Wednesday, 14 April 2010

The Chieftains San Patricio (4.5*)

San Patricio

If there's a problem with world music it's the fact that there is, quite literally, a world of it out there. If you're looking to pursue an active interest in its various branches and genres you'll need to be cashed up, time rich and in regular contact with a community of like-minded individuals who can help you keep up with what's going on.

Having found myself increasingly cash-strapped, shelf-space-poor and following too many parallel interests, it's hardly surprising that Hughesy's collection tends to be spotty when it comes to world music so it's no wonder that while I've enjoyed most of what I've heard my contact with The Chieftains has been sporadic.

A cassette copy of their Irish Heartbeat collaboration with Van Morrison, some tracks on The Long Journey Home soundtrack, and a copy of Down The Old Plank Road: The Nashville Sessions I found in a cut-out bin pretty well pulls it up.

With a discography that goes back as far as 1964, there's no way that a collector's going to be filling in the gaps in a collection all at once, but we try to keep abreast of what's coming out and in that regard a daily earful of Lucky Oceans and The Planet on Radio National is a valuable extra string to the resources bow.

My completist tendencies haven't quite stretched as far as finding copies of absolutely everything Ry Cooder has played on, so while I knew Cooder had contributed a song to San Patricio I wasn't gong to head out and buy it on that basis alone, so it wasn't until Lucky made it the album of the week a fortnight or so back that I decided to take the purchasing plunge.

Having done, in the words of my tattered Rolling Stone Album Guide, more to further the spread of Irish traditional music than anything since the potato famine it was probably only a matter of time before Paddy Moloney and colleagues found their way to Mexico and the story of the band of Irish deserters who fought on the Mexican side against the United States during the Mexican-American war of 1846-48.

It's not as if the Irish presence in Latin America is confined to the San Patricios. One of Chile's founding fathers was the wonderfully named Bernardo O'Higgins, and an Irish battalion found its way into the Venezuelan War of Independence. Much earlier Juan and Tomás Farrel had been members of the expedition that arrived in the River Plate in 1536 and founded Buenos Aires.

And it's also not as if the San Patricio Battalion, which wasn't entirely made up of US army deserters, was the only link between the Irish and Mexican nationalists. Irishmen had settled in Mexican Texas before the Revolution of 1835-36 and remained loyal to Mexico since they saw themselves as Mexicans through marriage, commercial contacts, owed their land grants to the Mexican government, and had closer ties to their Catholic Mexican neighbours than Protestant Americans pushing for autonomy.

Irish immigrants who left their homeland during the Potato Famine of 1845 to begin new lives in America probably weren't totally chuffed to find themselves drafted into fighting in the Mexican-American War under conditions of bigotry that were uncomfortably close to what they'd left behind in Ireland.

Encouraged by Mexican offers of land grants, promises of promotion and Catholic partisanship hundreds of Irish crossed over to the Mexican side to fight under a green banner emblazoned with an Irish harp and a shamrock under the leadership of John O'Reilly, a deserter from the British army in Canada. The San Patricios won decorations for courage in the battle of Buena Vista, and suffered heavy casualties in Churubusco, after which seventy-two survivors were court martialled and fifty hanged.

That’s enough background. What it’s all about is, of course, the music, which comprises a couple of bespoke compositions and a musical tour of Mexico that explores the ways Irish instruments can integrate themselves into traditional Mexican material.

Actually, it works pretty well as a listening experience from the opening La Iguana with guest vocals from Lila Downs to the Finale, where The Chieftains are joined by Banda de Gaita de Batallón, along with just about everybody who’s turned up along the way.

In between, there's La Golondrina, where the added ingredient comes in the form of Los Folkloristas who appear to be the Mexican equivalent of The Chieftains (the chorus has a definite Irish lilt) and A la Orilla de un Palmar with a charming vocal from Linda Ronstadt over combined Irish and Mexican harps. It’s a reminder, if one is needed that La Ronstadt can definitely sing (but we already knew that, didn't we?). No idea of what the words mean, of course, but it sounds lovely.

Los Folkloristas are back for Danza de Concheros, while vocals from Los Cenzontles tie in comfortably with Celtic reels and Spanish dance rhythms on El Chivo. Harmonies between the gaita (Galician bagpipes) and Moloney's uilleann pipes work nicely on San Campio (which is the first of three successive tracks where the writing credits don't start with Trad. arr.) before Ry Cooder contributes The Sands of Mexico, a fairly straightforward telling the story of the rebel battalion from the foot of the gallows.

Sailing to Mexico has whistles and Irish pipes playing off each other, while Los Camperos de Valles add falsetto vocals to El Caballo before the pipes and percussion of Banda de Gaita de Batallón lead into Liam Neeson's narration of the San Patricio's story as they March to Battle (Across the Rio Grande), which in turn leads into a heartfelt vocal reply from ex-Clannad vocalist Moya Brennan on Lullaby for the Dead.

Ninety-two-year-old Chevela Vargas provides the vocal for Luz de Luna and sounds her age, and while Persecución de Villa is well out of the San Patricios timeframe (the Mexican Revolutionary general it celebrates wasn’t even born when the San Patricios were in action), the mariachi stylings add another interesting sonic element.

Ry Cooder used Canción Mixteca as far back as his Paris, Texas soundtrack, but this time norteño band Los Tigres Del Norte kicks in after an introductory run through the tune by Cooder's acoustic guitar with accordion from Van Dyke Parks in the background.

Los Cenzontles are back for Ojitos Negros, Lila Downs returns to the vocal booth for El Relampago while the harp and vocals of La Negra Graciana are featured on El Pájaro Cu before the Finale rolls around, working through a number of familiar themes and providing a six minute closing statement.

Altogether, this is an intriguing exploration of Mexican music, extending beyond mariachi or norteño styles with the Irish players adding light and shade to Mexican tunes and instruments. It's a mix that works well and has turned up a number of leads to pursue over the next couple of years.

Highly recommended.