that anything we play can be performed live on stage.”
With San Patricio he has done just that. The Chieftains performed the material in Dublin in January as well as in Glasgow, and, excited by the success of their first shows, they will be unleashing this Mexican-Irish fusion of music in Mexico and the States in the coming months.