Monday, 8 February 2010

Chieftains' Irish-Mexican music project is simpatico

By Edward Ortiz, The Sacramento Bee, Calif.
Feb. 7--The music of Mexico is not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the legendary Irish band the Chieftains.

But Mexico is where this Dublin-based band has been living -- musically. In its soon-to-be released CD, "San Patricio," the group tastefully blends Irish and Mexican music.

The band will perform songs from "San Patricio" (due out March 9) at UC Davis' Mondavi Center as part of its monthlong U.S. tour.

"The reason this Celtic band is melding Irish and Mexican music has a lot to do with history," said Paddy Moloney who founded the Chieftains and plays Uilleann bagpipe and tin whistle.

"Over a year ago, I was doing a music project on the Civil War, and that's when I came across the history of the 'San Patricios,' " said Moloney, who will be joined on the Mondavi stage by fiddler Sean Keane, bodhran drum player, vocalist Kevin Conneff and flutist Matt Molloy.

The little-known San Patricio brigade fought for the United States under leader John Patrick Riley in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. The brigade was composed of recently arrived Irishmen.

"The San Patricios were not too happy about shooting Catholics," said Moloney. "Nor were Riley and his men happy to be under the command of American Protestant generals."

The members of the brigade were harshly treated and ostracized as Irish Catholics. They soon decided to follow their conscience and crossed the Rio Grande to fight on Mexico's side.

But things ended tragically for the San Patricios. Most were wiped out after making a last stand at the convent of Churabusco in Mexico City. Those who survived the battle were captured and executed.

The brigade is a celebrated chapter in Mexican history and an obscure footnote in Irish history. In the United States the brigade's soldiers were seen as traitors, and their rebel tale has mostly faded.

For Moloney, the story of the San Patricios became a metaphor for yearning and dreams lost, as well as for the commonality between Mexicans and the Irish.

Exploring the likeness of two musical cultures has been done before by the Chieftains, who plumbed the similarities of Irish and American roots music with the CD "Further Down the Old Plank Road: The Nashville Sessions" in 2002.

But with the "San Patricio" project, the group is exploring dissimilar cultures. The project gained heavy traction over a year ago when Moloney visited Churabusco. He was in Mexico to record four artists for the CD. Once there, he realized he was falling down a music rabbit hole.

"That was when we came across other artists like Los Folkloristas," said Moloney. "My eyes were opened to Mexican music -- so much so that I could have put out at least four CDs of music."

And the result is a 19-track CD that Moloney co-produced with Ry Cooder, in which Mexican music bleeds into Irish music. Moloney tapped Los Tigres Del Norte, Lila Downs and Linda Ronstadt, among others, to get the job done.

"I spent a year and a half doing the 'San Patricio' project, and it was one of the most enjoyable I ever had as a musician," Moloney said. "It brought out every ounce of energy out of me."

On one track, Los Folkloristas, a long-standing champion of Latin American music based in Mexico City, perform with the Chieftains on the Mexican classic "La Golondrina." On another, Los Tigres Del Norte, the legendary nortena band from Sinaloa, Mexico, perform on the heartfelt "Cancion Mixteca."

Los Cenzontles, a Bay Area-based Mexican American folk-roots group, will perform with the Chieftains at Mondavi. The two bands were introduced by Cooder.

Recently, Los Cenzontles appeared with the Chieftains at a Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow, Scotland. It was their first foray into performing in Europe.

"It was a bit of a leap of faith for the Chieftains to invite us to play with them," said Eugene Rodriguez, co-founder of Los Cenzontles and one of its guitarists.

"It's a real natural fit having Mexican and Irish music together," he said. As their performance unfolded, Rodriguez said, it became instantly apparent that Moloney was onto a great concept with the "San Patricio" project.

"The cultures share a lot in common. Both have had rocky histories, both have cultures that are resilient and buoyant, and both are Catholic countries," Rodriguez said.

"There's also a lot of crossover in the music, in the sense of mood and rhythm, and especially the 6/8 rhythms, which you find in mariachi music," said Rodriguez.

The music of the two countries also share a strong tradition of storytelling through music.

For Moloney, that became clear during the recording sessions with Los Tigres Del Norte.

"We got to talking about customs, and I told them about my grandmother who lived up in the mountains and how we'd go there on holidays where there was no electricity or running water, and she used oil lamps and there would be music and songs after work each night," Moloney said.

"And all the members of Los Tigres, they said this is exactly what they remember doing, too. So that's when it all really started to gel."

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Call Bee arts critic Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071.

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To see more of The Sacramento Bee, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.sacbee.com/.

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