September 2005

Ry Cooder - Chávez Ravine
Nonesuch/Perro Verde 7877-2
Format: CD
Released: 2005

by Joseph Taylor

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

Ry Cooder has long been a music historian, reaching into the past to find old blues, country and gospel tunes. On Chávez Ravine, Cooder uses his talents as a scholar and archivist to re-create a particular time and place. Chávez Ravine was an area of Los Angeles that was home to a sizable Mexican-American community. In the late '40s, a well-intentioned housing project began to displace residents of the area, but the death knell for the community came when the city sold the land to Walter O’Malley so he could build a stadium for his baseball team, the Dodgers.

Cooder laments the loss of a vibrant city culture and invites a large cast of musicians to help him tell this story, including Little Willie G. of Thee Midnighters, legendary Chicano musician Lalo Guerrero, and Flaco Jimenez. The narrative of Chávez Ravine takes in the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 and the '50s Red Scare, but its emphasis is on the exciting, multifarious sounds and textures of this Latino neighborhood. Cooder uses the knowledge he’s gained playing traditional Latin music over the last few years to create a rich musical tapestry, but he also employs sampling and other techniques to give the recording an almost cinematic impact.

Not surprisingly, Chávez Ravine is well recorded in warm analog tones. A beautifully illustrated booklet that accompanies the disc helps bring various strands of the narrative into focus. Cooder shows that whatever progress resulted from the destruction of Chávez Ravine was purchased at the loss of something much greater.