Monday, August 01, 2005
In the 1950's, Chavez Ravine, a relatively poor but vibrant Mexican-American enclave in the heart of Los Angeles, was co-opted by municipal authorities through the use of eminent domain. The thriving community was torn asunder by forces that wanted to redevelop the area. Eventually, Chavez Ravine became home of Los Angeles Dodgers (lured from Brooklyn in part because of the choice land upon which they could build their stadium.) Along with people being forced from their homes and their neighborhoods in the name of progress, things like the Red Scare of the 50's ("Don't Call Me Red", a song told from the point of view of Frank Wilkinson, an assistant director of the LA Housing Authority who got called before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee) and even UFO sightings over the neighborhood ("El UFO Cayo") came into play.
On his dazzling, bittersweet, compelling new CD, Ry Cooder chronicles this tale with the help of an enormously talented assemblage of like-minded friends and comrades. Cooder has always followed his muse wherever it took him...pop music, soul music, "world" music, movie music, whatever appealed to him he immersed himself in it with exuberance and reverence.
On the triumphant Buena Vista Social Club collection, Cooder helped bring long overdue attention and acclaim to a host of Cuban singers and musicians; on Chavez Ravine, returns to Los Angeles community he knows so well with beguiling results.
Cooder is fine voice (several of them as a matter of fact, adjusting his vocals to suit the needs of the different songs that he sings) and, as always, his guitar picking is sterling as the song cycle plays out from the joyful "Poor Man's Shangri-La" (that being an affectionate nickname for the neighborhoods that made up the Chavez Ravine area) to the rueful "3rd Base Dodger Stadium" (about someone talking the place where he was born, his home having been where third base is now) and the bittersweet but hopeful coda, "Soy Luz Y Sombra".
The overall feel is distinctly Mexican inspired and flavored, of course, with some of the songs in English and others in Spanish. Among those joining Cooder on the vocals along the way are veteran singers Lalo Guerrero and Little Willie G. (among many others.) Instrumental contributions come from guitarist David Hildalgo (of Los Lobos), ace accordion player Flaco Jimenez, and accomplished session drummer Jim Keltner.
Despite the story, Chavez Ravine is full of joyful, triumphant, thought-provoking, utterly-engaging music. It's a wonder from beginning to end.