Ry Cooder: Mexican blues

Ry Cooder's latest inspiration is the story of a lost Hispanic neighbourhood. Fiona Sturges meets the legendary guitarist
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In 1949 the photographer Don Normark visited Chávez Ravine, a small, tightly knit Mexican community on a hill overlooking Los Angeles. He was so taken with the place that he stayed for more than a year, photographing the land and those that lived there. Little did he know that within a few years the whole neighbourhood would have disappeared. In the early Fifties, the 4,000 residents of Chávez Ravine were forcibly evicted by the state to make way for a federal housing project. Some families went quietly, taking $5,000 in exchange for their silence; others doggedly tried to stay put and were eventually dragged from their homes by the police. By the end of the decade, Normark's photographs would be the only evidence that Chávez Ravine ever existed.

More than half a century later, inspired both by Normark's pictures and his own memories of east Los Angeles as it once was, the guitarist Ry Cooder has composed Chávez Ravine, an exquisite requiem to a vanished neighbourhood. The album - which features a series of celebrated Mexican musicians, among them the father of Chicano music Lalo Guerrero, the Pachuco boogie pioneer Don Tosti and Willie G, front man of Thee Midniters, as well as Cooder himself - uses real and imagined historical characters to create a narrative of fear, displacement and political corruption.

I find Cooder settled on a sofa in a smart London hotel, slippers on and cup of tea in hand. Like it or not, he says, he's stuck here for the next three days talking to "all you media people". Now 58, Cooder rarely travels abroad for promotion - this is his second visit to the UK in 10 years - but for this record he's making an exception. "This one takes a bit of explaining," he says. "I need to put it in context for people. I gotta tell you, the jury's out. I don't know what people are going to think. People might say, 'Why bother? What's it for?' But it's great music. It swings real good, so we'll see."

One thing that he is keen to stress is that this isn't simply Buena Vista gone Mexican. While there is no doubting the passion that Cooder brought to Buena Vista Social Club, his hugely successful album of Cuban music, this time it's more personal, dealing if not quite with his own neighbourhood - Cooder has lived in Santa Monica all his life - then with his native Los Angeles.

Cooder first saw Normark's pictures at a gallery four years ago, after which he set about trying to track the photographer down. In the end Normark got to Cooder first. He had got back in touch with the families he'd met in 1949 for a TV documentary and wondered if Cooder would provide a soundtrack.

"I said, 'Well, certainly,'" remembers Cooder. "The first thing I did was visit Lalo Guerrero, who was 88 years old and out in Palm Springs, and he gave me three songs straight off the bat. Incredible. Then I thought to myself, 'Who else?' So I called David Hidalgo from Los Lobos and said, 'Where's Willie G? I want to talk to him.' He gave me his phone number and I called him up. I said, 'Willie, there's something to this. Let's see what we can do.' Willie said, 'That's a great idea. That's never been tried, No one ever wrote about that before, and no one ever sang about it either.'"

Cooder quickly realised that he was gathering more music than could ever be squeezed into a documentary. "It had become something that was going somewhere else and I felt I had no choice but to follow it."

The next problem was how to present the story in musical form. "To turn this into four-minute songs was hard," he says. "If Lalo or Willie had said 'Look, you're barking up the wrong tree' I would have stopped, but they dug it and kept me encouraged. After a year I thought I was done but then I looked at it and didn't like it. So I just kept trying and I got better at it. I slowly got the mood, the language, the sensation of what the place was like." Cooder had to rely, along with Normark's pictures, on the memories of the Mexican community. "Everybody knows what happened and everyone had a story to tell. This whole Chávez Ravine thing was in a sense the dawn of Chicano consciousness. The Mexicans starting emigrating to LA in 1910 but they were poor and worked as bricklayers and maids. It wasn't until this episode that they protested and acted as a unified people. They really fought against it but they were so marginalised they didn't have a chance."

