Ry Cooder: doorman at the social club

NZ Listener

Musician Ry Cooder, it could be argued, has done more to lift the profile of Cuba than any American since JFK. His 1997 album Buena Vista Social Club, and the associated movie by Cooder’s colleague Wim Wenders, turned some of the island’s forgotten musicians into international superstars, setting off a wave of Cuban chic.

But when I speak to Cooder on the phone in his Santa Monica home, following the US invasion of Iraq, he is pessimistic about his chances of making music in Havana again.

“I ain’t going anywhere now”, he says resignedly. “This whole thing about visas and permissions and even the musicians’ freedom to circulate through the US and tour and play…It’s going to be very hard now to get things like this done.”

Not that it was ever easy. Buena Vista won Cooder a Grammy but it also put him in breach of the trade embargo, for which he was duly fined $US 20,000. To make the just-released solo album by Buena Vista singer Ibrahim Ferrer and Mambo Sinuendo, an album of slinky guitar duets with Havana guitar hero Manuel Galban, he had to apply to his government for special dispensation.

“It was a bad year to be asking because it was a presidential election year and everybody was running around like headless chickens, but we went to the senators from the area and the congressmen from the area and we wrote letters and I got lawyers, and a whole year went by and nothing was shaking loose. It looked like they were going to just shut me down entirely. And then finally, on virtually the last day of his office, President Clinton sent down the memo and said ‘Give this guy what he wants’ and the State Department wrote this license out, the only one given to an individual in 40 years of the embargo. And off we went the next week, ‘cause boy we were ready to go.”

Ask the 55-year-old guitarist - who grew up in California in the era of the Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs and the Cold War – what formed an attitude to Cuba so different from the one advanced by successive US governments, and you’re taken straight to the heart of Cooder’s philosophy.

“I was always brought up to never believe government propaganda of any kind. Don’t care what government, don’t care what stripe, you just don’t believe it. That’s the way I was brought up, first of all.

“Second of all”, he says with a laugh, “music will teach you a couple of things. And it didn’t take very long to discover that people themselves, individual people, have nothing to do with government propaganda. When I was a little kid and used to see the old country blues guys and some of the hillbillies, the Stanley Brothers and people like that, whatever cultural stereotypes – and that’s part of propaganda as a rule – that you might have thought of or might have heard, take any musician and sit down and check ‘em out and listen to him and you are instantly going to be brought into a kind of focus and all that shit is stripped away instantaneously.

“Naturally when I first heard Cuban music on record it was a world there that was complete and seemed to have everything. The rhythm, the complicated chord structure, the beautiful voices – these old dried up almost squeaky sounding voices - it was so compelling. They had string band music and I liked string bands, I liked funk and they had that. Plus artistry, you could tell. So I thought, oh my gosh, we have to go down there. It’s on, it’s happening, I got to get together with this.”

Most vitally of all, cultural isolation had preserved qualities in the Cuban musicians that had all but vanished from western music. “Ibrahim Ferrer, for instance, is very much a pre-media man. He doesn’t get his orders from outside, it all comes from within. He’s born into it, born to do it, born in the idea of making these sounds. He lives in it. It’s not a TV dinner, like where your past is taken and given back to you reconstituted.

“Younger players are different now. My son Joachim is for me an exception because naturally he grew up - from infancy, practically - around such people. So he was able to absorb, as you can from being in close proximity, some of the weird metaphysical thing that comes across from people, like almost an aura. If you sit close to these people when you’re young, like he’s had the opportunity to do, then you can get some of this – the molecular effect of it.”

For the rest of us, the closest we can ever get to basking in the aura of these musical yogis is via recordings such as Cooder’s. And, as the massive global success of Buena Vista showed, there are millions of listeners with an appetite for music that retains the values of a pre-MTV culture.

Cooder’s records didn’t always sell so well. In the 70s, New Zealand was the rare place where he achieved a modest-sized hit, a fact he was unaware of until we spoke. He marvels at the revelation that his recording of ‘Little Sister’ was so popular here; due, I postulate, to its combination of churchy harmonies and a song associated with Elvis, both winning ingredients with Maori audiences. “A jukebox Maori hit – that’s about the best thing you could tell somebody”, he marvels. “If someone would have for Chrissakes told me that story back then, it would have meant a lot.”

For a while he retreated into soundtrack work, where his skin-prickling scores for such films as Wenders’ Paris, Texas took on a life of their own. But with the birth of world music as a marketing brand in the 90s and collaborations with Hindustandi virtuoso Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Malian bluesman Ali Farka Toure, the audience for Cooder’s groundbreaking recordings began to grow.

“And of course then it became more demographically obvious who the hell they were. They were people like me. Same age, middle class white people who wanted to hear something to connect with, give them some emotional counterpoint to themselves, to be fed less of a steady diet of TV dinners and Disney films, and imagine, even in some weird, abstract way, that they were connected to other people.”

But world music can be turned to commercial pulp as readily as anything on MTV; witness the proliferation of dubious world music labels licensing ethnic recordings on the cheap, and theme-park compilations with titles like Music From the Coffee Lands.

Cooder agrees: “Now we see a complete commercialisation of world music and it’s just so obvious. But still and all, you don’t want to think that in your time everything’s dried up. People hate to think that. Even if in the most mundane sort of Starbucks-like way, that’s something, you see, when people are fed a steady diet of media and television and are so anorexic that they’re ready to just evaporate from lack of affirmation in their world.”

Buoyed with confidence by what he perceives as a hungry market, Cooder has launched his own independent record label. Named Perro Verde (after a Cuban saying Cooder found cute, which roughly translates as ‘there is nothing so rare as a green dog’), Mambo Sinuendo is its first release. Cooder already has further releases in mind.

“I told Joachim, you’re head of A&R, you go out and find me someone, and he did. He’s got a friend who writes songs so we made a little record on this guy. It’s really fun to look at it this way, in terms of small. Small is good, see. Small means that you don’t have to fight any big fights and you can chart your own course a little bit easier. The record business is in a very strange shape right now and the bigger it is the worse the shape.

“I’m starting to see that what I may be doing for the rest of my time in music is things of this nature. It’s not like the world’s beating a path with ideas for me to open supermarkets and shoe lines. I may never do anything else. I’m thinking of becoming the permanent chronicler, or spokesperson, or at least doorman for this. Better call it doorman. I like being a doorman. I think it’s good. Open the door and some people can come in and out and be seen and listened to.”

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