Like many people, I probably became aware of Ry Cooder’s work with Wim Wenders’s 1984 ‘Paris Texas:’ Cooder’s atmospheric and reverberating slide guitar was a big part of the movie, capturing a specific mood to perfection. However, Cooder was already an accomplished musician who had recorded with many rock legends from the Rolling Stones to Randy Newman, the Beach Boys, Van Morrison just to name a few. He once again came on everyone’s radar with the critically acclaimed (and very successful) ‘Buena Vista Social Club,’ an album of Cuban son music that he recorded with local veteran musicians in Havana. This cost him a $25,000 fine for violating the US embargo against Cuba, but the enterprise (that was also documented by Wim Wenders) also won him several Grammy Awards in 1998. Ry Cooder is a legend and a musician who has been experimenting with American roots music for decades, while pushing the limits of the genre and collaborating with musicians from all over the world, from India to Africa. Ry Cooder has been making world music before this was even a house name, constantly using old music for guidance and inspiration. From soundtracks to solo albums, he has always been preoccupied with subtle textures, cultures, history, and new ideas
I didn’t expect to see him yesterday when I decided to check out a free concert in Santa Monica’s Gandara Park. Joachim Cooder – and not Ry Cooder – was announced, but since it was a family affair, a very unassuming Ry Cooder, came to play with his son, while Joachim’s wife, Juliette Commagere, was on percussion and backing vocals and Mark Fain was on bass. It took me a little while to realize it was indeed Ry Cooder, but there was no more doubt when Joachim simply introduced him as his dad after a few songs. It was a pleasure to see the whole family on stage and to witness the complicity between father and son.
Joachim has been collaborating with his father for decades, as a percussionist, he has performed during the legendary Buena Vista Social Club sessions and has recorded with a wide number of artists, such as Mavis Staples, Jon Hassell, Dr. John, and Ali Farka Touré. However, he was playing an unusual instrument on Sunday afternoon, an intriguing Array electric mbira, his own variation on the African thumb piano that is a traditional instrument used by the Shona people of Zimbabwe.
It was Joachim’s set and most of the songs they performed came from his 2020 solo album ‘Over That Road I’m Bound: The Songs of Uncle Dave Macon,’ with a few from his 2018 ‘Fuchsia Machu Picchu.’ The set was an exercise of subtility, an almost Zen experience, with a collection of delicate sounds and the serenity of Joachim and Juliette’s vocal harmonies. While Joachim’s gentle croon was calm and direct, at the image of his lullaby-like songs, the very soothing sound of the Mbira obviously gave an African vibe to the music, completed by Ry’s delicate textural guitars.
If the songs had a traditional vibe, it’s simply because Joachim Cooder rearranged songs made popular by banjo player Uncle Dave Macon, known as the grandfather of country music and the first star of the Grand Ole Opry. Joachim told us that his father used to play the songs for him on the banjo and that his own daughter fell in love with them, which led to the recording of the original tunes completely reworked and transformed with the original and creative choice of the mbira. I guess you could call it world-Americana. The result was definitively a family affair, a multi-generation affair, exulting a rare sweetness and freshness. If most of the numbers were calm and appeasing, the tempo accelerated quite a bit during a few songs, and, whether he was using an acoustic or an electric guitar, Ry’s sophisticated additions on guitar shined for the crowd’s great excitement.
It was probably one of the most serene and peaceful concerts that I have attended, as the experience culminated with a quasi-religious cover of Rosa Lee Watson’s ‘Your Long Journey.’ Nevertheless, the set was dominated by an authentic African vibe, while the throbbing structure of the songs, reinvented with the peaceful sound of the mbira, was wrapped by Ry Cooder’s inventive and textural guitar patterns.
Come Along Buddy
Molly Married a Traveling Man
All in Down and Out
Throw Me Something Mister
When the Train Comes Along
Oh Lovin’ Babe
Fuchsia Machu Picchu
Your Long Journey (Rosa Lee Watson cover)
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