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Ry Cooder: Music Can Bring People Together

Ry Cooder: Music Can Bring People Together

Courtesy Abby Ross


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The world of music is better because Ry Cooder is in it. He is now among a small handful of artists writing the book on how to keep pushing musical boundaries past the age of senior citizenship, continuing to take chances and exploring. His whole career has been incredibly varied and characterized by exploration, sitting on the edge between the traditional and the innovative. As a result, he has imbued the varied American folk traditions with his style and vision. The songs he performs or has written are socially and politically aware and he speaks truth to power.

But his musical activities haven't stopped there, as he has also forged a successful career in film music and created some of the most memorable soundtracks for directors such as Walter Hill and Wim Wenders with whom he has mostly been associated with. Among the most memorable soundtracks is the music for films such as Paris, Texas The Long Riders, Crossroads, End of Violence, Streets of Fire... Over the years, he expanded his scope by working with artists from other parts of the globe such as the Malian great Ali Farka Toure, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, the Buena Vista Social Club franchise, and also the Celtic world with the eminent Irish band The Chieftains, not to mention Galician bagpiper Carlos Nunez or the 4th world globalist, the trumpeter Jon Hassell.

In his latest project, Get On Board: The Songs and Music of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Cooder reunites with blues guitarist Taj Mahal with whom he first played in a band called the Rising Sons, almost 60 years ago. This album is a tribute to the two great Piedmont-style harmonica and blues masters and a testament to their range and depth as performed by these two artists who grew up with their music. This fresh chat that continues their story after so many years is no less profound than their recordings in the mid-'60s. This is an album that's joyful, immediate, and full of life.

All About Jazz: During your fruitful and longstanding career, you have dove deep both into the vast American musical legacy and traditions and other world legacies, be it Irish or Cuban, or Malian. To what can you attribute the diversity of your output?

Ry Cooder: If you like music, then you are curious about music, right? Because of records, I think mostly, then we have records from all over the world. It's easy to have and to find because you can always start there. When you like something, you hear it on a record, then I get curious about it, I look, and then I want to learn more. I know many people like this. It's not just me. It's a kind of a way of life to be curious about what you do and not just to do one thing because there is so much interesting music in the world that it would be good to know about.

AAJ: It was through your work that I came across a lot of interesting people, various types of music and traditions, and not just American traditions but worldwide. You were the vanguard and as someone living far from the US, your work introduced me to a lot of interesting names including these two artists on the last record.

RC: Sure. That's part of it. In other words, if I do something and you hear it then you think I wonder where that came from and then you go and look for yourself and that's a really good thing. That's what I always do because of records. Records make you curious because then you want to know and hear more and know about it. Not everything, of course. Nobody can pursue everything, it's impossible. It's the way of doing things I guess, I've always been like that. I can't tell you why, I just am.

AAJ:What was it about the music of these two people (Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee) that made you want to record it with Taj Mahal for Get on Board?

RC: When I was a very young, little kid, and I was 8 or 9 years old, and I first heard these records, Sonny Terry and Brown McGhee on record and I had a guitar and I learned to play some. I could play simple music but when you are very young and you hear something like that for the first time it has a huge impact on a young person. So then you think, this is a life you can have. You learn to do this and I wanted to learn to do it. One of the first blues that I heard was Brownie and Sonny. And then I went to look for other records, of course. It wasn't so easy back then. There weren't that many records of early blues and later there were more, but it was the two of them that I heard first and this particular Get on Board record (Folkways Records, 1952), was the first one of theirs that I had.

AAJ: Did you get to see them perform live at the time?

RC: Oh yeah. By the time I was 13 they had started to come to Los Angeles and there was a folk club out here that started in the early '60s and so I went to see them, absolutely. And that was a huge thing too because with the records you know what they play like but seeing them do it is a whole other story. Then you can watch and feel it and then understand a little more. It was a tremendous thing. That kind of experience, you can't have it anymore. It's not possible. Most everybody has gone, are dead or whatever, but back then, a lot of these guys were not that old. Country music and blues in the '60s was an interesting thing and in those days you could see people, living people that you have records of.

AAJ: What sort of story do you feel these songs tell about the times we live in? Why was it important for you to record them now?

