SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — As leading ambassadors of Ireland’s traditional music for half a century, the Chieftains have long been lauded for promoting and nurturing both folk and world music. Now they’re tackling the final frontier.
“The Chieftains in Orbit,” a song off their new album, “Voice of Ages,” was partially recorded aboard the International Space Station, on St. Patrick’s Day no less. The album was released last week as part of a celebration around the group’s 50th anniversary.
The song features astronaut Cady Coleman playing an Irish folk tune on a flute and tin whistle she borrowed from Chieftains’ founding member Paddy Moloney and flutist Matt Molloy before blast off.
“Matt had received this video of Cady Coleman on his iPad (from space), her hair floating, saying, ‘Hello, this is Cady, I’m wishing you all a happy St. Patrick’s Day,’” said founding member Moloney, 73, at his seaside hotel last week in Santa Barbara, where the Chieftains launched their U.S. tour on Feb. 17. (They’ll play St. Paddy’s Day, March 17, at Manhattan’s Carnegie Hall.)
The Chieftains are known for going well beyond the borders of Ireland for inspiration. Over a five-decade career, Moloney, Molloy and longtime core members Sean Keane and Kevin Conneff have explored the connective strains between their native music and that of England, Scotland and other parts of the globe including Appalachia, India and Japan.
The Chieftains have been equally catholic in their choices of collaborators, opening their arms to acts as varied as the Rolling Stones, country’s Chet Atkins and classical music titan Luciano Pavarotti.
Those collaborations have contributed to several of the six Grammy Awards bestowed on the group in traditional and contemporary folk, as well as world music categories, along with an Academy Award for their work on Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 film “Barry Lyndon.”
“Voice of Ages” connects the Chieftains with a who’s who of critically acclaimed young alt-rock, country and folk collaborators, including this year’s new artist Grammy winner Bon Iver and nominees from other categories including the Decemberists and the Civil Wars. Moloney co-produced many of the tracks with America’s modern-day roots music czar T Bone Burnett.
“We started to talk about the idea of these younger bands, and I got a bit nervous because I haven’t been mad about what’s been happening for 20 years. Music-wise, it’s not my thing,” said Moloney, who is often characterized as “elfin” for his stature and the effervescent and musical lilt in his voice. “We approached T Bone (and) pitched the idea to him: What about some of these young bands — would they suit the Chieftains? They sent me the CDs of their material, and when I heard the melodies, for me it was like going back to the early folk (days) in the ‘50s and ‘60s: The Clancy Brothers, Tommy Makem, that kind of stuff. The melodies are there — good stuff.”
The Chieftains came together out of a shared love for that “good stuff” — old music that was often relegated to tiny pubs and living rooms, music that had taken a back seat to the vibrant new sounds of rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and soul music. While the likes of Woody Guthrie, the Weavers, Pete Seeger and the Kingston Trio were revivifying decades or centuries old folk music in the U.S., Makem, the Clancy Brothers and others were charting a parallel path in Ireland.
Moloney, his light blue eyes complemented by neatly combed sandy gray hair, recalled being determined to assemble a group with a different makeup than the guitar-driven acts gaining popularity at the time. Over the course of several years, he settled on the pipes, tin whistle, the bodhran, fiddle and flute as the central elements of a fluid instrumental lineup in which each player typically handles several instruments.
Their 1962 debut album was considered a one-off project, but in the 1970s, the Chieftains became a full-time endeavor for the players, who are credited with raising the profile of Irish music to an equal plane with that of the indigenous music from around the world.
“I like to think that what we did was the same thing that (‘Zorba the Greek’ composer Mikis) Theodorakis did for traditional Greek music in the ‘50s,” Moloney said.
In their semicentennial year, Moloney and his band mates have no shortage of historically memorable moments of their own to reflect on: playing in front of an audience of about 1 million people in Dublin when Pope John Paul II visited in 1979, becoming the first music group to perform in the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C., and being the first western musicians to perform on the Great Wall of China.
But for Moloney, the 50th anniversary serves at least equally as a reminder of what’s still ahead. He’s long envisioned a cross-cultural composition bringing songs of India and Ireland together, and he’s still hoping to complete a long-gestating symphonic work rooted in the Irish experience of the Great Famine of the mid 19th century. Later this year will see the release of an album of poetry by 83-year-old poet John Montague, which also features 35 minutes of original music by Moloney. It is, he says, “the closest thing to a solo album I’ll do.”
He’s also dying to locate a recording he did in Los Angeles about two decades ago at the home studio of Frank Zappa, a fervent Chieftains fan who name-checked the group three times in his autobiography.
The session at Zappa’s house, Moloney said, included one number on which the Irish group and the iconoclastic rock provocateur teamed up with a group of Tuvan throat singers. If he finds the tape, he may have a title ready to go: “The Chieftains in Orbit — Again.”