Ry Cooder - Chavez Ravine
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Ry Cooder
Chávez Ravine

cd cover Southern California's dream machinery and gilded will to progress have fueled a persistent debate about the city that intellectuals long have loved to hate: Los Angeles, capitalist nightmare or futurist utopia? Some would characterize its history as a triumph of red-baiting, white-supremacist, entrepreneurial development, a tale of predatory class warfare, anti-labor McCarthyism and racial domination that has shaped the city from its mid-nineteenth-century expropriation from Mexico into the present.

Stirred by photographer Don Normark's recent book, "Chávez Ravine, 1949" - a striking black-and-white portrait of the predominantly Mexican-American community shortly before its erasure - Ry Cooder scores a sordid saga. The CD is a flight of historical imagination that evokes the feel of the hilltop Mexican American neighborhood that L.A.'s city fathers bulldozed in the early 1950s in the name of urban renewal, clearing the way for the Dodgers baseball club to build a new stadium in its place.

A less likely point of musical departure is hard to imagine, but Chávez Ravine - a conceptual project reflecting Cooder's astute political contrariness, his dogged L.A. street-corner and archival research, and eclectic musical inspiration - is the most idiosyncratic effort of a most singular career. Each of its 15 songs is a distinct musical vignette in the foretold destruction of a poor barrio the city's booster class summarily condemned as a nagging impediment to civic progress.

Chávez Ravine evolved organically out of Cooder's abiding interest in the city's hidden social history, in its older and more textured cultural contours. Far more than a superb musical creation, it reflects Cooder's tendency to think cinematically (his moody scoring of the Paris, Texas soundtrack comes to mind), and his calling to the musical path less traveled. Chávez Ravine is warm-blooded, polyvocal testimony to the power of memory, expressive culture, human sociability and creative resolve in the face of treacherous and unforgiving odds.

book cover As a native son, Cooder couldn't have chosen a less exotic setting than Los Angeles for his latest outing. Walter Benjamin's epigrammatic observation comes to mind: "The superficial inducement, the exotic, the picturesque has an effect only on the foreigner. To portray a city, a native must have other, deeper motives - motives of one who travels into the past instead of into the distance."

This may help explain why Cooder detests the term "world music" and its casual application to his own work, antithetical as it is to the Western pop-star model of appropriating exotic musical trimmings to elevate one's own status as stage-front cosmopolitan artiste-savant. Although he enlists sundry standouts of Chicano, Latin, jazz and Hawaiian music (Lalo Guerrero, Don Tosti, Flaco Jiménez, David Hidalgo, Ersi Arvizu, Little Willie G., Gil Bernal, Chucho Valdés, Jackie Terrasson, Ledward Kaapana, Bla Pahinui), Cooder is no more out front than he was on his prior pursuits in Havana.

This is something quite different than a formulaic transposition of the Buena Vista Social Club model to Los Angeles. Listening globally and composing locally, Cooder has come home to a town whose changes - wrought behind closed doors in City Hall, the L.A. Police Department, the Chamber of Commerce, the high-rise suites of international financiers, and the seedy offices of real estate developers - he repudiates with everything at his artistic disposal.

So, what about the music? For starters, it reflects the fact that Los Angeles is the second-largest city of a number of Latin American countries, first among them Mexico. (Mexicans didn't come to gringolandia, after all; the U.S. annexed the northern third of Mexican territory in 1848, setting into motion a relentless process of primitive capitalist accumulation that continues into the present.) And particularly since World War II, Los Angeles has become a multi-ethnic metropolis in which no group is numerically predominant (a recent survey found that city school children collectively speak some ninety languages).

Cooder's sonic palette is correspondingly diverse: a bilingual English-Spanish mix of R&B, jazz, blues, funk, Tex-Mex, '50s pachuco dance hits, rock 'n' roll, surf sounds, classical snippets, Afro-Cuban son and mambo, Hawaiian, ersatz easy listening, faux Chinese, sampling (check out the Dragnet clips), in short, mongrel American music. But not a sound is accidental; this is a studio album, and a polished one it is. During post-production - fittingly enough in the Southern California dream factory of American car culture - Cooder drove around L.A. listening to successive demos, to hear the music the way his audience will, and to ensure its capacity to capture the listener.

book image The result is an epic, swinging period portrait of a community that lives on in memory, spirit and song, Cooder's own ever-curious creations mixed with the polished compositions of his many collaborators. William Garcia and David Hidalgo's "Onda Callejera" reflects on the so-called Zoot-Suit riots of 1943, when several hundred U.S. sailors were unleashed on downtown L.A. to beat and rip the clothes off the Mexican American pachuco hipsters, while the police looked the other way.