RC: The music that Brownie and Sonny did and performed in the day and recorded were a lot of these folk songs you would say, from black people, from the South. Some of them are very old. "I Shall Not Be Moved" is really an old song, probably 200 years old. Their repertoire was country blues from before their time. From the tens, the '20s, the '30s, and so those songs in today's world, they are very antique but we still like them because they are fun to listen to, they are nice songs. It just shows you that folk music has a life of its own. It doesn't depend on the time period. It's like classical music in that way. You still like it, you listen to it. You may not think so, but I do. It always sounds good to me and in the same way that Beethoven sounds good. That's what music is like. That's what it's all about. You listen to it. The magic of records is because records are that moment, that person played that song. It might be 10 years ago, 20, 50, or 100 years ago. But the moment they did it is preserved on a record and so you get a picture of what they were like that person, how they played, how they sound like, what it felt like. So it's an amazing thing, a record. It goes on forever and it never gets old. I have my old LPs and I listen to them all the time.

So, me and Taj thought we could do this, Brownie and Sonny stuff, these tunes of theirs because he has grown up listening to it, and I have grown up listening to it. We know those tunes and now we are the old guys. Taj is 80 this year and I'm 75 now. We are the old-timers and that's how it is.

AAJ: You've been longtime friends and collaborators with Taj Majal. Please talk about your working relationship and friendship which continues to be so fruitful after all these years.

RC: We picked up where we left off. I hadn't played with him in 50 years. Once maybe. But we stayed friends and everything and so then, the idea to do something together suddenly came up. It just seemed like a good idea. My son Joachim told me, you better do this, try it. It'll be good. So I said, let me see if I can pick up something. What would we imply to do? What can we record now? After all this time, what would it be? You have to have an idea. It's important to have a good concept because you don't want to just start playing songs at random. I don't know what would that consist of, but the Brownie and Sonny idea is a perfect template. It's a perfect model because there's two of them and there's two of us basically. And Taj plays harmonica. He can do that part of the sound and I can sort of play like Brownie a little bit and I can be that part of the sound. And then we can see what we can do, should we decide to do it. It took us 3 days. That's all we did. We didn't rehearse or practice or anything. We just sat down, did one song after another and it just took three days to do it.

AAJ: Please talk about your son Joachim and what he brought to the sessions Joachim is a unique percussionist with a unique percussion assembly and he has played on many of your records aside from this one.

RC: Joachim is a purely instinctive player. Whatever he plays whether its drums or something else, he is self-taught, kind of like me. And he plays what he feels. When he plays with me, it's always been what I felt what's just right. He understands the rhythm like I do. We are alike in that way. He likes olds music and it's not history to him. It's not like ancient history. I look at things in terms of their time like old records or old performers but he doesn't. It's just what we are doing at that moment. But he is very good. We didn't practice. He doesn't have to know everything. He just hears me and Taj saying ok let's do it like this and I state a little rhythm and then he walked in and sat down on his drum set and just played it. That's the only way you should do this. You can't map it or plan it out or nail it down. And this has to feel good and easy feeling.

AAJ: He has been a valuable sideman for many years. I have a friend in LA who teaches guitar and various other stuff at Cal Arts University whose name is Miroslav Tadic and with whom Joachim had studied briefly the music and the rhythms of my native country Macedonia.

RC: Yes, I remember, the funny time signatures, the irregular time signatures. The 9 beats. I liked that.

AAJ: There are a lot of records in your output that reflect cosmopolitan cross-cultural explorations. In times when circumstances such as a pandemic, social strife, xenophobia, and dangers of another World War cause people to erect walls, you have been putting out records that tear down walls. Where did your initial interest in mixing different types of world traditions stem from?

RC: It's very simple, music to me is one thing. The impulse to play music and the music itself it's the notes. There's so many notes because it's all one thing if you see it that way. I don't look at it and say this is music different from me, therefore I don't care. I don't see it that way. If I like it, I want to learn to play it if I can. There are many things that I can't play. I'm no good at 9/8 rhythms. I could never do that. Also, I love the music of Vietnam. There is a certain thing they do but it's impossible to learn unless you were born into it. I listen to it and I can't do it. Also sometimes in the past, not so much now, the phone would ring and someone would say "Ali Farka Toure is here, do you like him?—Yes. Do you like to record with him?—Yes." It's as simple as that. And you'll find yourself doing it. Or Vishwa Mohan Bhatt "Do you like him?—Yes. Would you like to record with him?—Yes." I always said yes unless I knew I couldn't do it. Often, people would suggest or hire me or ask me to do something.

For the Buena Vista Social Club, I was asked to do that, I didn't think that up. It was an accident because they were supposed to do something else and we did that. At that time, it was an 8-day thing. It is amazing. It still pays the bills. But if you have the ability to play with somebody else it's because you can listen and fit yourself in i.e. to blend with them. Not all the time. I've tried several things and they didn't work but I kind of know what I can or cannot do. You have to know what you can't. But it's a lifetime thing. I've done this thing all my life since I was a little kid. It's just who I am, I suppose. And I know a lot of people —David Lindley is a good example. He can play with anybody.

