Tuesday, March 16, 2010
The Chieftains -- San Patricio
Let me get my one significant quibble about this album out of the way first. The artist billing on the CD cover of San Patricio is The Chieftains featuring Ry Cooder. But Cooder only plays on four of the 19 songs – including “The Sands of Mexico,” which he wrote and sings. His main contribution was co-producing the album with Paddy Moloney, the chief Chieftain. So don’t approach this album expecting to hear lots of Ry Cooder.
What you will hear, though, is the Chieftains collaborating with many other singers and bands in a unique fusion of Irish and Mexican folk music that is meant to recall the San Patricios, a small band of American soldiers – mostly recent Irish immigrants, but also from other countries, as well as some runaway slaves – who deserted from the American Army to fight for the Mexicans in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. After their last stand against the Americans, many of the surviving San Patricios were hung as traitors by the Americans while others were allowed to live after having their faces branded with the letter D for deserter. The San Patricios were reviled by the Americans but revered as folk heroes by the Irish and the Mexicans.
The actual story of the San Patricios is told in two of the album’s tracks: Cooder’s “The Sands of Mexico,” written and sung from the perspective of an Irish San Patricio soldier about to hanged who tells his story and states his conviction that history will absolve the San Patricios; and “March to the Battle (Across the Rio Grande),” featuring actor Liam Neeson’s narration in a poetic tribute to the perceived heroism of the San Patricios.
Other songs, mostly Mexican, some Irish, mostly traditional, some composed, feature the Chieftains musically interacting with some of the greatest Mexican or Mexican-American singers and musicians in a representation of the Irish-Mexican cultural fusion suggested by the idea of the San Patricios fighting for the Mexicans.
The combination of the Chieftains with their collaborators is brilliant, exciting and thrilling. Singer Lila Downs is heard on two exciting Mexican folksongs, “La Iguana” and “El Relampago,” while Linda Ronstadt’s singing on “A La Orilla de Un Palmar” is a thing of great beauty. Another of the most thrilling vocal tracks is “Ojitos Negros,” featuring the voices of Los Cenzontles singing almost a cappella but for Paddy Moloney’s pipe drones. “Persecución de Villa,” featuring the Mariachi Santa Fe de Jesus (Chuy) Guzman is a great track that has the Mariachi musicians interacting with the Chieftains on a song about the Mexican Revolution of 1910 (obviously not one that would have been sung at the time of the San Patricios). I could on about virtually every cut on the album.
The Chieftains have done many albums over the years that feature them in various collaborations. San Patricio is one of the most interesting and most exciting projects in their deep discography.