One the finest guitarists of his generation, ‘Ry Cooder’ attracts a following that cuts across most known boundaries. Earning his early blues dues with Taj Mahal and his rock credentials with Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, Cooder has, over the past couple of decades, made superlative rock, jazz and movie soundtrack albums, and crossed effortlessly into world music fusions with artists as diverse as Malian bluesman Ali Farka Toure, Okinawan group Nenes, and the Indian guitarist V. M. Bhatt.
After contributing to the score of Nic Roeg’s Borgesian thriller Performance, he has gone on to record numerous scores for Hollywood productions, notably with film director Walter Hill, (The Long Riders and Geronimo), and Wim Wenders, (Paris, Texas and The End of Violence)
After recording solo albums since 1970 (Paradise and Lunch, Chicken Skin Music, Borderline), Cooder’s name has become synonymous with Cuban music since he produced the hit CD Buena Vista Social Club. The music from that groundbreaking collection of songs featured legends of a Cuban music tradition all but forgotten outside that island nation.
That 1997 CD sparked a huge interest in Cuban music across the globe – and follow-up solo CDs made stars out of some of the members of the original band. It also put Cooder in the spotlight.
Before Buena Vista Social Club, Cooder was widely respected for his guitar prowess and his ability to fuse so-called “world music” harmonies and rhythms with mainstream sensibilities, making world music more accessible to a wider audience. Today, Cooder earns equal respect in his role as a producer.
In 2001 Cooder returned to Havana’s Egrem Studio, where the sessions for Buena Vista Social Club were recorded. Along with his son, percussionist Joachim Cooder, and met up with some of the musicians from the Buena Vista sessions — this time, to record tracks with Cuban guitar legend Manuel Galban of the group Los Zafiros for the album Mambo Sinuendo. Released in January 2003 Cooder and Galbán’s back-to-the-future twin album went on to won a Grammy for best Pop Instrumental.
“Chavez Ravine” was released in May 2005 and glimpse into the Mexican-American culture that flourished in 1940s and ’50s Los Angeles, a post World War II–era American narrative of “cool cats,” radios, UFO sightings, J. Edgar Hoover, red scares, and baseball. Using real and imagined historical characters, Cooder and friends created an album that recollects various aspects of the poor but vibrant hillside Chicano community, which was bulldozed by developers in the 1950s in the interest of “progress”; Dodgers Stadium ultimately was built on the site. Cooder says, “Here is some music for a place you don’t know, up a road you don’t go. Chávez Ravine, where the sidewalk ends.” As Cooder was knee-deep in some ninth-inning tinkering, finishing Chavez Ravine, a peculiar message sailed in—one could say—from deep out-of-left-field. It arrived by way of US Mail, slipped into a nondescript, manila envelope, addressed in an old friend’s recognizable scrawl. Inside, he found a familiar image of the great bluesman, Leadbelly. Yet, photo-shopped in place of his face was that of a red cat; an inscrutable, seen-it-all expression hovering in his eyes. He found little else, except a web address and this note: “You’ll know what to do with this.”
My Name Is Buddy: Another Record by Ry Cooder , released in 2007 is, in a certain respect, Ry Cooder circling back, revisiting a body of music that has for much of his life held a certain fascination. “When I first started doing records. I thought, ‘I like these old songs. These dustbowl songs.’ So I made a couple of records and people thought: ‘What’s this?’ You can’t sell this.’ But I kept making these things, again and again, because I knew a good song,” he says. “I’d say it’s taken me 40 years to get it right.”
Ry Cooder completed his California trilogy (which began with 2005’s Chavez Ravine and 2007’s My Name Is Buddy) with I, Flathead, an album of music by the fictional musician Kash Buk and his band the Klowns, characters in Cooder’s 95-page novella. The album and novella were released together on June 24, 2008, by Nonesuch / Perro Verde Records. The album comprises fourteen songs by Buk, a hard-boiled salt flat racer and roadhouse musician. With the story and the music, Cooder creates a universe where “strange people are the norm,” drawing from country western music, popular mechanics magazines, and science fiction films.
As Kash Buk explains, “You got your hard times, your good times, a dog story for you animal lovers, and a forbidden-race love song, which every record ought to have at least one of. You’re going to meet the ghost of Dick Nixon the drag racer, plus a bonus Red-Scare speciality for all you politically-minded hi-brow foot-stompers out there. I felt it was important to include a circus story since most people agree the circus is a mirror for ‘life itself.’ And you can’t say you got a record album unless there is a selection of honky-tonk heart-ache ballats, so I took care of the ballat chores for you.” He continues, “And I spatially wanted to pay o-mage to the steel guitar legends of yore. It has been my privilege to know quite a few. That’s a hard-bitten, un-sung fraternity, and I figured if I remember them, some body might remember me some day and raise a glass some where and put a nickel in the juke-box.”
In 2010 the Chieftains rekindled their Grammy-winning partnership with Ry Cooder for San Patricio, illuminating musical and historical bonds between Ireland and Mexico.
The album by the world’s most celebrated Irish music group revisits legend of the San Patricio Battalion, unsung heroes of the Mexican-American war, with guest appearances by Linda Ronstadt, Liam Neeson, Van Dyke Parks, Lila Downs, Los Tigres del Norte, Carlos Nunez and many others. Cooder, who contributed an original song, ‘San Patricio’ showcases a brilliant roster of Irish, Mexican and American guest artists including Linda Ronstadt, actor Liam Neeson, Los Tigres del Norte, legendary 92-year-old Mexican ranchero singer Chavela Vargas, Van Dyke Parks, and Lila Downs, among many others. One of the Chieftains’ most unique projects in their long history, ‘San Patricio’ (the Spanish name for St. Patrick) tells the nearly forgotten story of the brave San Patricio battalion – a downtrodden group of Irish immigrant conscripts who deserted the U.S. Army in 1846 to fight on the Mexican side against the invading Yankees in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).