Ry Cooder and His Street-Corner Symphony of Old L.A.
By Bradley Bambarger <2005>
Ry Cooder is a master of musical reclamation, having dusted off everything from classic Tex-Mex and Hawaiian styles to folk-blues and, most famously, Cuban son. But the veteran guitarist/composer — and producer of Buena Vista Social Club — is also a man with a socio-political tale to tell.
Cooder’s new album, Chávez Ravine (Perro Verde/Nonesuch), brims with infectious Latin sounds, both vintage and futurist. Underlying the grooves, though, is a concept record about a vanished Los Angeles and the doubled-edged bulldozer of “progress.”
Chávez Ravine was a Mexican-American enclave in L.A. paved over in the ’50s to make way for Dodgers Stadium, with the residents displaced and their communal culture broken up. For Cooder, it’s a metaphor for an America strong-armed into history by big-business and official duplicity.
“What happened in the era of Chávez Ravine was the sowing of seeds for the world we have now,” says Cooder, 58. “It was when modern corporate fascism was born. It was when dissent was deemed anti-American, the age of Hoover-ism and McCarthy-ism. It was a time of when the poor were disempowered on a mass scale.
“Everybody says, ‘It can’t happen here.’ But you wake up one morning, and it has,” Cooder adds. “There’s politics in this record, but politics is part of life. We’re all affected by it, can’t get away from it. It’s the same old story, but people have short memories. Listen to all those Nixon apologists on cable.”
Cooder was born and raised in the Santa Monica area of Los Angeles, where he still lives. Chávez Ravine represents what Cooder sees as the lost L.A., a quieter, more intimate, almost bucolic town. “L.A. isn’t so much a city these days as it is an enormous shopping mall,” he says. “The highways are just a conveyer belt that draws everyone on to the next consumer transaction.”
There’s a weary disgust in Cooder’s voice when he talks about the civic injustices of old L.A. or the endless traffic of the contemporary city. Yet, for the record, he praises the “interesting food” in L.A. these days, as well as the “golden light” that blesses his ocean-side neighborhood. He adds, “I try to stay in a one-mile radius of my house.”
Cooder’s easy, generous conversation mirrors his new album’s charming lyricism — diatribe and didacticism are really foreign to both the man and his music. He plays his rootsy guitar and sings on Chávez Ravine (both soulfully and amusingly in character), and the tunes waft on a hybrid wind from conjunto and corrido to Latin pop, ’50s jazz and R&B. Joe McCarthy, Jack Webb, union strife and UFOs give the words a sense of time and place, as do rich references to Latin life on the street and in the home.
Cooder dove into his four-year research mission on Chávez Ravine after seeing an exhibit of period photographs of the area by Don Normark. The pictures stirred memories of a culture that he never experienced as a young kid but heard about via radio ads for Latino bands. “The Latin scene was in the air and in my head, even if I never went there,” he says, “just like the Western swing halls here and the old Central Avenue jazz scene.”
Vital for Chávez Ravine were collaborations with figures steeped in local lingo and imagery, such as William “Little Willie G.” Garcia. A vocalist with ’60s Chicano hit-makers Thee Midnighters, he sings several songs on Chávez Ravine, including a stylish take on Lieber & Stoller’s “Three Cool Cats.”
Garcia, 58, grew up in South Central L.A. but had relatives who lived in Chávez Ravine. He remembers the place as “a wonderfully multi-ethnic neighborhood. There were a lot of Mexican-Americans, but it was also a real melting pot, with Chinese, Filipinos, Italians, Swedes.”
Two Chávez Ravine highlights co-written by Garcia point to the album’s range. “Muy Fifi” deals with the eternal (a mother-daughter tussle about bad boys), whereas “Onda Callejera” is rooted in the period-specific (L.A.’s 1943 Zoot suit riots, when hundreds of sailors were sent by taxi to quell, or perhaps start, trouble).
Garcia says the goal was “to capture what the neighborhood would sound like if you were driving along the street windows down, overhearing conversations. Ry was out to make a street-corner symphony.”
Typical of Cooder’s work, Chávez Ravine was a collective effort. Past confederates Jim Keltner (drums), Flaco Jiménez (accordion) and Blau Pahinui (vocals, guitar) appear, along with such new friends as Mike Elizondo (bass). Los Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo guests, along with pianists Chucho Valdés and Jacky Terrasson.
Cooder’s son, Joachim, 26, provides percussion and electronics that morph the atmosphere from tropical to urban. Juliette Commagere, Joachim’s mate in the L.A. band Vagenius and the album’s secret weapon, sings like a bilingual bird.
But it’s the contributions by Latino elders that give Chávez Ravine the ring of truth. Some of the loveliest moments — such as “Muy Fifi” — come courtesy of singer Ersi Arvizu, of the ’60s Latina group The Sisters and, later, El Chicano. Garcia describes The Sisters as “East L.A.’s Supremes.”
Lalo Guerrero, dubbed the Father of Chicano music, wrote a song especially for Chávez Ravine, as well as sang two pertinent old tunes. Pachuco boogie bandleader Don Tosti contributed the spoken words of “the traveler” to “El UFO Cayó.” These were the octogenarians’ last sessions, with Guerrero dying in March and Tosti passing last August. Of Guerrero and Tosti, Garcia says, “They made being Mexican-American cool.”
