Ry Cooder and Paddy Moloney team up for epic album Musical giants fashion a blend of Irish and Mexican traditional music alongside a dash of historic narrative

02.21.10
Chieftains
Times (London)

By Garth Cartwright

In a rehearsal studio in California, two musical giants are limbering up for what looks to be one of 2010’s epic encounters. Playing acoustic guitar is Ry Cooder, the American owner of a ridiculously fabulous CV. On pipes is Paddy Moloney, leader of the Irish trad supergroup the Chieftains. The two musicians are old friends who have come together to create San Patricio, an album genuinely unlike anything else released recently.

How unlike? Well, firstly, it is a concept album — one focused on the 1846-48 Mexican-American war. Actually, one focused specifically on a battalion of Irish soldiers who deserted from the American army to fight for Mexico. I know this sounds like Latin American Studies material, but San Patricio deserves the listener’s attention, offering up as it does a smorgasbord of musical talent.

First, though, it’s back to the history lesson: why did the Irish join the Mexicans? Debatable. They were either mercenary scum (American history) or proto-Che Guevaras who recognised that the war represented an unjust invasion (Mexican history). Throw in the religious element — Protestant North invading Catholic South — and the subject begins to boil. Inevitably, things ended badly: the Mexicans lost the war, and the Americans, in a vast land grab, acquired Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. Captured, the St Patrick’s Battalion were subject to mass hangings (or tortured and branded “D” for deserter on both cheeks). Does all this have echoes of a more recent American military excursion? Yes, Cooder says, very much so.

“This was the first pre-emptive war,” he maintains. “James Polk was a very modern president. He saw how he could intimidate Congress and work a propaganda campaign that made Americans feel the war was necessary and just.

“This has continued in America, and gone into overdrive this century, with all kinds of totalitarian methods being employed. So now, when some idiot sets fire to their underpants, we willingly give up even more of our civil liberties. This is also when the US-Mexican border was first set up. All the issues we have about immigration today stem from this war, and the St Patrick’s Battalion allows us, to some degree, to look at them.”

“There’s a museum of San Patricio in Mexico City,” Moloney adds. “In Mexico, they are regarded as martyrs, while in America, this has been kept very quiet for a long time.”

“A secret history,” Cooder states.

“It is,” Moloney agrees, “a real secret history.”

Quite a handful, then, for a humble album to cover. What the Chieftains have attempted to do, with Cooder riding shotgun, is to fashion a blend of Irish and Mexican traditional music forms alongside a dash of historic narrative. The actor Liam Neeson reads a monologue, the Clannad vocalist Moya Brennan sings a lullaby and Cooder delivers a winsome ballad. All this comes across as theatrical, a reminder of why concept albums must be treated warily.

Thankfully, in the age of the iPod, listeners can delete these tracks and get on with listening to the good stuff. Which there’s plenty of: San Patricio takes off when the Mexicans take over. There’s the 92-year-old vocalist (and Almo­dovar favourite) Chavela Vargas, the soft-rock star Linda Ronstadt (her dad has Mexican roots), the shimmering harp of La Negra Graciana, the fiery corridos of Los Tigres del Norte, the teardrop voice of Lila Downs and much, much more. Put simply, San Patricio offers a great introduction to the regional wealth of Mexican music. Cooder agrees, reflecting with droll humour on his long love affair with south-of-the-border sounds.

“Growing up in LA in the 1960s was when I first got to hear all those great Mexican records. I knew there was a scene in east LA, but I didn’t go there. I didn’t do anything back then but stay in my bedroom and play guitar. In the 1970s, I teamed up with the accordion player Flaco Jimenez for the Chicken Skin Music album and tour, but my audience didn’t get it. Randy Newman told me, ‘You’re committing commercial suicide.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He replied, ‘Fat Mexicans in leisure suits playing accordions — Warners will not stand for it.’ My role at Warners was obviously to be ‘guitar hero’, but I was so obtuse then that I didn’t realise this.”

Events proved Newman right. Cooder retreated from his solo career, spending much of the 1980s and 1990s composing soundtracks for Walter Hill and Wim Wenders movies. Not a bad way to earn a living, but the experience left him hungry. Re-entering the fray, he has created beautiful music with musicians from Mali, India, Cuba and, yes, Mexico.

“I’ve been hanging out with Los Tigres del Norte,” Cooder says of the group whose willingness to sing about difficult political and social subject matter has won them huge popularity. “I saw a whole new world. They are messengers, people love then. There is nothing like them in white pop. They’re like Pete Seeger to the nth. I love that music, so I’ll do anything to work with them. I said to the band, ‘Guys, I’ll wash the bus, I’ll vacuum the floor, anything to stay on the road with you.’”

“Los Tigres are new to me,” Moloney notes. “They’re one of the acts Ry brought in, and we got on famously. They were fascinated by my pipes and we cut 10 tunes off the cuff, just like that. Recording with Mexicans is lovely — they bring all the family along, so there are kids running around the studio and wives breaking out sandwiches.”

San Patricio initially grew out of research Moloney conducted on the civil war, “because so many songs that entered American folk music came from immigrant Irish soldiers singing them in that era. Then I came across the Mexican-American war and St Pat’s Battalion — it fascinated me. I held onto the idea for ages, then, 12 years ago, the Mexican and Irish governments issued stamps to commemorate the battalion’s 150th anniversary. That reminded me I really had to do something. Ry worked with us on our album Santiago and I mentioned them to him. He said, ‘You really should do this!’”

Cooder’s production of Buena Vista Social Club introduced Cuban music to an international audience. Does he believe San Patricio could do the same for Mexican music? “Buena Vista’s success surprised me, because people are brought up to see Cuba as ‘the enemy’,” he says. “But the musicians were such great characters, total musicians, and the music was intimate and welcoming, so unlike the Latin music that comes out of Miami — noisy, brassy junk.

“With Mexico, well, Americans tend to be [oblivious] to Mexican culture. They see them only as gardeners, cleaners and illegal immigrants. If San Patricio does show them the beauty of Mexican music, well, that would be something. The Chieftains have a loyal and large audience who will follow them anywhere, so let’s see.”

Moloney agrees: “We’re new to Mexican music, but already I’ve found many similarities with Irish music. I can’t wait to get this on the road.”

San Patricio is released on Concord on March 8