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The Chieftains... out of this world!


High kings: The Chieftains

High kings: The Chieftains

High kings: The Chieftains

As they celebrate an extraordinary half-century in the music business, The Chieftains have finally conquered the final frontier -- yes, they're big in space.

Their star-studded new album Voice Of Ages features female NASA astronaut Cady Coleman playing the flute aboard the International Space Station as it orbits the earth.

Between the jigs and the reels, Paddy Moloney, Sean Keane, Matt Molloy and Kevin Conneff then added the rest of the instruments on terra firma, completing an amazing story that is a perfect metaphor for how far they've come since they began their musical journey way back in 1962.

On the phone from a studio in Florida preparing for the band's latest US tour -- they play Dublin's Grand Canal Theatre in May -- founder member Paddy Moloney (71) is explaining how this mind-boggling sci-fi collaboration came about.

"Cady Coleman asked Matt (Molloy, Chieftains flautist) if he had a flute she could bring up on to the International Space Station," says Paddy. "Then she asked me if I had a tin whistle. I gave her some tunes, like 'Fanny Power', the Carolan piece.

"I get this phone call one evening in March. I had a night off and I'd had a few glasses of wine in a restaurant in New York. She says 'I'm right over you!' I said, 'Come off it, Cady, you're having me on'. I couldn't believe it -- she was crystal clear when she spoke. The waiter was chuckling away thinking I'd had a few too many! I said here, say hello to her. He was flabbergasted!

"Then on St Patrick's night we were playing Toronto. Cady sent a video to Matt's iPad. 'I'm Cady Coleman!' It's on the DVD. Her hair is sticking up as she floats off into a corner in the space station. I brought her back down to earth and put The Chieftains on it.

"In the Kennedy Space Centre, she's going to present us with the flute and play the tune, of course. We're going to show the video in the Kennedy Centre and the proceeds from that track are being donated to a children's choir in Haiti."

It's impossible to overstate just how important The Chieftains have been in popularising Irish traditional music around the globe (and above it!).

For five decades, Paddy and co have been one of our pre-eminent cultural ambassadors, especially in North America, where they have forged a lasting bond with several generations of Irish-Americans.

It all started 50 years ago when impresario Garech de Brun set up Claddagh Records and offered Paddy Moloney complete musical freedom to realise his dream of bringing Irish trad and folk music to the world stage.

To celebrate reaching this auspicious milestone, Paddy hooked up with legendary US-based producer T-Bone Burnett (the man behind the gazillion-selling soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou), who suggested collaborations with several hip young artists, from Grammy-winning Bon Iver and The Decemberists to Paolo Nutini and local heroes Lisa Hannigan and Imelda May, all of whom jumped at the chance to work with the veteran Irish group.

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"We recorded 'When The Ship Comes In' in Seattle with The Decemberists. It was a Bob Dylan song that he wrote for Tommy Makem. Tommy and the Clancy brothers gave Bob Dylan opportunities to get up and sing with them when he was starting off, which he appreciated.

"The song that Bon Iver sings -- 'Down In The Willow Gardens' -- the melody for that is 'Fair Mayo', which I included. I was down to the wire with the Bon Iver track. He's a real gentleman, a lovely guy.

"The Low Anthem sing 'School Days Over'. They're also going to do the Letterman Show as well with us. I went to Castlepark school in Dalkey where my little 10-year-old grandson is. I got the schoolkids to learn off the Irish lyrics. I remember learning it myself."

Paddy says that the anchor track on the new album is 'The Chieftains Reunion'. It squares the circle, so to speak, as it features several former members from the early days.

"We invited back Sean Potts who was a founder member," says Paddy. "He's in his early 80s now and he's still playing tremendous stuff. And there's Michael Tubridy who I used to tour Clare with back in 1966! We used to visit Willie Clancy and all these older musicians, most of whom have passed away now.

"And Barney McKenna from The Dubliners was originally a Chieftain in the late '50s. But then he grew the beard and off he went!"

I ask Paddy to take us back to the genesis of the group. What was he trying to achieve?

"I was all the time trying to put together the sound of The Chieftains using the instruments that traditional Irish music was played on for hundreds of years," he says.

"My grandfather was a flute player and [played] on the melodeon in the house. The Slieve Bloom mountains in Co Laois is where we used to go every summer to play house dances. I had the greatest time.

"Every evening there was storytelling and playing cards and then the music. My sisters would be there and the local lads. There'd be set dancing, and dust flying all over the place. It was only a wee cottage but to me it was a palace. They were great, great times."

The Chieftains play the Grand Canal Theatre, Dublin, on May 29. The Voice Of Ages is out now on Universal.

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