Ry Cooder’s résumé is one of the most impressive in popular music. He has lent his guitar skills to recordings by The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison and Neil Young, among many others. His own albums, which have won critical acclaim and modest commercial success, are respected for their loving treatment of such early styles as Dixieland, gospel, blues and 1950s rock ’n’ roll. His film scores, including those for The Long Riders (1980), The Border (1981) and, especially, Paris, Texas (1984), are revered for their evocative soundscapes. But for all his accomplishments, 50-year-old Cooder considers a recording he recently made with a group of older Cuban musicians to be the pinnacle of his career. To make the album, Cooder travelled to Havana to record with several legendary players, including singer-guitarist Compay Segundo, 89, and pianist Ruben Gonzáles, 77, who came out of retirement for the project. There, in Egrem studios, where Nat (King)
Cole and Cab Calloway recorded in pre-revolutionary days, Cooder bridged the language barrier and coped with broken-down equipment to produce Buena Vista Social Club, an album of exceptional grace and artistry. “These people have a gift for the world, a true treasure to offer,” Cooder told Maclean’s. “I consider myself lucky just to have been a part of the recording.”
Modesty aside, Cooder’s involvement in the project may do for Cuban music what Paul Simon did for South African music with his 1986 album, Graceland. Where Simon introduced the world to the township sounds of mbanqanga and mbube, and made stars of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Buena Vista Social Club (World Circuit/ Nonesuch/Warner)—just out in North America and released in Europe in the summer—is bringing such traditional Cuban styles as son, guajira and danzón to wider audiences and making a name for the music’s originators. Already, Gonzáles and his partners in The Afro-Cuban All Stars are touring Europe. And another member of the All Stars, 70-year-old singer Ibrahim
Ferrer, is enjoying a hit single in Spain. When the recording was released in Britain, the London Times praised it as “an album of exotic charm that enfolds you in a warm, passionate embrace.” For Cooder, the Cuban recording is the latest in a series of albums that have successfully crossed the cultural divide. In 1994, he won a Grammy Award for Best World Music Album for A Meeting by the River, a collaboration with East Indian guitarist V. M. Bhatt. The following year, he repeated the same feat with Talking Timbuktu, a duet with Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré.
Growing up in California, Cooder discovered that music could be a perfect vehicle through which to explore the world. The musician, who lives in Santa Monica, explains that the discovery came shortly after he received his first guitar at the age of 3.
“Records opened up the world to me when I was a kid,” he recalls. “For some people, that comes through movies or sports. But I sat there listening to records, and they brought a flood of images and all sorts of emotions. I was hooked.” Hanging out in Los Angeles folk and blues clubs as a teenager in the early 1960s, he played with any headliner who would let him. By 1966, he and another musical explorer, Taj Mahal, teamed up to form The Rising Sons. But it was through his studio work for the likes of Johnny Cash, Randy Newman and Gordon Lightfoot that Cooder paid his dues—and his bills. Then, in the 1970s, a series of albums, including Into the Purple Valley, Paradise and Lunch and Chicken Skin Music, established him in his own right.
Meanwhile, Cooder’s childhood interest in music from other cultures continued unabated, and sent him off to explore the sounds of Hawaii, Mexico, the Caribbean and other places, and sometimes to make records with—or at least showcase—their performers. “All of this is about trying to live out a musical fantasy,” Cooder explains. “You hear something in your head—you imagine it—and you go out in search of it. I like TexMex music, and eventually I find [accordion player] Flaco Jiminez. There goes that fantasy. What next?”
The same motivation prompted Cooder to travel to Cuba for his latest project. “Nowadays, you hear a lot of Cuban salsa and Cuban jazz, z which is great,” he says. “But clas| sic styles like the guajira, danzón I and son, which is the root of salsa,
0 are the real thing, and they’re
1 worth keeping alive. It’s like when b they dig up the Amazon and lose 1 the plants, it’s bad for the planet. If s we didn’t make this record, the
world might never have known of Ruben, the greatest pianist I have ever encountered, nor heard Ibrahim sing a song like Dos Gardenias, and that would be a terrible loss.” Cooder bristles at the suggestion that this makes him a musical archivist. “This is living, breathing music,” he says, “not some museum we stumbled on. I’m just trying to catch some of it before it disappears.” He shares that task with his 19-year-old son, Joachim, who plays various drums on Buena Vista Social Club. The elder Cooder adds: “What I’m doing is more like prospecting. Prospectors are always out there, searching for their next treasure. They die on the trail like old desert rats. Pretty soon, they wind up buried with their burro. What else can a guy like me do?”
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