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Ry Cooder, Ambassador of Culture

     How can you keep on movin’ unless you migrate too?" sang Ry Cooder nearly 30 years ago. From Dust Bowl moans to gospel-crying R&B to far corners of the globe, few guitarists have migrated further or more enthusiastically than Cooder. Now at the turn of a new century, Cooder is among the most influential figures in popularizing world music in America.

     Since emerging in the 60s with a style mixing Delta slide guitar angst with Caribbean snap and with a quirky repertoire, Ry Cooder maintained a loyal following while never quite making the jump from cult hero to mainstream star. Still, he never stopped movin’, releasing solo albums and collaborating with hundreds of other musicians, from Flaco Jimenez to Tuvan throat singers to the Rolling Stones to slack-key master Gabby Pahinui. Cooder also worked on an impressive list of film soundtracks, enjoying his biggest commercial success with "Paris, Texas."

     But this Southern California boy waited until the 1990s to make his most influential musical migrations. In 1992, Cooder was introduced to Hindustani slide guitarist V. M. Bhatt. Within hours the two were engaged in a slide guitar conversation that somehow reveled in two distinct cultures while collapsing the distance between them. This conversation became the CD "A Meeting by the River." It sparked a series of live, multi-cultural experiments and encouraged other Indian artists like Debashish Battacharya to look toward America for inspiration and audiences.

     Two years later, Cooder met Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure. Their languid dialogue was released on Hannibal as "Talking Timbuktu" to huge and lasting acclaim. "Talking Timbuktu" opened a door to sub-Saharan music in the United States. Dozens of fine CDs have followed, introducing stars like Toumani Diabate and Habib Koité to American ears.

     And, of course, most recently Ry Cooder has been at the center of the whirlwind that is "The Buena Vista Social Club." In Havana to arrange an Afro-Cuban project that never came off, Cooder found instead a collection of older, forgotten Cuban stars of decades past and made a series of CDs that captured the world’s imagination. The music industry saw a good thing and now Cuba has exploded with new releases, both by the Buena Vista Social Club veterans and by a new generation, showing the world just how alive Cuban music is.

     Ry Cooder has the gift of keeping his unique musical voice while delighting in the company of musicians from every corner of the planet. And we are all richer for his continuing conversations and his itchy feet. As Cooder observes, "Musicians are all pretty much alike. We can understand one another if we let the music be the key to everything."

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