Everyone has a Chavez Ravine, if you live long enough to remember a place that only exists in the here and now as a memory. There are several in my life: a bucolic swimming hole that was paved over to be a parking lot, a rugged hillside topped with oaks that was scarred, shaved and cleared for a megamall that was named for the creek it ruined, a funky downtown hotel where great musicians such as Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith and Butch Hancock honed their craft that was leveled and replaced by another hotel with considerably less charm.
Chavez Ravine is like that, only on a considerably larger scale. It's certainly a more accurate metaphor for the real Los Angeles than Malibu, Beverly Hills or West Hollywood, because Chavez was the last natural space in L.A. that accommodated people who lived with the land, not on it. Chavez was a "Poor Man's Shangri-La", as Cooder calls the opening track (borrowing the phrase from photographer Don Normark), once upon a time, long ago.
An Angeleno from the git-go, Ryland Peter Cooderon was raised around music and enjoyed music celebrity status early on, founding the Rising Sons with Taj Mahal and Ed Cassady from Spirit, briefly working with Captain Beefheart (an experiment still worth pondering and appreciating), almost replacing Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones until he got crossways with Keith Richards over who came up with the guitar riff to "Honky Tonk Woman", and finally as his own man. His career since has largely been defined by explorations of music in its indigenous forms -- in Texas, Hawaii, Cuba and all around the world. If not for Cooder, there would be no Buena Vista Social Club.
After all that roaming, he finally turns his sights on his hometown, where everyone is from somewhere else. But as Cooder eloquently demonstrates, the city of the rootless does have a past, and he digs into it with a stroke of good timing that coincides with the election of city's first Mexican-American mayor since the days when L.A. was a 19th-century village of less than 1,000 souls. In the process, he dredges up and celebrates the Mexicano soul of the City of Angels that Anglo civic leaders, developers and police spent most of the 20th century trying to tamp down.
The metaphor for all that is the saga of Chavez Ravine, a collection of several hillside villages housing 300 families a mile from downtown that was wiped off the map in the 1950s, first to accommodate a public housing development, and then, after business interests, cold war politics and the Los Angeles Times got involved, to house a baseball stadium built for the Los Angeles Dodgers that opened in April of 1962.
The cast telling the story of what was done in the name of "progress" includes Lalo Guerrero, the rhumba-rocking toast of all the right salons de baile in L.A. post-World War II, and Don Tosti, the creator of the storied East L.A. pachuco sound; both men have both passed away since this album was recorded. Other participants include Little Willie G from the seminal East LA rock big band Thee Midnighters; singers Juliette & Carla Commagere, and Ersi & Rosella Arvizu; old familiars Flaco Jimenez, Chucho Valdes, Bla Pahinui and Ledward Kaapana from previous Cooder projects; and Ry's son, Joachim Cooder.
The result is a rich, bilingual, eclectic street opera peppered with English and Spanish sound bites, poetry, sampling, and even a UFO. It is easily Cooder's most personal and passionate recorded work yet. But because all those elements are injected into a single album, this is also his most difficult recording to grasp, requiring -- no, demanding -- the listener to pay attention, listen closely to the lyrics, and read the liners for the essential footnotes that explain the groove they're moving their hips to.
Chavez Ravine is worth the investment.
That epiphany came on the 20th spin of "El U.F.O. Cayo", a spacey, multi-layered confection that floats between the ears like a dream, romantic, ethereal, spiritual, wistful, funny (do I hear "Tequila" fluttering by?) and angry all at once, and deep enough to reveal something new every play. I've fallen in love with Juliette Commagere, and I don't even know what she looks like or exactly what she's singing.
Cooder's own lithe, whispery vocals recall jazz singer Bob Dorough, explaining why he is primarily known as a maestro of stringed instruments. And you have to wonder if some of the cryptology he's throwing out isn't meant to be deciphered. What's with his Space Vato character, anyway? How does a Dude from Outer Space fit into the scheme of things? Best I can figure, El UFO is some kind of metaphor for Dodger Stadium itself, an extraterrestrial monstrosity so out-of-scale with the barrio it lands in, it suffocates everything underneath and around it.
But that's quibbling for quibbling's sake. Cooder's most critical role here is as big-band leader behind the stellar supporting cast, letting Chucho Valdes' Cubano piano push "Muy Fifi" along like a shuffle, or having Flaco Jimenez kick off "Ejercito Militar" (Military Exercise) with his button accordion, driving the song in strident, marching precision all the way to the last note. (Never mind it's really Tex-Mex and not Cali; like everyone else in L.A., Mexicanos are from all over the continent.)
This isn't the first documentation-as-art of Chavez Ravine's destruction. Chavez Ravine: 1949, Don Normark's vivid book of photographs of the villages taken the year before the bulldozers first arrived (the last houses were pushed over on May 8, 1959), published in 2003, was likely as much an influence on Cooder as his own memories. The photographs are pretty great, but the music conjures images that are just as vivid.
The opening tracks' melodies saunter along like a Sunday promenade around a plaza principal while flashing traces of son jarocho, Hawaiian slack steel, bajo sexto, and Cuban son that reflect both Cooder's body of knowledge and the melange of styles that define L.A. latin music. The drama begins on the third track with a political rant on "Don't Call Me Red", which covers the Commie-baiting, police-bullying (including Jack Webb soundbite!), pachuco-beating, and urban renewal-ing that conspired to exploit Los Angeles' poor minorities. The mishmash of Golden Oldies tributes, assumed characters, pronouncements and meditations that follow are all linked to a rage for what happened and is still happening, while celebrating the resiliency of the people who were wronged.
In that respect, Cooder rises to the status of songster with Chavez Ravine, assuming not just the style but the substance of one of the first roots players he ever emulated, Woody Guthrie. He not only made me tap my foot and nod my head; he made me think. I'll never see Dodger Stadium the same way, just as I already miss Lalo Guerrero and Don Tosti like I hadn't before.