The word "eclectic" may have been invented to describe people like Ryland "Ry" Cooder, America's foremost musicologist, writer, and performer of motion-picture soundtracks; guitarist extraordinaire; and producer of the acclaimed Buena Vista Social Club recordings.
The title of "producer" doesn't begin to fully describe his involvement in this three-year love affair with traditional Cuban music and the forgotten stars he assembled to record these memorable and charming discs.
The first time we heard his distinctive name was in the late 1960s as a guest slide guitarist on The Rolling Stones "Let it Bleed" and "Sticky Fingers" albums, credited with creating the classic guitar intro to "Honky Tonk Woman."
A busy decade as an in-demand session player followed, peppered by occasional eclectic solo releases, peaking with 1974's "Paradise and Lunch," a tasty mix of blues, gospel, and Tex-Mex flavors.
In the late 1970s and '80s, Cooder began to augment his session and solo work with soundtracks for films such as "Blue Collar," "The Long Riders," and his most-acclaimed score, for "Paris, Texas," where he began a fruitful collaboration with German director Wim Wenders, who was at the helm of "Buena Vista Social Club," the movie.
Cooder has delighted music fans in the '90s with his forays into Tex-Mex music with accordionist Flaco Jimenez, African rhythms with guitarist Ali Farka Toure (their "Talking Timbuktu" won a 1994 World Music Grammy), and Indian music with renowned slide guitarist V.M. Bhatt. But he describes the Buena Vista project as "the peak musical experience of my life."
"Music is a treasure hunt," Cooder says. "You dig and dig and sometimes you find something."
If he keeps uncovering treasures like these, we'll all be richer for it.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society