MIAMI (Billboard) - The musical border between Latin and Irish culture has been crossed often by artists from both sides of the divide. But the connection has rarely, if ever, been brought to light as carefully as the Chieftains have done with their new album, “San Patricio.”
The 19-track set from Hear Music is a tribute to the San Patricios, the ill-fated battalion of mostly Irish soldiers who abandoned the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 and crossed the border to fight alongside the Mexicans.
Boosted by distribution through Starbucks, the album, released March 17 (St. Patrick’s Day), just completed its third week at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart, an unlikely position for perhaps the most celebrated Irish group in the world. This isn’t the first time the Chieftains have explored Irish-Latin links; in 1996, the group released the Grammy Award-winning “Santiago,” which examined Celtic ties to Spain’s Galicia region.
But “San Patricio” is their first album recorded predominantly in another language — Spanish. The group brought in a broad range of acts that focus on Mexican folk, including Lila Downs, Linda Ronstadt, Los Folkloristas, Los Cenzontles and Los Tigres del Norte. The collaborations produced an album that blends the sounds of Mexico and Ireland.
Underlying it all is the tragic history of the San Patricios, who, after losing their last battle, were sent to the gallows or branded with a “D” for “deserter.”
“It took me two years to make the album, but the connection goes back a long way,” Chieftains leader Paddy Moloney says, recounting the tale of San Patricio leader John Riley, who fled Ireland during the potato famine and was recruited into the Union Army the minute he got off the boat.
“He wasn’t too happy about having to go shoot Catholic Mexicans, and he also saw the injustice of the whole war,” Moloney says, noting that the story evoked comparisons to the British occupation of Ireland.
Moloney notes that as his research expanded, “San Patricio” increasingly took on a Mexican sound. When he brought in his friend Ry Cooder, with whom he had worked in Cuba on another project, the guitarist recommended Los Tigres del Norte.
“I remember when I would go visit my grandmother in this little cottage and the music would start after dinner,” Moloney says. “And all my cousins and sisters and everybody would be dancing and it was just brilliant. There was no electricity in the house, just the oil lamp. And (Los Tigres) would say, ‘That’s exactly how it was with us.’ So before we even played a note together there was a breakdown of so many barriers.”
For Moloney and the Chieftains, the Irish-Mexican connection will continue, with planned tour dates with Los Cenzontles and Mexican dancers this summer.
“The Mexican ambassador in Dublin told me a general had said if he had five more battalions like San Patricio, he would have won the war,” Moloney says.