Recording with The Chieftains and Lila Downs
It’s Saint Patrick’s Day again and it’s hard to believe a whole year has gone by since the amazing CD “San Patricio” was released by Paddy Moloney and The Chieftains. My auspicious involvement in this instant classic happened through Lila Downs, the Mexican-American singer-songwriter superstar who invited me to join her and her band at Clinton Studios in Manhattan for a full day of recording with Paddy Moloney and some other Chieftains. The Villalobos Brothers had opened for Lila at Celebrate Brooklyn, so when she called and invited me to be a part of this session I was ecstatic.
“El Batallón de San Patricio” or The Saint Patrick’s Battalion was actually a renegade brigade of the American Army; soldiers gone AWOL who decided to side with the Mexican troops in the Mexican-American war (1846 to 1848). Considered traitors by American history books, this recording actually celebrates that fateful link between the two countries, and explores the similarities in our music.
I love this review by Sospanyol, a fan from New Mexico:
Ry Cooder and Paddy Maloney saw other similarities between the Irish immigrants and today’s Mexican immigrants: Their second-class treatment in the US, similarities of sentiment (love of country, homesickness) and their rich cultural histories.
They invited some well-known Mexican and Chicano artists to collaborate in the making of the cd and dvd, including Los Tigres del Norte, who have been the voice of the Mexican people and Mexican immigrants in the US for over 30 years; Linda Ronstadt, Lila Downs; the great Chavela Vargas, now in her 80’s; and other regional Mexican musicians. The music is awesome, the dvd is an absolute joy to watch: Cooder and Maloney discussing the project and serious musicians from different cultures enjoying each other’s company and artistry. If I had to use just three words to describe San Patricio, they would be Joy, Respect and Brotherhood (which includes sisters). Most of the music is in Spanish.”
Today, I would like to give you a taste of the album, in particular of one of the tracks where I recorded violin, jarana and voice with Paddy, Lila and a truly amazing group of musicians.
This is a teaser clip of “La Iguana”, a staple of the “Son Jarocho” music from my home state of Veracruz totally transformed by the Irish sounds! – – featuring Lila Downs singing lead vocals; Paddy Moloney on the uilleann pipes and tin whistle; Seán Keane – fiddle; Matt Molloy – flute; Kevin Conneff – bodhrán; Yayo Serka – cajon; Celso Duarte – harp, vocals; Edmar Castaneda – harp; Robert Curto – accordion; John Pilatzke – fiddle; Ernesto Villalobos – violin, jarana; Samuel Torres – conga, maracas; Carlos Henderson – bass; Juancho Herrera – guitar, vocals; Paul Cohen – vocals.
This track was recorded by Jeffrey Lesser at Clinton Studios, New York, NY, Associate Engineer – Bart Migal. Additional recording by Brian Masterson at Soundscape Studios, Dublin, Ireland.
The musical souls of two nations, Ireland and Mexico, are movingly brought to life in San Patricio, the latest international collaboration by six-time Grammy winners The Chieftains – the leading practitioners of Irish traditional music for the past four decades. The album features multi-instrumentalist, singer and composer Ry Cooder, another multiple-Grammy winner, who co-produced with The Chieftains’ Paddy Moloney. It tells the nearly forgotten story of the brave San Patricio battalion – a downtrodden group of Irish immigrant conscripts who deserted the U.S. Army in 1846 to fight on the Mexican side against the invading Yankees in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).
