Paddy Moloney was given a tin whistle at the age of six, picked up the pipes at 10 and continued to play music as he grew up in Dublin. He considered music to be a hobby, and got a nine-to-five job as an accountant.
In 1962, his hobby became his lifelong career when he founded the traditional Irish band the Chieftains, who play tonight at the IU Auditorium. They have now been performing together for 53 years and have won six Grammys and one Oscar along the way.
“It was quite a risk, a traditional Irish music band, but it worked,” Moloney said. “We have a sound that’s unique. It’s international, you don’t have to be Irish to enjoy it.”
Japanese and Chinese fans are particularly interested in the Chieftains’ sound, Moloney said. In China, fans brought their albums and crowded to have them signed.
In Tokyo, a group of fans calls itself the Lady Chieftains and performs on traditional Irish instruments. Moloney said when he goes to Japan next year, he will invite the Lady Chieftains on stage to play with them.
The sound of the Chieftains has even been in space. In 2011, NASA astronaut Cady Coleman recorded herself playing Moloney’s tin whistle in the International Space Station on St. Patrick’s Day.
The Chieftains will also pay tribute to Nelson Mandela, who loved Irish music, Moloney said.
The concert will feature a jig that Moloney composed, titled “The Troublemaker’s Jig,” after Mandela’s middle name Rolihlahla, a Xhosa term that loosely translates to “troublemaker.” Moloney wrote the jig for an upcoming documentary on Mandela.
“We have a big show,” he said. “It’s not just three or four of us sitting on the stage playing music. Quite a lot of young people are joining us and giving us old guys a boot up.”
Guests include a full choir, bagpipe players and other musicians. Moloney called harpist Triona Marshall a red-headed genius and said singer Alyth McCormack has the voice of an angel.
Others include master fiddle players Jon and Nathan Pilatzke and Tara Breen and accordion player Tim Edey, who was named Best Traditional Musician by the BBC in 2012.
“We’re blessed with all of this happening, and it’s a great show, that’s all I can say,” Moloney said. “All of the music and the friendship and the people we meet have been building up during the years that we’ve been together.”
Artists continue to be interested in recording with the Chieftains, Moloney said. They have collaborated with artists like Van Morrison, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Sinead O’Connor.
On their more recent albums, they brought in artists like Bon Iver, the Decemberists and the Civil Wars.
Moloney said he never believed he would be able to achieve his dream of spreading this music. When he was a child in Dublin, playing traditional Irish music was not seen as a hip thing to do, but many artists around the world have accepted and popularized the music of his home.
“I wanted to achieve a sound that would be totally complementary to Irish music, the music I inherited from my grandfather,” he said. “This music was passed on to us.”