Interview: Ry Cooder - Viva Mexico

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'THIS music, it's the greatest thing in the world – better than sliced bread, or gasoline for your car or shoes even." This is maverick guitarist Ry Cooder's view of the San Patricio Project, his collaboration with the Chieftains which will be given its first outing at Celtic Connections this month.

• Ry Cooder. Picture: Complimentary

The San Patricio Project maps the story through music of a group of Irish immigrants, who found themselves pressed into military service in the Mexican-US war of 1846. A year later they abandoned the Americans to fight for the Mexican side, identifying with their cause through shared conscience, Catholicism and hopes of land. They lost the battle; those who survived were captured, with many of them court-martialled and hung for desertion.

Both Cooder and Chieftains band leader Paddy Moloney express similar passion for the vibrant messages of Mexican music and the contemporary political resonance of the story. "You can find all the days of your life chronicled in it," says Cooder. "It's this emotional thing and if you hear it live and, better, if you get it down on record, you got it forever."

San Patricio is, however, very much Paddy Moloney's project; he has had the San Patricio story working away in his imagination for almost 15 years, "thinking all the time there would have been music and in the music there'd be a shared history". It is clear from his anecdotes that there has been fantastic musical chemistry while recording the disc in Mexico, New York, Ireland and Spain.

Moloney has always been a musical wanderlust, intrigued by the journeys of the Irish Diaspora. The San Patricio story has given him an opportunity to work with a host of original Mexican artists from both sides of the border. Their vibrant music – embodied in thriving local traditions – embraces myriad irresistible folk styles.

The resulting meeting of Irish and Mexican cultures reveals that the two countries have a shared affinity for haunting melodies and catchy dance rhythms played on fiddles, harps, guitars, flutes, whistles, brass and percussion of all sorts. Moloney's research on the project led him to some extraordinary, lesser-known folk artists first recorded in the early 1990s by Mexico's intrepid Corason record label. His manager, Steve Markham, introduced him to the award-winning Lila Downs, who has brought Mexican traditions to a world music audience, while Cooder pointed him in the direction of the massively popular Mexican band Los Tigres Del Norte.

Moloney tells me he was knocked out when he went to Mexico to meet and record with pioneering groups like Los Folkloristas, classic trio Los Camperos del Valle and harpist La Negra Graciana. He was flabbergasted to meet the young members of the San Patricio Battalion pipe band, founded in 1997 in Churubusco, Mexico City, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the famous battle. They play a Lullaby For The Dead over which Liam Neeson narrates a dramatic poetic monologue by Irish novelist and composer Brendan Graham.

Moloney and Cooder have collaborated before, notably in 1995 when Cooder added his distinctive slide guitar sound to the Chieftains' Long Black Veil. Moloney later played flute on Cooder's My Name Is Buddy (the Cat) project.

Cooder's own strong attachment to Mexican music dates way back, notably to his work over a long period with Tex-Mex accordionist Flajo Jimnez. For his folk-blues score for Wim Wenders's film Paris, Texas, Cooder found an old Mexican song called the Cancin Mixteca. "Paddy asked me for that song for San Patricio and it's perfect as it sums up why Mexican music is so amazing and why I love it so much," says Cooder.

"They have this beautiful Spanish language for singing, romantic and languid, and I have never ever met a Mexican person who does not know that song. It tells the immigrant story and it's the kind of song you hear when Mexican families and friends sit around as they do and sing. It's rooted in everyone's lives, back to their grandfathers and earlier, and I have gotten to play it better over the years. It's not exactly of the San Patricio period but this isn't the History Channel and it enlarges the scope of the record."

For Cooder, living in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, the Mexican-American war is reflected in today's US immigration and border politics. "You know these are Mexican territories originally and now they're 80 per cent Spanish speaking. And we've been through all that history over long years with the expulsion of the Mexicans and now they've built this wall at the border which keeps getting higher in some places."

The project has two prongs to it – a record which fluently sequences various artists whose music offers different angles to the San Patricio story; and Chieftains concerts in different places which will play the music whenever feasible with different musicians involved. Joining the band, and Cooder, in Glasgow will be Los Cenzontles (The Mocking Birds) a young roots group who play on the record, and who capture the energy of today's Mexican-American scene, teaching and honing their craft at California's renowned Mexican Arts centre.

Moloney and Cooder were introduced to the band by long-time friend Linda Ronstadt. For the San Patricio album, Ronstadt sings the classic ranchera A La Orilla De Un Palmar, which her grandfather taught her. Moloney tells me a funny anecdote about when The Chieftains played with Los Cenzontles last year at the San Francisco Blue Grass and Old Time Festival. "There were about 45,000 people gathered at our stage and Ry was in the audience and we did the Cenzontles song El Chivo (the Goat), with amazing dancing. And afterwards Ry said, in that way he has, 'Paddy I want to talk to you.' And I thought, 'Oh hell, he's going to tell me he didn't like it.' And then he says, 'Paddy that was the best thing!'"

While Cooder has toured recently with Nick Lowe, he's always focused more on making records and – to the annoyance of many fans – has not actively promoted albums such as Chvez Ravine and I, Flathead. I ask him why he's decided to come to play a one-off concert in Glasgow in mid-winter. He says he's heard good things about Celtic Connections and is curious to see how the Glasgow crowd take the music.

"They haven't heard it in advance so it's going to be new to them," he says. "Plus you know a musician has got to play music, that's what we're here for. And I said to Paddy, 'We got to bring that message around as people don't know or understand enough about the past and its relevance, they're too busy making a living or texting their friends.'

"One way to get their attention is through a good record and a message and, well, I like to point the finger of scorn, and maybe this will be a stop on the road to perdition if people stop and listen as this music has incredible power."

&#149 The Chieftains, Ry Cooder and Los Cenzontles play Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Tuesday 26 January, as part of the Celtic Connections festival. San Patricio will be released on Fantasy on 8 March.

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