Another source of inspiration - and information - was a book called The Provisional City: Los Angeles Stories of Architectural Urbanism by Diana Cuff. "The whole story was there," Cooder says. "It's about the rise of these private builders who created all these suburban enclaves with federal subsidies because they said, 'Hey, the GIs are coming back from the war. We'll build houses for them but the federal government's got to foot the bill.' So every house was clear profit."

By the early Fifties McCarthyism had reached a fever pitch and the city politicians, fearing that they would be branded communists if they were associated with a public housing project, sold the land to Walter O'Malley, the Dodgers baseball team owner. O'Malley built a giant concrete stadium on the site and the former residents of Chávez Ravine were left to find their own housing.

"The politicians were on safe ground that way because sports is clean," says Cooder. "Baseball is the game of the people and the people weren't going to complain."

Cooder never visited Chávez Ravine when he was a child, but he remembers, aged eight, during one of his regular visits to see a downtown eye doctor, looking out of the ninth floor window and seeing "these beautiful old buildings, so full of character, on the hill".

It is memories such as these that have made Chávez Ravine a labour of love. Over the years the project has been beset by difficulties, not least the death of two of its key contributors, Guerrero and Tosti.

One of the project's immediate benefits for Cooder was in plugging a creative gap. "After Cuba I didn't know what I was going to do," he says. "I had worked with some of the best musicians in the world but that was all done with. For while there I was at a loss." That not to suggest that he was short of offers. Post-Buena Vista, Cooder was deluged with proposals to continue his musical globetrotting. "I'd get a lot of phone calls. 'When are you coming to Argentina? The people of Argentina are angry with you for not coming.' I got all this weird righteousness from people. It was crazy."

Cooder also found himself in the strange position of being simultaneously deified for alerting the world to a little-known form of music and vilified for exploiting it. "We got called carpetbaggers, all sorts," he shrugs. "What can you do? I hid from it for years because it carries terrible burdens. People have all sorts of expectations which you can't meet. Me, I'm so reclusive I stay away from such things as much as I can. I never go anywhere. The fact that I'm here astonishes me."

Cooder attributes his appetite for seeking out new and unusual sounds to his Santa Monica upbringing. "I didn't come from a very rigid background, where there's a clan or a tribe or a religion. In that part of town there's no tradition and no heritage at all, so it helped me to look outwards."

So after toying with the idea of becoming a medical illustrator, Cooder alighted on the guitar. In the Sixties he worked as a session musician, playing on albums by Captain Beefheart and The Rolling Stones. But the idea of being a proper rock performer never appealed. "I don't get that at all. That's some kind of other deal - the persona thing, the watch-me-do-it thing. My God, it's so repellent to me."

Over the next 20 years Cooder released a dozen solo albums. They were generally well received, though he is gloomy about this period. "When the real world intrudes on your musical fantasies I get put out," he sighs. "It really bothered me when I started. The very first time I made a record, when it was all done, they said, 'Well, here it is. How do you feel now?' I held this thing and I said, 'It's bad, I'm not happy.' Man, I couldn't figure it out. All I had done was taken up time. I was heartbroken. I tried again and again and it kept happening so in 1988 I quit."

Now he describes his solo years as simply "an interruption". "Finally now looking back I realise I don't like the sound of what I was doing. I think the ideas were sometimes good but there was no context; it happened in a vacuum. As soon as I started doing records with other people, the problem was solved. Especially with the Cubans - they had their own context, and that was being Cuban."

It's in digging for new sounds, in finding what he deems to be the purest elements of music, that Cooder is apparently at his happiest. If he can tell as story at the same time then more's the better.

"If something grooves and you like the sound then that's all you need," he says, smiling broadly. "What it is, or what you'd call it is less important. Your body is suddenly happy and you're just grooving. I don't go looking for that feeling; I just have to wait. In the end it comes to find me."

'Chávez Ravine' (Nonesuch) is released on Monday