New CDs: The Chieftains Featuring Ry Cooder

03.14.10
Chieftains
The New York Times

By Jon Pareles

“San Patricio” (Hear Music)

Leave it to the Chieftains to find an Irish diaspora in Mexico and spin off some musical hybrids. On “San Patricio” the Chieftains — who established themselves as strict Celtic traditionalists before turning to globe-spanning fusions — collaborate with Ry Cooder and many Mexican-American and Mexican musicians, embellishing Mexican styles with trilling, skirling pipes and tin whistle.

The San Patricios were soldiers, many of them recent Irish immigrants, who left the United States Army and joined Mexico during the Mexican-American war in 1846-48. Their reasons, still debated, may have included mistreatment in the United States military, anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant bigotry and the promise of better pay and land grants from Mexico. They were defeated and captured, and many were hanged as deserters by the United States. But they are celebrated in Mexico and Ireland. A Mexican band of pipers, Banda de Gaitas de Batallón de San Patricio, was formed to commemorate them and appears on “San Patricio.”

Although the history is contentious, the album’s songs about the San Patricios are unequivocal. “History will absolve us,” Mr. Cooder sings (and wrote) in “The Sands of Mexico.” In “March to Battle,” written by the Chieftains’ piper, Paddy Moloney, with words by Brendan Graham, the narration from Liam Neeson calls the soldiers “a brave and gallant band” who “died for freedom.” (It also claims the San Patricios had “but one demand: to see the Yankees safely home across the Rio Grande.” Actually, they inflicted severe casualties on United States troops.) The music of “San Patricio” seesaws between Celtic and Mexican styles. It’s most Irish in “Lullaby for the Dead,” a mournful air sung by Moya Brennan of Clannad, and in “Sailing to Mexico,” a hearty modal waltz that also features the Spanish piper Carlos Núñez, from Galicia.

But for most of the album, the Chieftains genially play host to the Mexican-rooted musicians, who have been maintaining traditions — bolero, ranchera, mariachi and regional varieties of the Mexican son — as the Chieftains did in Ireland. There are big names like Linda Ronstadt (backed by Mr. Cooder in the lonely ballad “A la Orilla de un Palmar”), Los Tigres del Norte (waltzing in “Canción Mixteca”), Lila Downs (swaggering through “La Iguana” and “El Relámpago”) and the 90-year-old Chavela Vargas (tearfully nostalgic in “Luz de Luna”). And there are rousing preservationists including Los Folkloristas, Los Cenzontles and Los Camperos de Valles, who sing new lyrics about the San Patricios with the driving beat and leaping vocals of a traditional Mexican son huasteco.

The Chieftains join their guests by racing alongside them, tootling and trilling the melodies on whistle or pipes. They share the beat, tapping it on the bodhran, and slip in counterpoint from fiddle or Celtic harp. But they don’t try to make their collaborators sound Irish. Like the San Patricios, but with a happier outcome, they put Mexico first. The Chieftains are playing Town Hall on Wednesday