Joachim Cooder is no stranger to the Big Island. Although his Saturday performance at the Kahilu Theatre marked his concert debut here, he tagged along with his father, Ry Cooder, to visit slack-key guitar legend Gabby Pahinui at his home in Kona. Ry and Gabby had recorded several albums together in the 1970s.
While developing his musical style, Joachim gained experience over the years as a session player with the renowned Cuban ensemble Buena Vista Social Club and innovative Indian instrumentalist Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. Since then, he’s released three solo albums and transitioned into scoring films.
Formerly a drummer, Joachim’s primary instrument is an Array electric mbira, a variation on the African thumb piano used by the Shona people of Zimbabwe. Cooder told the audience he was playing an updated version of the instrument created by a San Diego man who collected metal bristles that had fallen off street sweepers and mounted them on a sounding box. The mbiras now have electric pickups enabling them to be both amplified and enhanced with effects.
The instrument’s tone varies from soothing wind chimes to a distorted steel drum, depending on the song’s mood and the effects pedal Cooder selects. For further embellishment, the musician occasionally banged on the mbira’s side to get an empty barrel sound and then lightly dragged a wire drum brush over the tines to make it sound like rain falling on a tin roof. If you thought those shiny multi-colored objects on the front of the mbira had to do with its electronics, well, they were just toy jewels his daughter added to the mbira before the musician left for Hawaii.
Complementing all the unusual sounds Cooder coaxed from the mbira, he kept time with his foot on an amplified wood block and used a floor tambourine for rhythm. A dimly lit stage added further drama and intimacy to the songs performed.
Cooder brought his long-time bassist friend Mark Fain to accompany him at the Kahilu show. Fain is a seven-time Grammy-winner and an accomplished Nashville producer who has worked with John Fogerty, Dolly Parton, and many other respected artists over the last three decades.
Cooder split his concert into two 50-minute sets with a ten-minute intermission and primarily focused on songs from his current release, Over That Road, I’m Bound: The Songs of Uncle Dave Macon. Macon became known as the grandfather of country music and the first superstar of The Grand Ole Opry.
After Cooder purchased a five-disc set of Macon’s music, his daughter also became fascinated with the recordings and inspired her father to record a tribute to the 1920s banjo king. “Every day at breakfast, she’d say, ‘I want to hear song two on disc five,’” explained Cooder. “I started learning them, reworked some of his lyrics and melodies, and eventually recorded them.” Cooder also performed a Macon tune for the Kahilu crowd that he hasn’t recorded yet called “Hold That Woodpile Down” and got the audience to join him on a call-and-response.
In addition to his originals, Cooder covered blues songs by Mississippi John Hurt, Willie Dixon, and even Buckwheat Zydeco’s “Throw Me Something, Mister.”
Cooder’s Kahilu concert was also part of his return to live performances since the pandemic. “I’m so excited to see real people again!” noted Cooder in our interview. “Outside of a show in L.A., and Maui, I’ve done nothing else live in two years.”
Notes & Links
Little Sadie | Come Along Buddy | Morning Blues | Throw Me Something, Mister | Can Man | Elevated Boy | Molly Married a Traveling Man | Uncloudy Day | Strange Boy |
Cuckoo | Hold That Woodpile Down | Oh Lovin’ Babe | Christmas in Washington | Take This Hammer | Over That Road, I’m Bound To Go | Country Blues | All In Down and Out | Fuchsia Machu Picchu |
Listen to a podcast interview with Joachim Cooder.
Connect with Joachim Cooder: Website
About the author: Steve Roby is a music journalist, best-selling author, and editor of Big Island Music Magazine.
Photos: ©2022 Steve Roby