A musical tribute to L.A.'s lost 'Chávez Ravine'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Before the bulldozers came, the valley of Chavez Ravine was stubbled with clapboard homes and shanties. Surrounded by a moat of Los Angeles highway, the hilly enclave was home to more than 300 families - mostly of Mexican heritage - by 1949. To hear Ry Cooder describe it on his new album, Chavez Ravine was a "poor man's Shangri-La," a vibrant neighborhood where carefree pachucos danced to the sounds of Lil' Julian Herrera in their zoot suits.

Though the community had its own stores, school, and church, Los Angeles officials viewed the area as an eyesore and invoked the power of eminent domain to uproot the Ravine's residents. Years later, the city razed the 300-acre area to make way for Dodger Stadium.

The story of the Bohemian neighborhood's demise is the subject of Cooder's "Chávez Ravine," a concept album - part historical document, part musical fantasy - that took more than three years to make. The album couldn't be better timed. A resurgence of interest in the incident recently inspired a play by a Los Angeles theater company as well as a new PBS documentary titled "Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story" (which includes music by Cooder). By coincidence, the CD's release also comes as the US Supreme Court weighs a case that may determine whether eminent domain can be used to further private economic development.

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"Los Angeles is the home of eminent-domain abuse, and poor people are the ones who get moved around," opines Cooder. "If [the Supreme Court justices] come down in favor of the rights of citizens, it would be amazing."

The virtuoso slide guitarist, renowned for a shimmering tone as pure as Alaskan spring water, says his new album was sparked by stark photos of Chavez Ravine taken by Don Normark, a photographer who stumbled upon the community shortly before its residents were served eviction notices in 1950.

"I began to work harder [to] get to know some of the individuals and get to know some of their stories," says Cooder, who was aware that many key figures of the era had died. "In order to do music, you have to have a visual."

Now in his fifth decade as a recording artist, Cooder has developed a reputation as something of a musical archaeologist - a modern day Alan Lomax. In addition to introducing Western ears to the unique guitar sounds of Mali's Ali Farka Toure and India's V.M. Bhatt, the roving troubadour's 1996 pilgrimage to Cuba triggered a wave of interest in the island's Latin jazz in the wake of the multimillion-selling "Buena Vista Social Club." To make that album, the product of just two days of sessions, Cooder recorded with octogenarian jazz masters who had been all but forgotten by the outside world after the Cuban revolution of 1959.

For "Chávez Ravine," Cooder once again went looking for musicians that radio forgot. The mostly Spanish-language album includes vocals from the late Don Tosti, an "overlooked" musician, as well as Esi and Rosella Arvizu. It also features the final recording of Lalo Guerrero, a legend of the Chicano music scene.

"It's a group effort," says Cooder, in a phone call from his home in Santa Monica, Calif. "That way you begin to include more of everything - more information, more personalities."

Little Willie G. was one of the first collaborators invited to cowrite and sing on the album. The singer has vivid childhood memories of the turmoil in Chavez Ravine, an area his family visited for picnics. "Television was in its infancy but I remember these black and white images coming across the screen of bulldozers, the National Guard, and LAPD in the dead of night, evicting people from their homes - actually dragging them from their homes," says the ex-member of Thee Midnighters, a key '60s band from East L.A.

By the time of that final reckoning on May 8, 1959, the ravine was already largely empty, its residents long since scattered. The city had originally intended to clear the land for public housing, ostensibly to help the very people it had displaced. But the proposed development hit several snags, both legal and political. Finally, after years of protracted arguments between competing interests, the 300-acre area was sold to Walter O'Malley, owner of the Dodgers. In the liner notes of his album, Cooder deems the legendary team owner a man beholden to the dollar.

Others, not surprisingly, see it differently. Ticket prices for ballgames remained unchanged until 1975, evidence that O'Malley wasn't greedy by nature, says Brent Shyer, vice president for special projects at Walter O'Malley's website. Mr. Shyer defends the building of the stadium as a turning point in the city's maturation.

