Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
 
Biography Discography
 

By March of 1996, when Ry Cooder arrived in Havana for what he thought would be sessions for a guitar-based tropical album featuring  legendary Cuban and Malinese players (fate would have it that instead,  Buena Vista happened), he'd already spent three decades on one of American music's most unusual and eclectic journeys.

Born Ryland Peter Cooder (Los Angeles, 1947), his musical travels mirror the peculiar hybrid of style that is the hallmark of an American  music scene which has bequeathed the world Jazz, Rhythm & Blues, Rock 'n' Roll and Country-Western. Cooder is all these, and more. In this era of globalization, "World Beat" has become a soft, fuzzy commercial catch-phrase that wins sales, most often to an audience that knows little to nothing about the cultures behind the "exotic" sounds it consumes. Cooder's story is as an antidote to World Beat superficiality: this is a musician whose mission is to embrace the world through  music.

In the mid-60s, at the fresh age of 17, Cooder was already an  up-and-coming talent on the blues circuit, playing with the likes Jackie DeShannon. Ashort stint with the legendary Taj Mahal followed. Cooder then picked up steady session work with such 60s innovators as Paul Revere and the Raiders and Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. Add collaborations with Randy Newman, Little Feat and the Rolling Stones and what you have is an amazingly versatile player who, by the age of 20, had worked with the better part of the top Rhythm & Blues acts of the day. But Cooder was not to be satisfied with mere session work. Before the end of the decade, he cut his first album, an  homage to personal blues heroes like Lead Belly and Blind Willie  Johnson, as if to underscore the fact that acts like the Stones would never have existed without the African-American pioneers they so liberally lifted from.

In the 1970s, Cooder began to display a voracious eclecticism that  eventually took him light-years from his traditionalist roots. This  hunger for constant musical growth soon had Cooder playing with virtuosos as stylistically disparate as Flaco Jiménez, the accordionist of Tex-Mex fame, and Hawaiian music master Gabby Pahinui. 

Cooder landed his first major film score in 1984 with director Wim Wenders on Paris, Texas, establishing a bond between the two that laid the foundation for further collaboration on Wenders' The End of Violence, and, ultimately, on Wenders' documentary rendition of The Buena Vista Social Club. The score for Paris, Texas won Cooder considerable critical acclaim. Indeed, it's difficult to imagine the cult classic without Cooder's minimal but haunting slide-guitar work conjuring a soundscape as troubled and mysterious as the Texan vistas that the film's desperate, desolate characters play off of. The music is quintessential Cooder-strains of old Blues drift sublimely toward sweet Mexican ranchera melodies: The music of the border. Ry Cooder, in one way or another, has been straddling borders his entire life. Which is what makes, for Cooder, the improbable, probable and the impossible, possible.

The early 90s found Cooder far from "home," producing remarkable albums in collaboration with V.M. Bhatt (A Meeting by the River) and Ali Farka Touré (Talking Timbuktu). It is important to note that while such interactions fed Cooder's style and technique over the years, he has never imitated the sounds of his "exotic" musical partners-the ultimate sign of respect between musicians in the World Beat era. It is as if Cooder sought in these collaborations a musical borderland where distinct traditions could collide, meld and produce a third language-a democratic language, in which all the participants are on equal footing. This is far different from the enduring American and European pop trait of the last few decades of appropriating the exotic, which, of course, makes of the whole endeavor a narrative not at all about who's being appropriated but rather all about who's doing the appropriating.

In the brief introduction to The Buena Vista Social Club album, Cooder writes, "I felt that I had trained all my life for this and yet making this record was not what I expected in the 1990s. Music is a treasure hunt. You dig and dig and sometimes you find something."

Indeed, no one, least of all Cooder, could have imagined that a career that began as an extended ode to the roots of Americana would lead to  the three-week session in Havana's legendary Egrem Studios (where, since 1947, practically all classic Cuban music has been recorded) that produced The Buena Vista Social Club. But in the context of Cooder's serpentine musical life, it all makes perfect sense.

 

The Film | The Music | The Musicians | The Gallery | The Scene
Home |
Site Credits
Musical artists appear courtesy of World Circuit/Nonesuch Records.
Film Images appear courtesy of Road Movies.