AAJ: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you as an artist? During the downtime period, did it yield any new music?

RC: It affected everybody. When the big COVID came, in fact, it was then that Taj and I were starting to talk about doing something but we couldn't start. We had to put this on hold and do nothing. We did nothing for a whole year. I mean, when I say nothing, I didn't do very much of anything, we moved house so there was a lot of work because of that and so forth. But, Joachim did a whole record of Uncle Dave Macon's songs [Over That Road I'm Bound: The Songs Of Uncle Dave Macon) and everyone wanted him to come and perform and he couldn't go. It put the brakes on everything and everybody. All musicians—I'm not talking about billionaires, but I'm talking about average musicians—were stuck. Like people everywhere. It was so weird and now people want to start to go on tours again, they want to start performing. We'll see if that's gonna work. What's gonna happen with the health problem, I don't know. When you get to be my age, you gotta be careful. I didn't get sick, my wife didn't get sick and none of us in the family got sick as we really stayed at home. I stayed at home anyway. We stayed in the house.

AAJ: During the downtime period, did it yield any new music aside from Get on Board?

RC: I play my instruments constantly if I may get an idea. You have to keep playing and you have to keep in shape. It's like anything. When you get old, my age now, I have to keep my hands. I'm playing better than I ever did, but you have to keep your dexterity up and you have to keep on doing it. If you don't then it just goes away on you, you don't want that. So we'll see. We made this record in 3 days at Joachim's house, in his living room and he lives 2 blocks from me so it was very simple, very easy to do. And we'll see what's to be done. I don't know quite in the future here how it's all gonna work out. Taj Mahal travels all the time. He is different from me in that way. He is always traveling, he is always doing shows. That's all he does. I'm a stay-at-home kind of a guy. But Taj is out there and is working right now. As far as I know, he is out there traveling. He has a little band that he travels with and stuff, and we are gonna do two nights in a little club up in San Francisco in May and see how we like it as a stage show because it would be very different from a living room. You have to play a little differently, and do things a little differently but the three of us we are gonna try and see how it goes.

AAJ: What do you see as a special value of music to the world during dark and treacherous times like this?

RC: It's a horrible situation in the world, isn't it? Music has always been good for people in hard times whether it was economic hard times or war times. It's soothing. If it's good music, that really can be helpful. If people hear it and like it, the problem is with availability. We used to have radio and we used to have record stores and it was part of your everyday life. To hear music on the radio and then go out and buy it. It's insane to think that the record business is thin. There is no chance. How in the hell you are supposed to make records and get them out to the people if there is no radio and stores? It's a terrible problem and then I don't know what to say about that except that in my lifetime when I was young and coming up we had the radio. Everybody knows this. You heard the new Byrds song and you think "my God, this sounds great." The radio sounds really good. But now, I don't know what to think. During my lifetime it disappeared, they don't even have record stores. What would be the point? If you didn't have shoe stores you wouldn't know what to put on your feet. You see, it's the same problem. The problem of the people getting the message that the music has...they may like it, they may feel it is relaxing them, they may feel it encourages them. Some of them will never be able to hear this.

I don't believe the internet is the solution. I don't like the internet and social media. But records are still important and I like to make them. I think they are good for the world but we live in perilous times, the worst is with welfare quality and people have none and I don't see any hope for that. The rich people have the world's stake for their own use. They are gonna keep it that way, of course, that's always been true. The British Empire and the American Empire and all of the empires were like that. They were keeping all of the wealth to themselves and that is exactly what we have now in this country. It's insanity. And it's very bad because what rich people are afraid of, of course, is a revolution because they fear gravely that the people will band together. It's more of them than there is of the rich people. They are outnumbered. This is why governments keep people separated. They keep the race alive, they keep the class alive so that people won't get together so that they won't band together. That is why people like Pete Seeger thought music was good for you and that people could become unified by singing. A simple thing like that. Pete used to do this. That's what he sang. If it's 5 people or 500 or 5000, it was incredible he could do it. I've seen him do it. And when they all start to sing as he would all have them do that. And then they would feel that the person next is no longer a stranger. And that works perfectly. This is one of the great things about music that it can bring people together if they are given a chance.

But of course, there's powers in the world and I have always felt that power is corrupting and that's a problem. Politicians are useless because all they do is sell themselves to the highest bidder. So, they don't do us any good. Politics is doomed, it's dead anyway at least in this country. What I'm really interested is history and I really like history books. Macedonia, I've done a lot of reading about it. I'm very interested in it and the Balkans. I have tons of books about it. It's quite fascinating to me, all of the countries and their histories, towns, and people and I've enjoyed that very much.


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