Over the course of three decades, Ry Cooder has rarely stuck to one thing. The guitarist began as a session man for artists as disparate as Captain Beefheart (on the recently reissued 1967 album Safe As Milk), Randy Newman (his classic 12 Songs, among others), and The Rolling Stones (Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Beggars Banquet). In the early '70s, he also embarked on an esteemed solo career, while the '80s found Cooder branching out into soundtrack work, often composing for director Wim Wenders, though he also found time to help reenergize his friend John Hiatt. This decade has found Cooder collaborating with a diverse stable of international musicians: His duets with V.M. Bhatt (1993's A Meeting By The River), Ali Farka Toure (1994's Talking Timbuktu), and the successful Buena Vista Social Club have won him and the musicians with whom he has worked numerous accolades and awards. Cooder recently reprised his role as the Buena Vista Social Club musicians' champion, this time in front of Wim Wenders' camera. The venerable guitarist recently spoke to The Onion about the resulting film, his work around the world, and his collaborations with Wenders.
The Onion: You've done soundtrack work, released solo albums, and been a sideman and collaborator. Which aspect of your career has been the best experience?
Ry Cooder: I don't know. They're all different; everything's different. Some things I like to do better than other things, but I've got to say that in the end, the thing that makes it the most interesting for me is who you're with, you know? It's people that make the difference in just about any field, right? So, one of the reasons I like this Cuban thing as much as I do is obviously because these people are so astonishing, and because they're such good players. At my age—I've done this a fairly long time—I've come to think that that's really what it's about: who you're able to interact with. There's nothing quite like it.
O: In the film, you imply that you happened upon the musicians you worked with in Cuba almost by chance. Does it amaze you that anywhere in the world there could be just as many undiscovered or undocumented musicians?
RC: Of course. I mean, there are people out there who are fantastic, and you'll never hear 'em. But there's one other thing about this, and that's that in this age, people of that era are either dead or very old. I've seen 'em go out in places, and it just seems to me that enough of that quality rests in these Cubans collectively. There's enough of them to do something. I know, for instance, one such man, a Vietnamese man in Hanoi, but he's one guy. He may be the only one left over there. There aren't very many anymore. That's one thing I've noticed.
O: Since so many of these lost or somewhat unknown musicians have come to the West's attention through the work you do, do you feel pressured to document as much as you can?
RC: When you start to deal with people this old, when you find them the way we came upon these guys in Havana, there's naturally a sense of urgency about it that kicks in. You know you don't have too much time. Whatever they're capable of doing now, you should do something about it, as much as you can. Let it live as much as you can and work on it as much as you can. Because once they go, they take all this with them. That knowledge is gone, and once that knowledge is gone, you really can't do this the same way. It'll never happen again. At the same time, nobody can go around the world doing this pillar to post. You just couldn't do that, either. So a certain amount of luck has to be with you, a certain amount of opportunity that you take advantage of. I have to think that somewhere on some little island in the Pacific, there's someone's who's great, but I'm probably never going to hear him. On the other hand, these musicians, such as these Cubans in Havana, are a part of a scene that did produce great music and great musicians. They came from this tradition, so it's a good place to look. It's like prospecting: You gotta know where to look.
O: It's often your name that gets people interested in this music.
RC: Well, yes, to a certain extent. Son music was not on a lot of lists three years ago.
O: Back when you were working with groups like The Rolling Stones or Captain Beefheart, did you have any idea that, 30 years down the line, you'd be doing what you're doing now?
RC: Well, I wanted to, let's put it that way. It was a matter of learning how to do it. You have to learn how to do this kind of stuff. You're not born with certain skills; you have to acquire them. In different parts of your life, you find yourself doing different things. When I was very, very young, I imagined that I would sure like to get around people somewhere else and do what they were doing with them. I always thought that would be about the best fun you could have.
O: Can it be tough to communicate with collaborators who don't know English, or is music a common language?
RC: Musicians are not so concerned with language. I've never felt that that was much of a problem. Needless to say, you've got to have someone who can speak for you. If you can't get yourself understood, you may have trouble, so you need some interpretation every now and again wherever you might be. But the truth of it is that musicians communicate in other ways. That's just something you rely on.
O: Do projects like the Buena Vista Social Club immediately fall into place once you all start playing together, or does it take a lot of work?
RC: It takes a lot of work. Oh, yeah. Everything you do is challenging, hopefully, because if it's not, it's boring. I always think you should push your envelope every chance you get. You should try to do something if you think you can see your way clear. If you think you fit into a situation, it's worth trying. I'll say this, though: To the extent that this Cuban project has been extended, the ramifications that have come up and the things I find myself doing as a result of this—partly because of the success and all the interest—provide a level of challenge that is rather considerable. I'm supposed to go around and promote these things. We've done a film and two records in three years. That's a lot more concentrated work in one area than I've ever done before. That all becomes rather challenging. There are responsibilities and aspects to this that make it more of an effort somehow. Of course, it's really satisfying to finally see this happen after 35 years of messing around with records. To see something connect like this is very gratifying, and it presents probably the greatest challenge, because if nothing ever develops and you go back home and think, "What's next?," there's not much challenge in that. Once you feel that you've learned some skills and you know how to make records, the next thing is, "Do we ever get to make one that people will really like?" Because then we'll have something to do.
