Chieftains write musical history with ‘San Patricio’


History, it’s often been observed, is written by victors, which might explain why an especially compelling chapter of the Mexican-American War remains so infrequently told, at least in the U.S.

The chapter in question is about the San Patricios, a company of Irish immigrants pressed into service by the U.S. Army. Ideologically opposed to the fight, they switched sides, choosing to stand alongside the Mexican military rather than the forces of their newly adopted homeland. When the conflict ended, the members of the battalion were executed for their desertion. Their deeds were largely forgotten, except among the people of the Churubusco region outside Mexico City who maintain a memorial to the San Patricios.

Now, Ireland’s celebrated ambassadors of borderless world music, the Chieftains, are seeking to change that with an ambitious new album, “San Patricio,” which tells the story of the troops through music.

“About 25 years ago, Trinity College [in Dublin] gave me an honorary doctorate, and they asked me to do a project about the Civil War, because so much music of the Civil War came from Irish songs,” Paddy Moloney, the group’s puckish 71-year-old leader and spokesman, said recently from Florida, where he typically spends winters to be near his children and grandchildren.

During his research, Moloney said, “I came across this story and it fascinated me, twice as much because there had been a similar case in Ireland, in County Galway, and that didn’t go down too well either.”

For “San Patricio,” the Chieftains, much as they have for the last three decades, reached out to a variety of guests, starting with Ry Cooder. The American roots musician not only plays and sings on the album, due March 9, but also co-produced it with Moloney after introducing him to many of the Latino performers who signed on to participate.

They include Lila Downs, Los Tigres del Norte, Spanish piper Carlos Nuñez, Los Folkloristas, the Bay Area-based Los Cenzontles, the 90-year-old cancion ranchera singer Chavela Vargas, as well as Latin-music-attuned American musicians Linda Ronstadt and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas.

Some of those guests will join the Irish band on its tour highlighting the “San Patricio” music, which gets underway next week in Northern California. It reaches the Southland for stops Feb. 21 at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts and the following night at Santa Barbara’s Granada Theater, then wraps on March 17 with a St. Patrick’s Day performance in New York City.

“The whole story of the San Patricios hasn’t been told in history books,” Moloney said. “I decided not to have a doom-and-gloom CD, but one with all the different colors of music with traditions of Mexico and Ireland, as well as telling this story.”

It’s a characteristically buoyant outing with the Chieftains, and another marvel of the group’s ability to exploit cultural commonalities rather than differences. The ebullient harp that opens the traditional “La Iguana,” sung by Downs, sounds equal parts Mexican and Irish; the Chieftains’ signature mix of fiddle, tin whistle and Uilleann (Irish) pipes blends seamlessly with the mariachi-like fiddles and guitars behind Downs’ voice. She also sings the traditional waltz-tempo son from Jalisco, “El Relámpago.”

“It’s very emotional for me in a sense,” Downs said in a separate interview from her home in Oaxaca, Mexico. “The Anglo-Scottish side of my family heritage has never been able to surface as much as it has doing this. It’s a beautiful opportunity for me to have those feelings merge when I listen to the music.”

Ronstadt chose “A la Orilla de un Palmar” (At the Edge of the Palm Grove), a song she grew up hearing her grandparents sing, and Cooder contributed two originals, one of which, “The Sands of Mexico,” adopts the voice of a San Patricio soldier, explaining the unit’s decision to follow their consciences rather than their commanding officers.

Moloney noted that many of the Irish soldiers were recent immigrants forced to leave their native country because of the great famine that ravaged the Emerald Isle in the mid-19th century.

“What happened was that when they get off the boat from Ireland, they were handed rifles and told ‘Off you go to shoot these Mexicans,’ ” he said. “They decided they didn’t like killing other Catholics on the orders of Protestant generals.”

Moloney drafted a couple of his countrymen for the project, including Clannad singer Moya Brennan for the heart-rending Irish air “Lullaby for the Dead,” the lament of a woman who has lost her love. He also tapped Liam Neeson to narrate “March to Battle (Across the Rio Grande),” a stirring processional composed by Moloney, masterfully pairing the Irish bodhran drum with the stentorian sound of a Mexican pipe-and-drum unit:

We’ve disappeared from history

Like footprints in the sand

But our song is in the tumbleweed

Our blood is in this land

But if in the desert moonlight

You see a ghostly band

We are the men who died for freedom

Across the Rio Grande

Moloney was surprised to learn that an early 20th century tribute to Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, “Persecución de Villa,” included on the album, has a melody virtually identical to “Kevin Barry,” a song from the same period about a young member of the Irish Republican Army executed for his role in fomenting rebellion.

It was a dramatic illustration of the payoff of collaborating with musicians, many of whom Moloney hadn’t worked with before. Despite language barriers and differing regional instruments, the performers turned out to be quite similar at their cores.

“When we met Los Tigres, we went out to dinner with them before recording,” Moloney said. “They’re almost 50 years together, like ourselves, and we started to talk about our customs.

“I told them about visiting my grandmother when I would I go on holidays,” he said. “She had a little cottage in the mountains in the midlands of Ireland, which had no electricity. It was a really small farm, and when all the work was done in the evening time, they would sit around and start telling stories. Eventually the fiddle would come off the dresser and the music and the dancing would start.

“They said it was exactly the same for them,” he said. “It broke down all the barriers.”