The Chieftains featuring Ry Cooder, San Patricio (Hear Music 2010)

Over a career spanning nearly half a century, The Chieftains have established themselves as Ireland's most internationally revered folk music group. They have used their status to sort of appoint themselves cultural ambassadors, collaborating with musicians from around the world and across many genres on their recordings. In some ways, guitarist/producer Ry Cooder's career has followed a similar pattern. Best known as the producer and co-ordinator behind Buena Vista Social Club, a celebration of the folk music of Cuba, Cooder likewise enjoys sharing the spotlight with different musicians from different cultures. Cooder's previous album Chavez Ravine touted the music of the Mexican community in Los Angeles, and his interest in Mexican music led to his current collaboration with The Chieftains, called San Patricio. The album was inspired by the story of Irish immigrant soldiers in the Mexican-American War who came to sympathize with the plight of the Mexicans struggling against the American invaders. They changed sides, for both religious and moral reasons, but were defeated along with their Mexican allies; those who survived the battles were captured and hanged as deserters.

The music on San Patricio focuses on the kind of traditional pieces that would have been familiar to the San Patricios as mid 19th century Irish immigrants, and to the Mexicans whom they aided in vain. People familiar with Chieftains albums will recognize the pattern, as Paddy Maloney (whistles and pipes), Sean Keane (fiddle), Kevin Conneff (bodhrán), Matt Molloy (flute), and Tríona Marshall (harp) accompany a small army of guest performers. Most of these guests are Mexican, although Linda Rondstat sings a song in Spanish, Ry Cooder performs an original composition, and Moya Brennan sings a song from the Irish perspective. Galician piper Carlos Núñez, a frequently recurring guest on Chieftains recordings (Galicia is a Celtic region in Spain), also makes a few appearances as well. The best cameo, though, comes from actor Liam Neeson, who recites Brendan Graham's poem "March to Battle (Across the Rio Grande)" about the ill-fated San Patricios.

It takes a rare courage to choose to be on the losing side of history, but that's essentially what the San Patricios did. Yet their cause still resonates today. Neither The Chieftains, nor Ry Cooder, nor anybody else who worked on San Patricio needs to be reminded of the conflicts which Mexicans and people of Mexican descent face in America right now, especially in the territories that were taken from Mexico without any sort of justification. So the political statement here is obvious, and greatly appreciated at least by me. As far as the music goes, it's a lot like many other Chieftains recordings -- perhaps too much so to really distinguish itself. Fans of The Chieftains will know exactly what to expect, and while this guarantees a certain level of quality, there's a lot of predictability here as well.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott

Behind the scenes of the making of San Patricio.

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