Referencing Guerrero and Tosti, Cooder adds, “This album is just some crazy fantasy of mine, but it’s the old guys that really make you believe. They have something that you can’t just get from TV or a magazine, just like a Sonny Boy Williamson or Compay Segundo. When they’re gone, man, it’s gone.”
Cooder himself has become an elder with wisdom to impart, having created a world of music since his days as a session star in the late ’60s. He jammed with The Rolling Stones back then, supposedly coming up with the riff for “Honky Tonk Women,” although uncredited; as to who really wrote what, Cooder says, slyly, “Ask Keith [Richards].”
In the ’70s, Cooder created an influential string of genre-hopping Americana discs for Warner Bros. during the label’s glory days. The ’80s brought film scores, including the slide-guitar theme to Paris, Texas that Garcia echoes many others in calling “cosmic.” The ’90s and beyond have seen Cooder acting as catalyst for projects with musicians from India, Africa and, of course, Cuba. (See sidebar below.)
As far as the guitarist’s authenticity in the Latin realm goes, Garcia insists that no one should ever regard Cooder as a dilettante. “Ry is such a student of the music that he’s become a teacher, even to those of us who’ve grown up in these traditions,” he says. “I think of him as a Latino trapped in a white man’s body.”
Ry Cooder on Record
Since the early ’70s, Ry Cooder has gone back in time and off the beaten track to create timeless musical travelogues. Showcasing him as guitarist, producer, composer and occasional singer, these 10 discs underscore his collaborative empathy and ever-fertile imagination.
Chávez Ravine (Nonesuch, 2005). A musical picture-book about a multi-ethnic Eden paved over in old Los Angeles, Chávez Ravine brims not only with rue and ire but charm and humor. Cooder gets help with the tuneful storytelling from a host of old pals and Latino legends, including the late Lalo Guerrero.
Mambo Sinuendo, with Manuel Galbán (Nonesuch, 2003). Cooder and Cuban guitar star Galbán play slinky, atmospheric duets. Cooder has described this unsung masterpiece as “a road trip through different wordless fantasy landscapes. Sometimes you’re in bright daylight, sometimes the streets are dark and empty.”
Fascinoma, Jon Hassell (Waterlily Acoustics, 1999). Cooder produced this moody beauty of improvisational Ellingtonia and ambient soundscapes for Hassell and his whisper-toned trumpet, helping the veteran sound-painter come up with his most organic, wide-ranging disc yet.
Buena Vista Social Club, with Compay Segundo, Ibrahím Ferrer, Rubén González, etc. (Nonesuch, 1997). This Cooder-helmed worldwide smash is one of the late 20th-century’s priceless records, documenting fast-vanishing wisdom from the sages of Cuban son. Far from a historical exercise, it’s sweet’n’sultry musical magic.
The End of Violence (Outpost/Universal, 1997). One of Cooder’s most consistently compelling film scores (to a Wim Wenders movie) sees his guitar alternately keen and echo over a subtly electronic rhythm bed. Songs from the soundtrack, plus some of Cooder’s key instrumental cues, are available on a separate release.
Music by Ry Cooder (Warner Bros., 1995). This handy double-disc anthology of highlights from Cooder’s early film scores features his crying solo slide guitar theme from Paris, Texas, one of his most iconic spots on record. Great songs with the likes of Freddy Fender are also here. This set compliments River Rescue: The Very Best of Ry Cooder, which surveys his ’70s solo albums.
Talking Timbuktu, with Ali Farka Toure (Hannibal, 1994). This trans-Atlantic summit saw Cooder and Malian singer/guitarist Toure underline the two-way connection between contemporary West African music and American blues. It’s simple and circular, poetic and hypnotic.
A Meeting by the River, with V.M. Bhatt (Waterlily Acoustics, 1993). A single late-night session yielded this early, Grammy-winning example of “one-world music.” Cooder plays meditative, beautifully recorded instrumental duets with Bhatt, an India-born innovator of the mohan vina, a lap-held slide guitar.
Bring the Family, John Hiatt (A&M, 1987). Cooder’s performance as a sideman for rootsy singer/songwriter John Hiatt preserves his most incendiary rock’n’roll guitar-playing. He was part of a super-group backing Hiatt for this hit, along with bassist Nick Lowe and drummer Jim Keltner. The album is all highlights, though they include “Thing Called Love,” “Memphis in the Meantime” and “Have a Little Faith.” The sequel, Little Village, was a let-down, though.
Chicken Skin Music (Warner Bros., 1976). This is one of Cooder’s best discs from his ’70s Warner period, when he ranged like a party-minded preservationist across various Americana idioms. “Chicken skin” means goose bumps in Hawaiian parlance; the album has some Hawaiian slack-key guitar tunes, but it’s Cooder’s duet with Tex-Mex star Flaco Jiménez on the country weeper “He’ll Have to Go” that makes the skin tingle.
(Originally published in July 2005 in The Star-Ledger of New Jersey.)