"The Dodgers have bent over backwards to cater to the Hispanic-speaking residents of Los Angeles, and that was particularly true with the arrival of Fernando Valenzuela in the 1980s, when the Dodgers won the World Series," says Eric Avila, associate professor of Chicano Studies and History at the University of California, Los Angeles. "It illuminates certain paradoxes and contradictions [of the Chavez Ravine story] that have not been adequately discussed."

Cooder is all too aware of the irony. One album cut, titled "3rd Base, Dodger Stadium," is sung from the perspective of a Latino who looks out at the playing field and pinpoints where his home used to be.

Far from being dour, the album is full of wry humor. In one song, a mother in the neighborhood argues with her daughter about her choice of boyfriend. Another song is told from the perspective of someone driving a bulldozer. In keeping with the album's exploration of the zeitgeist of the 1950s, it even features a narrator in the form of an alien from a UFO. (They don't call these things "concept albums" for nothing.) Musically, the album's bright colors - meant to evoke the sounds of the old neighborhood - reflect Cooder's ongoing interest in Latin sounds. It's hard to imagine that this is the same guitarist who almost joined the Rolling Stones a few decades ago.

"In Latin, the rhythm is supple. It's very graceful," says Cooder. "You can really hear it in the Cuban [music], all of those qualities. Very refined. Elegant. Mysterious, almost. Because it's dance music, there's a lift in the rhythm to let the dancers glide along."

Cooder credits media interest for the success of the "Buena Vista Social Club" project. He hopes similar attention to "Chávez Ravine" will illumine a shrouded episode in history.

Last week, Cooder was honored for his work by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Gloria Molina, the chairwoman whose district includes Chavez Ravine, was moved by the new album. "She got up and spoke at length off the cuff - for the record and on television - about how this should never happen and this is the kind of thing that they intend to, as a body, stand against," says Cooder. "I was amazed."

Ry Cooder on Ry Cooder

Ry Cooder's career can be basically broken down into three distinct eras: The solo records of the 1970s; the movie soundtracks of the 1980s; and the exploration of World Music during the 1990s and beyond. The Monitor asked the guitarist to reflect on some of his famous records.

Into the Purple Valley (1971)

Traditional Americana from the 1930s and '40s that takes in Dust Bowl blues, calypso, and the Little Feat flavored "Money Honey."

"I grew up listening to folk music and I got to love certain kinds of old-time American styles and folk styles, so that's how I learned to play. People were telling me, 'don't do that, make rock records ... that's what they signed you to do.' "

Bop Till You Drop (1979)

The R&B collection - often as jaunty as the title suggests - makes history as the first digitally recorded album.

"Oh, I don't know about that record. That was a crippling experience. The sound was so terrible, the machine that they gave me - this prototype digital machine - was [rubbish]. I was starting to get unhappy, though, with things. I didn't like the way I was playing or singing. It was all starting to sound very futile to me, like I wasn't getting anywhere. That's why, at that point, I sort of quit. Luckily, [director] Walter Hill called and I started doing soundtracks and I learned a lot."

Paris, Texas: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1984)

Cooder's sparse guitar was a core element of the film that won top prize at the 1994 Cannes film festival.

"Wim Wenders came and he said, 'I have a film, will you do the music? ... I have three days.' So I say, 'sit down and stop walking up and down and making me nervous. Let me just do the title cue and if you like it, the way we're going to do it is just kind of throw this thing together.' Three days later it was done ... he went to the Cannes film festival and made history."

Buena Vista Social Club (1997)

Cooder makes a pilgrimage to Cuba to play with forgotten Jazz masters.

"I stayed down in [Cuba] - back and forth - for seven odd years. I'm such a better player and musician now than I was seven years ago. It's as if everything you ever knew was upgraded a thousand percent."

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