Ry Cooder means different things to different people. Some hang on every pull of his slide guitar, immersed in the blues stylings his music is so deeply immersed in; others go for the lazily evocative scores for movies like The Long Riders and Paris, Texas; yet more found a place in their homes for Ry Cooder via his understated but crucial involvement in the revival of some of Cuba’s forgotten musical heroes. Never again will the great Ibrahim Ferrer shine shoes.
Even by the standards of a musician who obviously won’t get involved in projects that don’t turn him on, Ch�vez Ravine is clearly a very personal work. Harking back to his days growing up in post-war Los Angeles, the record tells a story of a poor Latino neighbourhood with a strong sense of community, which fell prey to developers and wound up a few years later as a baseball stadium, leaving the area’s original occupiers out on a limb.
It’s a tale that in Cooder’s music, words (English and Spanish, but all translated both ways in the accompanying booklet), and �found� voices, is infused with pathos: little sketches against a background of Government-backed beatings, the McCarthy Communist witch hunts, UFO sightings, and all the romance, injustice, hope, sorrow and plain strangeness of that far-off time.
Ry Cooder calls upon East LA’s own veteran musicians on Ch�vez Ravine, including Chicano musical father, vocalist and guitarist Lalo Guerrero, and swing and rhythm and blues legend Don Tosti, both of whom passed on during the album’s long gestation. Then there’s accordionist Flaco Jimenez, singer Willie G from 1960s rock’n'roll band the Midniters, and New York jazz pianist Jacky Terrasson, to name but a few.
Like his Cuban recordings of recent years, there’s a warmth and sense of nostalgia about the sound, but it’s more than just a collection of last hurrahs. Originally conceived as a DVD/album idea, it doesn’t miss the visuals. In fact, it would probably make a cool accompaniment to one of James Ellroy’s post-war LA conspiracy theory novels.
Ch�vez Ravine is actually an incredibly varied 70 minutes. Occasionally it’s a touch sugary, such as when Cooder’s own John Sebastian-esque vocal carries the scene-setting Poor Man’s Shangri-La; or jarring, as on the mother-daughter conversation of Muy Fif�; but all is forgiven for the lovely Chinito Chinito, sung by Juliette Commagere; or the neat revival of Leiber and Stoller’s finger-snapping 3 Cool Cats.
It’s a black and white movie of an album that turns into a technicolour movie on a 12-inch screen, it’s a radio half-tuned to a 24-hour Latin oldies station. It’s another richly evocative world that Ry Cooder has sweated blood, and apparently not inconsiderable sums of his own money on, to make flesh.
The Buena Vista comparisons are inevitable, though obvious. Where the great musical heritage that Ruben Gonzales, Compay Segundo and all could draw on is nigh-on inexhaustible, Ch�vez Ravine doesn’t have that cache – in fact most of the pieces are originals here, and some are so central to the concept that it would be unfair to highlight them in isolation. Though it might not be as rewarding a listening experience as Cooder’s Cuban albums, this is still a set that demands repeated hearing, and I doubt there’ll be another record as lovingly crafted as this all year.