Chieftains' Paddy Moloney Talks Chart-Topping 'San Patricio'

Jon Michael Kondrath
The Chieftains' Paddy Maloney, Ry Cooder, and Los Tigres Del Norte

For the third consecutive week, The Chieftains' "San Patricio" tops the Billboard Top Latin Albums chart. The 19-track set 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.

How exactly does an Irish group top the Latin charts? "San Patricio" blends Mexican and Irish folk and its guest artist roster includes Linda Ronstadt, Lila Downs, Ry Cooder and Los Tigres del Norte. But the album's true success lies in its back story. Chieftains' leader Paddy Moloney recently told Billboard all about the San Patricios.

Where did the idea for "San Patricio" come from?

It took me two years to make the album, but the connection goes back a long way. I started thinking about this 30 years ago. I had a good friend of mine form Trinity College in Dublin. He was doing a lot of research on the American Civil War and all the Irish that fought the war. And this man, John Riley, he was drafted the minute he got off the plank and told to join the Union Army. And one of the things he wasn't too happy about was having to go shoot Catholic Mexicans. And he also saw the injustice of the whole war. And we had the same situation back in Ireland. With the neighbors who came to visit and forgot to go back. So, it was a different face, different region, but similar story.

The album is very Mexican-sounding. Was that the original idea?

Initially the way I was going to approach it was writing a symphony about what happened. And the nearest thing in the album would be the march [the track "March to Battle (Across the Rio Grande)], which tells about crossing the Rio Grande and part of the story of the San Patricios. I kept adding and adding to it and in the end over eight people were in that song, including Liam Neesson, who did the narration.

But the regional Mexican music, my whole feeling for this album changed after I got into it. I did Lila Downs first, and then got to hear more. And when I went there [to Mexico] I was introduced to other musicians I hadn't intended to record. And to hear these instruments, and the tunes they were playing, for God's sake. They go back to the 19th century.

The album is mostly in Spanish...

It's the first time I do an album almost entirely in another language. For me, language is one thing, but I go for the music. We've mixed Irish music with Chinese music [in the past]. I think this is a much more complete album where the Spanish has taken over. I'm a melody person and I love the structure, and I thought there was no problem whatsoever to blend it and make a fusion of our music with the Mexican music.

You had worked with Ry Cooder before, in 1996's "Santiago," when you went to Cuba together, and incidentally, where he met many of the musicians that would later be in "Buena Vista Social Club." How did he contribute to this project?

Ry [who plays guitar on several tracks] came on board when album was more than half done. But I was still short of certain sounds. Los Tigres del Norte, for example, was his friend. And Linda, who has recorded with us in the past. And Ry had been after me with a big stick to finish this. So, when Ry came along I was well on the way, but I still didn't have Los Tigres or [folk group] Los Cenzontles.

You've also done shows with Mexican dancers?

We have Mexican dancers, and then my Irish dancers. And we used to do a reel, and now we do our Mexican dance tune which is our finale, and people could dance to that. And it's super! It's a great come-together.

How are your traditional fans reacting to the album?

People back home are loving it. People in Europe are loving it. It [the way the San Patricios were treated] was kind of a shameful thing. And then to hang 40-50 Irish people for desertion. The story should be told.