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The new album from Ry Cooder that tells...
The forgotten story of Chávez Ravine

Review by Lance Selfa | August 19, 2005 | Page 9

Ry Cooder with various artists, Chávez Ravine, Nonesuch Records.

VIRTUALLY EVERY baseball fan knows that Los Angeles' Dodger Stadium is located in an area called Chávez Ravine. But few know Chávez Ravine was a tight-knit working-class Chicano community that dated from the early 1800s.

In the years following the Second World War, Chávez Ravine was supposed to be the site of a public housing community, with schools and parks for returning veterans and poorer Chicano residents. But this plan never came to pass. It fell victim to a coordinated attack from land developers who wanted to stop public housing and local McCarthyites who charged proponents of the plan with being "communist agents."

In its place, the city arranged a sweetheart deal to hand off Chávez Ravine to Dodgers' owner Walter O'Malley. Starting in 1955, bulldozers and police cleared Chávez Ravine's residents off their land, razing their homes.

This story provides the inspiration for Ry Cooder's 15-track CD Chávez Ravine. The tracks do many things at once: capture the feel of day-to-day life in Chávez Ravine, set the story in its broader context, condemn the notion of "progress" that wiped the community off the map, and pay tribute to a pioneering generation of Chicano musicians, who, like Chávez Ravine, have been forgotten.

Different songs take up different points of view on the events. The narrator of "Corrido de Boxeo" is a Chicano boxer who succeeds in the ring while his community loses to the developers. On the other side of the battle is the Anglo bulldozer driver of "It's Just Work for Me," who tries to forget that he's leveling people's homes--and a sleazy Anglo developer, who muses in "In My Town," "Can't you see a 50-story building/Where a palm tree used to be?"

Cooder is probably best known today for spearheading the recording of The Buena Vista Social Club, the wonderful 1997 collection that helped introduce a new generation of fans to Cuban musicians who hadn't recorded for decades.

For Chávez Ravine, Cooder collaborated with Chicano musicians like William Garcia, leader of the 1950s and '60s R&B band Little Willie G and Thee Midnighters, Lalo Guerrero and Ersi Arvizu. These artists' contributions are the best part of the album.

Little Willie G sings "Onda Callejera," a catchy tropical tune that belies the song's serious subject matter--an account of the 1943 "Zoot Suit Riots," where more than 300 drunken U.S. sailors attacked and beat hundreds of "pachucos," young Chicano men out on the town.

You can hear the emotion in Lalo Guerrero's voice commemorating his "poor old neighborhood" in "Barrio Viejo" accompanied by the great conjunto accordionist Flaco Jimenez: "We will be the deceased/Surrounded by a thousand memories."

If Cooder had filled Chávez Ravine with songs like these, it would have been a much more musically satisfying collection. But several dissonant, free-jazz-meets-spoken-word cuts and Cooder's weak vocals drag it down a bit.

On the other hand, Cooder's raspy voice works in "Don't Call Me Red," where he personifies Frank Wilkinson, a public housing official that right-wing politicians targeted for red-baiting. In a cut that includes samples from McCarthyite hearings and old Dragnet episodes, Cooder's 90-year-old Wilkinson defies his critics: "Fritz Burns, Chief Parker, and J. Edgar/I outlived those bastards after all."

"Nobody knows the secrets that stayed hidden/They'll settle it with God, the bunch of thieves," sings the narrator of "Corrido de Boxeo." Chávez Ravine is determined to bring those secrets about 50-year-old events into the light of day--and let us judge for ourselves.

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