Listening to The Chieftains with Ry Cooder

To be honest,  I’ve never been the world’s greatest Chieftains fan.  I guess I was always a bit intimidated by their authenticity.  To be equally honest, I thought they were in semi-retirement these days, but a mate of mine was kind enough to buy me a copy of the new Chieftains CD ‘San Patricio’ as a birthday present and I have to say it is terrific.  Produced by Chieftains main man Paddy Moloney and Ry Cooder, ‘San Patricio’ tells the story of a group of Irish incomers who had fled the potato famine in their homeland and headed across the Atlantic, only to find themselves falling on hard times and effectively forced to sign up for the US Army in the 1846-1848 war with Mexico.

At some point, it must have dawned on these men that they were Catholic Irish fighting against Catholic Mexicans, so a substantial number of them defected across the Rio Grande and sided with Santa Ana’s forces.  It did not end well for them as the Americans won the war and most of the San Patricios were cornered at the fort of Churubusco and either killed or captured.  Those that survived were eventually court-martialled for desertion and either hung or branded on both cheeks with the letter ‘D’ (for ‘Deserter’).  Just another of America’s forgotten stories.

So much for the history.  As for the music, it has to be said that the Mexican themes are the predominant ones here.  In fact, had I not known in advance that this was a Chieftains album, I would have been quite surprised to learn of this fact.  Ry Cooder has worked with The Chieftains before, going back to 1995 and the 1997 ‘Santiago’ album.  He and Paddy Moloney have assembled a rare gathering of collaborators here  with vocal turns from the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Los Tigres del Norte, Lila Downs and a recitation from Liam Neeson.  Long time Cooder associate Van Dyke Parks also puts in an appearance, contributing piano and accordion and Cooder himself sings and plays guitar.

The overall tone of the album is rather more Mexican than Irish and it’s a terrific listen.  The whole album concludes with a five-and-three-quarter minute ‘Finale’ which features a Mexican ‘pipe’ band and uilleann pipes playing a deranged version of ‘La Cucaracha’.  Extraordinary stuff.

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