1/LA IGUANA – with Lila Downs (3:34)
– with Los Folkloristas (3:08)
3/A LA ORILLA DE UN PALMAR
– with Linda Ronstadt (3:32)
4/DANZA DE CONCHEROS – with Los Folkloristas (1:30)
5/EL CHIVO – with Los Cenzontles (2:05)
6/SAN CAMPIO – with Carlos Núñez (2:46)
7/THE SANDS OF MEXICO – with Ry Cooder (4:47)
8/SAILING TO MEXICO – with Carlos Núñez (2:01)
9/EL CABALLO – with Los Camperos de Valles (2:41)
10/MARCH TO BATTLE (ACROSS THE RIO GRANDE) – with Banda de Gaita de Batallón de San Patricio, Liam Neeson, Los Cenzontles and L.A. Juvenil (4:11)
11/LULLABY FOR THE DEAD – with Moya Brennan (4:37)
12/LUZ DE LUNA – with Chavela Vargas (3:30)
13/PERSECUCIÓN DE VILLA – with Mariachi Santa Fe de Jesus (Chuy) Guzman (2:56)
14/CANCIÓN MIXTECA (INTRO) – with Ry Cooder (2:55)
15/CANCIÓN MIXTECA – with Los Tigres Del Norte (3:14)
16/OJITOS NEGROS – with Los Cenzontles (2:25)
17/EL RELAMPAGO – with Lila Downs (3:16)
18/EL PÁJARO CU – with La Negra Graciana (2:36)
19/FINALE – with Los Cenzontles, Carlos Núñez, Los Folkloristas, Banda de Gaita de Batallón de San Patricio and L.A. Juvenil (5:47)
I would also like to share Paddy’s foreword to the album:
To this day the story of the San Patricios is a little discussed and even less understood footnote in the greater panorama of American Westward expansion. During the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 Captain John Riley and a small battalion of soldiers abandoned their pasts and futures in the burgeoning United States of America and followed their conscience – or their fortune perhaps – across the Rio Grande to fight side by side with the Mexican army under the command of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana. Reviled by the Manifest Destiny minded America of the day as traitors and deserters they have largely been forgotten in the retelling of history. But to generations of Mexicans and Irish they are remembered to this day as heroes who fought bravely against an unjust and thinly veiled war of aggression. While the San Patricios were comprised of the displaced, the downtrodden and the devil-may-care from many nations, runaway slaves among them, the majority were made up of Irishmen recently arrived in America. Driven from their homeland after years of oppressive occupation and the devastating effects of the Irish Potato Famine, pressed into military service by poverty and circumstance, they often found themselves obliged to serve under officers with the same English and Protestant leanings they had suffered under at home. Mistreated and maligned as unwelcome and untrustworthy and asked to fight in a war few understood, it is not so difficult to imagine their motivation.For some it was a war of religion, for some it was a war of freedom and for others it was a war of adventure and opportunity. Ultimately for Mexico and the San Patricios it was a war of tragedy and great loss. After distinguishing themselves for skill and bravery in many hard-fought battles the battalion finally found themselves making their last stand at the fort of Churubusco alongside their embattled Mexican compatriots. Knowing their fate would be sealed in defeat they fought on against the inevitable, some say they were captured only after their ammunition had been exhausted, refusing to surrender. In a final show of patriotic disdain many of the surviving San Patricios were unceremoniously separated from the Mexican regulars, court-martialed for treason and made to pay the final price on the gallows. A select few were branded on both cheeks with the letter ‘D’ for deserter and left to their fate.
For years I have been fascinated by this story and the lost trails of history, wondering to myself what it must have been like for the San Patricios. Alone in the desert night, what were they dreaming of. Was it Gold. Was it God. Was it Glory. Did they think of home when they heard the mission bells ringing the call to Mass. Were the dark eyed senoritas an impossible comfort to imagine. With land and liberty at stake, did the common Mexican not seem so different from themselves. So many powerful emotions at play. Yet, for all of it, there must have been another life beyond the clash of arms.
If the Mexicans were there, there must have been music. I know for myself, if the Irish were there, there would most certainly have been music. And in the music there is always another history, another way of remembering the past, an older remembrance concerned less with battles and imagined borders and more with the ageless themes of love, loss and dreams of what might be.
It is a simple, or perhaps after all, a not so simple human commonality. When Ry said to me one day “Los Angeles is still a Mexican town,” he seemed the Voice of Ages. It was as if he had swept away hundreds of years of history like so much sand to reveal a New World, still undiscovered, in many ways impossible to comprehend but enchanting in its possibilities.
And so we find ourselves here so many years later in studios from Dublin to New York, from Spain to Mexico and finally from Los Angeles back to Dublin, singing the songs of the San Patricios in a thousand different voices, across dreams broken and begun again, across lands and lives far gone and perhaps only imagined… but still I think worth listening for.
March 17th, 2011