Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on November 2012Paddy Moloney is coming off a late night with the Japan Uilleann Pipers Club. But that doesn’t stop the chipper 74-year-old from pulling out his whistle to illustrate a few of the songs The Chieftains will perform in their 50th anniversary concerts later this month.
“People say there’s something in the music that gets you in the gut,” the bandleader muses at his Japanese promoters’ Aoyama office when asked the secret to the Irish folk music juggernaut’s world-bestriding success.
Moloney (pictured, center) tells Metropolis it’s the shared melodies and rhythms Celtic music finds in the most unlikely places that provide the basis for The Chieftains’ achievements. Over five decades the group has six Grammys, collaborations with the Rolling Stones and a concert for Pope John Paul II in front of a million people under its belt.
“I’ve found identical melodies in Indian and Korean tunes,” he chuckles. “The Inuit also do this throat singing, and these girls came down with babies on their backs, but some of their tunes were identical to Kerry slides from the south of Ireland, so I was able to match them. Where does it stop? I don’t know and I’m discovering new synergies all the time.”
For The Chieftains’ latest album, the group looked closer to home. Voice of Ages finds them working with hip young Western neo-folkies including Bon Iver and The Decemberists.
“I was very surprised how this last one turned out with this new generation,” Moloney says, “because I haven’t been happy with most of the pop I’ve been hearing—terrible stuff.”
The band was initially preparing an album of traditional music to celebrate its 50th anniversary, but things turned in a different direction. “Somebody sent me these indie bands’ albums and I was so pleasantly amazed with groups like Bon Iver,” he says. “I was able to send them tunes that fit their music.”
“These are all young people in their 20s and 30s, and they are looking to get back to melodies and proper music. So this to me was a huge opportunity to connect with young musicians.”
Despite their countless collaborations, The Chieftains stubbornly preserve their role as guardians of traditional Irish culture. “People admire us for not going into rock music,” Moloney says. “We’ve had opportunities, record companies knocking on the door saying, ‘Come on, put some electric guitar on this,’ but we’ve avoided it.”
“You might say why not? But the Chieftains sound is still there. And on account of doing explorations into country and other genres, we can touch on many styles in our concerts.”
In a career that overlapped with the worst of Ireland’s “Troubles,” the Chieftains were also uncompromising in their refusal to get drawn into Catholic-Protestant conflict.
“I always kept away from politics and religion,” Moloney says. “As a result we were probably the only group of our kind to play a mixed audience in Belfast. One of the senior unionist guys was one of our biggest fans and when we did our 25 years celebration he came down and spoke. He said this and that, but that music is music.”
For the upcoming two-week tour The Chieftains will play in Shibuya with taiko drum master Eitetsu Hayashi, followed a week later by a night featuring the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra. The Tokyo dates wind up with a set accompanied by eccentric jazz pianist Akiko Yano in suburban Hachioji.
The rare orchestral concert promises to be particularly special. “People think it’s very quiet and formal, but it’s even more joyful than a regular Chieftains concert,” Moloney enthuses. “It’s got lots of humor, and dancing and singing. Once we get the invitation—we can’t afford to hire an orchestra—we can’t refuse.”
When not gigging at a glittering Tokyo concert hall or appearing on the occasional Japanese “wide” show, Moloney can be found with some of the friends he’s made here in over two decades of touring the country.
“I was walking outside the hotel ten years ago and heard these Uilleann pipes and thought someone must be following me,” he recounts. “There was a guy with his girlfriend playing pipes in the doorway, and I went up to him and said, ‘I’ll play and you blow.’ He was so surprised. So we had a fan club meeting last night and there were all these young people playing and I played along with them. It was lovely.”