Lalo Guerrero sings on his smoky 1949 mambo, "Los Chucos Suaves" (the cool cats, which some listeners will recognize from the 1977 Luis Valdéz play and film Zoot Suit), "Corrido de Boxeo" (on two accomplished Chicano boxers from Chávez Ravine who believed that fighting clean was the only way to win - if only the same had been true for their own neighborhood), and "Barrio Viejo," about Guerrero's own Tucson origins, one more poor neighborhood cleared to make way for generic progress (Guerrero died earlier this year at age 88).

Another postwar dance hit, popularized by the incomparable Don Tosti, is "Chinito, Chinito," a sassy take on a pidgin-Spanish-speaking Chinese laundry man who walks the street rattling his "malaca" (i.e., maraca, his wooden change box) while a couple of smart-ass Chicanas harass him. (Several Tosti and Guerrero originals can be heard on Arhoolie's superb Pachuco Boogie compilation.)

Ersi Arvizu (formerly of The Sisters and El Chicano, tracked down by Cooder in Arizona, working as a FedEx driver) sings her mother's conjunto classic "Ejercito Militar." She is joined by Little Willie G. (of Thee Midnighters fame) on the latter's "Muy Fifí," a rocking mother-daughter dialogue about female respectability, fashion dictates and teenage love, with a grooving cameo by pianist Chucho Valdés. There's more of Little Willie G's suave, laid-back vocal style on the Lieber-Stoller hit popularized by the Coasters, "Three Cool Cats," with the inimitable tenor sax of Watts native Gil Bernal, who broke in with Lionel Hampton (Bernal's honking sax is integral to a number of tracks).

book image Cooder's compositions provide the project's noir-ish anchor, and he has an uncanny ear, channeling a miscellany of voices. One is Frank Wilkinson, the public housing activist whose reward for defending the neighborhood was to be called before the notorious McCarthyite House Un-American Activities Committee and imprisoned for refusing to testify (Cooder interviewed Wilkinson, found in a nursing home, and the song resulted). More chilling is the heavy equipment operator whose blues anthem, "It's Just Work for Me," counsels locals, "Move your ass, all you taco benders. / We're gonna protect and serve you right on away from here. / It ain't none of my business... / You got to go where they send you when you're a dozer-drivin' man." As a belated response, "Third Base, Dodger Stadium," with Bla Pahinui's plaintive vocals, reflects Cooder's discovery that old timers from Chávez Ravine still identify where their former homes stood by the coordinates of the baseball field that squashed their hilltop barrio.

The creepiest outing is Cooder's "In My Town," which channels the mentality of "a secret deacon in the crypto-fascist Church of the Next Big Thing," who dreams big for his city of dreams: "I want a town that's clean and I want a rule that's maintained. / If you're brown, back down. / If you're black, get back. / Better white than right. / Better dead than red. / Better keep it contained in my town." Jackie Terrasson lends a jazzy piano lope to a darkly prescient portrait of the compulsive psychosis that passes for economic rationality in L.A. as elsewhere.

The most transcendental moment comes with "El UFO Cayó," the sardonic legend of an extraterrestrial pachuco hipster who lands in the barrio, warning residents to hop into his spaceship and get away before the gringos send them all to "the biggest valley in Mexico, the valley of fools," to make way for a stadium. Cooder recruited Don Tosti, composer of the 1948 hit "Pachuco Boogie," to craft the Caló slang-talking monologue against the ethereal vocals of Juliette Commagere, and the result is eerie and consummate. (This was Tosti's last recording; he died at age 81, late in 2004.)

There's more to be heard here, but think of Chávez Ravine as an operatic "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,"* communal testimony to an anonymous spirit of humanity that, defying gravity, appearance and cruel suppression, somehow lives on. Cooder goes beyond eulogizing a way of life, tapping the expressive currents that buoy those who come after. Chávez Ravine reveals an optimism of the will, antidote to all brutality, lies and hypocrisy that pass for reasoned discourse about progress and who calls the shots. It suggests that in the cultural polyglot that Los Angeles represents, as the future of us all, sometimes a different sort of synergy can ignite a clarifying flash of insight, a true human encounter, and when that happens, a rare and telling understanding may result. - Michael Stone

Don Normack with camera CD available from cdRoots

Note: "Chávez Ravine, A Los Angeles Story" is a new PBS documentary that explores what happened, based on interviews with former residents and some of the officials who oversaw the community's destruction. Narrated by Cheech Marin and scored by Ry Cooder and Lalo Guerrero, the documentary combines contemporary and archival footage with Don Normark's evocative black-and-white photographs of a beloved community, gone but not forgotten.
See: www.pbs.org
Read the RootsWorld review of the film.

Also see:
Don Normark (1999) "Chávez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story"
San Francisco: Chronicle Books
All images except CD cover are from the book, © 1999 Chronicle Books

* "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," was James Agee and Walker Evans' 1949 experimental prose/photo collaboration that chronicled the lives of three tenant farmer families in Alabama in the 1940s

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