On The String: Joachim Cooder’s Family-Inspired Adventures On The Rhythm Road

Feb 15, 2021

By training and persuasion, Joachim Cooder is a percussionist. As a little boy he was gifted a drum kit by his father’s friend, the great drummer Jim Keltner. Joachim tagged along and played at gigs and sessions with musicians from Africa and Cuba, adding hand drums to his rhythmic tool kit. Now he’s a singer-songwriter with a 2020 album doing strong Americana chart business, an album surging with percussive sounds and ideas unlike anything else in the format.

Joachim’s dad is the incalculably important guitarist, songwriter and producer Ry Cooder. And ordinarily I’d be taking pains to show how far the son has come in making his own distinct identity from the famous father. In this case though, that doesn’t exactly apply; theirs is a cross-generational musical partnership that’s been going strong for decades.

Many of us had our first glimpses of Joachim as a teenager with a backward ball cap playing hand percussion and helping out in the historic sessions for Buena Vista Social Club, the surprise hit record and movie documenting some of Cuba’s senior musicians coming out of retirement. Another key memory that Joachim talks about in Episode 158 of The String was being in on Ry Cooder’s sessions with Indian slide guitar (Mohan veena) player V.M. Bhatt for the 1993 Grammy-winning record A Meeting by the River. But his journey from drum set to hand drumming was really inspired he says by Ry’s collaborations with legendary Los Angeles session instrumentalist David Lindley.

“Because (Lindley) would tour around with a percussionist, and he had this Turkish doumbek with the jingles on the inside. You hit the sides of the thing and you get the low sound and a high sound at the rim. It's like this little drum set into itself. It was an incredible thing, because you can do get so much sound out of it, you don't have to be lugging around a kit, you can just pop up and play with somebody. And I started going that way for a while - being less drum set oriented.”

It’s the light touch and intricate dynamics that made these hand drums and global rhythms so compelling, Cooder says. And that eventually led him to a game changing instrument. “It’s called the array mbira,” he says. “It's made by this instrument builder named Bill Wesley. He's down in San Diego.” The mbira is a family of African-derived instruments with tuned metal tines mounted on a sounding box, sometimes called a thumb piano. Cooder eventually discovered that Wesley made an array mbira with electric pickups so that it could be plugged in, adjusted with effects and amplified for records or a venue. “That's what enabled me to start to do my own shows, because I don't play guitar or I don't play other normal things that people play,” he says. “Once I had this under my fingers, I was able to start singing and writing my own songs. And wow, yeah, it changed everything.”

The enhanced mbira certainly sets the tone for Cooder’s acclaimed 2020 album Over That Road I’m Bound, a set of 12 covers songs from seminal Grand Ole Opry star and old-time vaudeville-style banjo entertainer Uncle Dave Macon. Its woody, plunky tones define the chords and melodies like big tropical rain drops or temple bells. Along with some light percussion, Ry Cooder’s banjo and the fiddling of Nashville’s Rayna Gellert, the overall effect is transcendental, airy and meditative, with Joachim’s striking voice over and within the music. Uncle Dave’s lyrics come off as innocent and playful, pointing to more family chemistry behind Joachim’s musical direction.

One day Joachim heard father Ry casually playing an old-time banjo tune that sounded deeply familiar. It was “Morning Blues” from Uncle Dave, and Joachim remembered that Ry had picked that for him as a boy. He got back into the artists’ catalog from the 1930s and 40s, collected into a big box set. “I started listening to all the songs with my daughter who became really obsessed with Uncle Dave Macon,” says Joachim. “Like it would be the only thing we could listen to in the house. From the minute she woke up, I had to put on a specific song before she would start eating breakfast. It just became this whole thing that she insisted upon. And because it was so immersive in our house at the time, I couldn't help but learn these. And then pretty soon I had ten songs that I knew, and that's what made me think I should record this. That would be that'd be so cosmic.”

Indeed it is, for its sound, so nurturing in a time of sacrifice and loss, and for its unpretentious, democratic tribute to a bygone country music pioneer. As Cooder notes, “Had I said I'm gonna go make a record where I'm reviving or thinking about a bygone era musician, I don't think I would know what to do. Or I would maybe get caught up and then overthink it. But because I went into it so backwards and because it was rooted in this thing that I was doing with my daughter, it was just so personal, because we all just loved the songs. And then once the record was done, upon reflection, it did seem that I was able to kind of frame Uncle Dave and his music in a more inclusive way.”

Enjoy the conversation with Joachim Cooder and a bonus chat with Nashville’s Daniel Tashian about his surprising collaborative album with songwriting legend Burt Bacharach in Episode 158 of The String.