Ry Cooder and Paddy Moloney

In a California rehearsal studio two musical giants are limbering up for what looks to be one of 2010’s epic encounters. Playing acoustic guitar is Ry Cooder, the American owner of a ridiculously fabulous CV. On pipes is Paddy Moloney, leader of Irish trad’ supergroup, The Chieftains. The two musicians are old friends who have come together to create St Patricio, an album genuinely unlike anything else released in recent times.

How unlike? Well, firstly, St Patricio is a concept album. One focused on the 1846-48 Mexican-American War. Actually, one focused specifically on a battalion of Irish soldiers who deserted the US Army to fight for Mexico. I know, this sounds like Latin American Studies material. But San Patricio is worth the listener’s attention, offering up as it does a smorgasbord of musical talent. But first, back to the history lesson: why did the Irish join the Mexicans? Debatable. Either they were mercenary scum (US history) or proto-Che Guevaras (Mexican history) who recognised the war represented an unjust invasion. Throw in the religious element – Protestant North invading the Catholic South – and the subject begins to boil. Inevitably, things ended badly: the Mexicans’ lost the war and the US, in a massive land grab, acquired Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. Captured, the St Patrick’s Battalion were subject to mass hangings (or tortured and branded D (deserter) on both cheeks). Does all this sound somewhat similar to a more recent US military excursion? Yes, says Ry Cooder, very much so.

“The Mexican-American War was the first pre-emptive war. James Polk was a very modern President – he saw how he could intimidate Congress and work a propaganda campaign that made Americans feel the war was necessary and just. This has continued in the US and gone into overdrive this century with all kinds of totalitarian methods being employed. So now when some idiot sets fire to their underpants we willingly give up even more of our civil liberties. This is also,” continues Cooder, “when the US-Mexican border was first set up. All the issues we have about immigration today stem from this war and the St Patrick’s Brigade allows us, to some degree, to look at them.”

“There’s a museum of St Patricio in Mexico City,” says Maloney. “In Mexico they are regarded as martyrs while in the US this has been kept very quiet for a long time.”

“A secret history,” states Cooder.

“It is,” agrees Maloney, “a real secret history.”

Quite a handful then for a humble album to cover. What The Chieftains have attempted to do, with Cooder riding shotgun, is fashion a blend of Irish and Mexican traditional music forms alongside a dash of a historic narrative. The actor Liam Neeson reads a monologue, Clannad vocalist Moya Brennan sings a lullaby and Cooder delivers a winsome ballad. All this comes across as rather theatrical, a reminder why concept albums must be treated wearily. Thankfully, in the age of the iPod listeners can delete these tracks and get on with listening to the good stuff. Which there’s plenty of: St Patricio takes off when the Mexicans take over. There’s 92-year old vocalist (and Almodovar favourite) Chavela Vargas, soft-rock star Linda Ronstadt (her dad’s Mexican), the shimmering harp of La Negra Graciana, the fiery corridos of Los Tigres del Norte, the teardrop voice of Lila Downs. And much, much more. Put simply, St Patricio offers a great introduction to the regional wealth of Mexican music. Cooder agrees, reflecting with droll humour on his long love affair with south of the border sounds.

“Growing up in LA in the 60s was when I first got to hear all those great Mexican records. I knew there was a scene in East LA but I didn’t go there. I didn’t do anything back then but stay in my bedroom and play guitar. In the 1970s I teamed up with accordion player Flaco Jimenez for the Chicken Skin Music album and tour but my audience didn’t get it. Randy Newman told me ‘you’re committing commercial suicide’ and I said ‘what do you mean?’ He replied ‘fat Mexicans in leisure suits playing accordions – Warners will not stand for it!’ My role at Warners was obviously to be ‘guitar hero’. But I was so obtuse then that I didn’t realise this.”

Events proved Newman right and Cooder retreated from his solo career, spending much of the 1980s and 90s composing soundtracks for Walter Hill and Wim Wenders movies. Not a bad way to earn a living but the experience left him hungry. Re-entering the fray he has created beautiful music with musicians from Mali, India, Cuba and, especially, Mexico.

“I’ve been hanging out with Los Tigres del Norte,” says Cooder of the group whose willingness to sing about difficult political and social subject matter has won them huge popularity, “and I saw a whole new world – they are messengers, people love then. There is nothing like them in white pop. They’re like Pete Seeger to the nth. I love that music and so I’ll do anything to work with them. I said to the band, ‘guys, I’ll wash the bus, I’ll vacuum the floor, anything to stay on the road with you.’”

‘Los Tigres are new to me,” notes Maloney, “they’re one of the acts Ry brought in and we got on famously. They were fascinated by my pipes and we cut ten tunes off the cuff just like that. Recording with Mexicans’ is lovely – they bring all the family along so there are kids’ running around the studio and wives’ breaking out sandwiches.”

St Patricio initially grew out of research Maloney conducted on the US Civil War, “because so many songs that entered US folk music came from immigrant Irish soldiers singing them in that era. Then I came across the Mexican-American War and the Saint Pat’s Battalion – it fascinated me. I held onto the idea for ages and then, twelve years ago, the Mexican and Irish governments issued stamps to commemorate the St Pat’s Brigade’s 150th anniversary. That reminded me I really had to do something. Ry worked with us on our album Santiago and I mentioned them to him. He said, ‘you really should do this!’”

Cooder’s production of Buena Vista Social Club introduced Cuban music to an international audience. Does he believe St Patricio could do the same for Mexican music?

“Buena Vista’s success surprised me because people are brought up to see Cuba as ‘the enemy’. But the musicians were such great characters, total musicians, and the music was intimate and welcoming – so unlike the Latin music that comes out of Miami, noisy, brassy junk. With Mexico, well, Americans tend to be invisible to Mexican culture – they see them only as gardeners, cleaners and illegal immigrants. If St Patricio does show them the beauty of Mexican music, well that would be something. The Chieftains have a loyal and large audience who will follow them anywhere so let’s see.”

Maloney agrees. “We’re new to Mexican music but already I’ve found many similarities with Irish music. I can’t wait to get this on the road.”

St Patricio is released by Concord Records

Garth Cartwright is the author of More Miles Than Money: Journeys Through American Music (Serpents Tail)