O: Why do you think the Buena Vista Social Club record has connected as well as it has?
RC: My own feeling is that there are two aspects to that. One is that we caught a wave of media interest. You can make records from now 'til doomsday, and there are something like 50,000 records released every year, but the public gets to hear very few of these. They just won't know. They might be great records, but how in the world is the public supposed to find out about them? So something has to happen between you and the public, some interface that lets the public in on what you're doing. In this case, we seemed to catch a wave of world media interest in Cuba that's undeniable. But that alone wouldn't guarantee it, because you have to be there with the goods. You have to be there with something that the people can then connect with. So, what makes people connect with this thing? I do believe it has something to do with these musicians and who they are and what comes through their music. Beautiful tunes are all very good and fine, and great musicians are always great, but that alone isn't enough. Most folks, when they see movies or hear records, need something that they find pulls them in, draws them in, and appeals to them beyond just the notes. For a record to be memorable and great, it has to have something of this quality. Exactly what that is, I don't know, but I think it has something to do with an atmosphere, an environment that is appealing and attractive. And the people that inhabit this environment have… almost a message for the rest of the world. They deliver something subliminally, something about their character and the lives they lead and the values they have and all that sort of stuff. I wish I knew exactly, because then I'd go bottle it. It's a mysterious sort of thing, but you sure know if you don't have it.
O: Are you proud of your son Joachim for following in your footsteps?
RC: [Laughs.] Of course, sure. He grew up this way. He grew up in this milieu, around these people. He grew up in music, he plays drums real well, and this is his time to spend with the masters. You've got to have your time when you're young—he's 20. At that age, you've got to be imprinted by this, because you'll never know for sure what makes music sound good. That's what masters can do for you. They'll show you when you sit with them what it's all about. That's the only way you get that message, really.
O: Do you think he'll be doing what you're doing now in the future?
RC: Well, he has what it takes to do this. I think he's got the right idea. He's got the talent and intelligence to carry it off. Opportunities will come; I think it could happen. Plus, he's very good with people, and he's got a nice sort of interaction with anybody. I just feel that music is a great life, because it's very rewarding. It's a gratification. You do this for yourself, and you also do this for other people. And they, of course, are very appreciative, and I've certainly seen that a lot with this project here. I'll tell you, it's terrific [to be playing with him]. It's the best thing to have happen to you.
O: What is it that you find in Wim Wenders' filmmaking, and that he finds in your music, that keeps you working together?
RC: I think he's a great improviser. I think you have to be in order to seize the moment and make something memorable out of it. There are those who make music and movies in a linear way: They plan them, they have a script. Of course, you have to have a script sometimes—though we didn't here—but that alone isn't enough. You have to be able to improvise and respond to what's going on around you. Then you might get a good piece of work done. As far as I'm concerned, Wim is very adaptable to what's going on. He responds in a way that I feel is compatible. I feel we have the same take on things, and I really do trust him. You have to be around people you trust; otherwise you can't do anything—you're afraid, you're paranoid, and you can't do any work. I really do believe trust has a lot to do with it.
O: You two seem to have a similar passion for music.
RC: Definitely. Almost more so than anyone else I know. He definitely is a music man; he knows what he's listening to.
O: It must have been odd to have a German director filming an American guitarist working with Cuban musicians. Does Wenders bring some sort of different European perspective to the proceedings?
RC: In film, that may be true. He is very unusual in American film. He lives here now, but he's not from here, so he has a social consciousness that almost is predominant. That's unusual in American filmmaking. That's not typical of filmmaking over here. His social awareness is very deep, and that's almost where he starts from. The things he looks at—nature, cities… Also, he's not a power-based individual. His work is not coming from power. It's not an exercise in power, and that, to me, is critical. That's the single most important thing I can think of. Especially if you're going to go around people like these Cubans and this music, which is also not coming from power. In order to understand that, you have to be such a person yourself or you'll misunderstand everything.
O: You explained how tough it is to capture this music, but it's even less frequently captured on film. Wouldn't it be great to film every project?
RC: The things I've done and the places I've been… if in those days we had had one of those Sony video cameras, like [Wenders] used a lot to shoot this picture—something you can hold in your hand—we'd have been better off. It would have been a great thing. This is the thing I miss the most: the visual record, of course. So much of what makes this music sound like it sounds is contained in the environment. The environment is rarely put on tape, or if it is, it's so abstract that most people never realize it. They just don't know what it means. But if you can show it to them, then that's what becomes the main instrument. When I was in Hawaii and places like that, my wife Susie took some great photographs. But if we had had that doggone video camera, we'd have been ahead of the game. And there are some old films of musicians that now we see as so precious. I've seen some 16mm black-and-white footage from the '50s of some Cuban musicians, players from that era, that they have in the film institute in Havana. I wish the world could see this. These are incredible films, short films. Just amazing. Jaw-dropping stuff, where you can't believe what you're seeing. Kind of like seeing Louis Armstrong play, or something. It means so much, but there's very little of it in the world. We're very glad [Buena Vista Social Club was made]. One of the musicians that saw Wim's film in Havana said, "Well, this is going to be the only thing left, this film." There really won't be anything else at a certain point in time.