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Border Crossing

Irish music legends The Chieftains spice up their sound with a trip to Mexico.

Author K. Leander Williams Illustration Sean Mccabe

THE CHIEFTAINS TEND to make friends wherever they go. In a career that now spans 48 years, Ireland’s premier traditional band has not only exported the folk songs of the Emerald Isle all over the world, it has jammed with everyone from Van Morrison and Elvis Costello to a who’s who of like-minded musicians from Nashville, Cuba and around the globe.

“Everything we’ve done has a connection to the heritage of the Irish people, though,” says Paddy Moloney, the four-piece band’s piper, accordionist and cofounder. “We never really depart from who and what we are.”

The story behind the music on San Patricio, the Chieftains’ new album, is a case in point. A mix of traditional Mexican dances and ballads featuring numerous Mexican collaborators, the record is a tribute to the St. Patrick’s Battalion, a group of mid-19th century European conscripts (many of them Irish) who deserted the U.S. Army to fight for Mexico during the Mexican- American War.

When America won the war, grabbing Texas in the process, many San Patricios were tried as traitors. But the battalion has long been lionized in Mexico. “Back in 1997, the Mexican government issued a postage stamp commemorating them,” Moloney explains. “And one of the places we recorded is a convent in the town of Churubusco, where a battle was fought. It’s now a museum, and we were able to play with Banda de Gaitas del Batallón de San Patricio, the military pipe band that’s in residence there.”

The album blends the two cultures, bringing the Chieftains’ style to traditional songs the San Patricios might have heard. In addition to Mexican stars such as Los Tigres del Norte, Lila Downs and Mariachi Santa Fe de Jesus Guzman, the album features Linda Ronstadt (whose father is Mexican) and guitarist-producer Ry Cooder, a friend and longtime collaborator whose original song, “The Sands of Mexico,” fits nicely with excavated tunes such as “El Chivo” and “Persecucíon de Villa.” “Some pieces sound like our own Irish folk dances,” says Moloney, astonished by the similarities.

The album’s epic centerpiece, “March to Battle (Across the Rio Grande),” combines thundering Irish martial rhythms with narration by Northern Ireland–born actor Liam Neeson, who saw cinematic potential in the story of the forgotten fighters. Moloney laughs while remembering Neeson’s rather pointed comment during the recording process: “‘If you ever want to turn this into a movie,’ he told me, ‘count me in.’”

K. LEANDER WILLIAMS likes his corned beef with a smidge of pico de gallo.

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