RY COODER AND MANUEL GALBÁN Mambo Sinuendo (Nonesuch) Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
In a way, it makes perfect sense that Ry Cooder returned to Cuba to jam with Havana guitar great Manuel Galbán. It was Galbán who was indirectly responsible for Cooder heading to Cuba to record Buena Vista Social Club in the first place. In the 60s, Galbán's electric guitar anchored the Cuban doo-wop quintet Los Zafiros. Bringing the teen sounds of the Platters and Frankie Lymon to the land of Beny Moré, Los Zafiros created a peculiar brand of Cuban pop music that sounded like nothing else on the island and, on Los Zafiros' most elegant material, seemed to have been beamed in from another planet.
Four-part vocal harmonies aside, it was Galbán's guitar that drove the group's sound and turned Los Zafiros into Cuba's Beatles, even earning them an audience with a stunned John Lennon. It was also Galbán's trademark twang that lured Cooder to Cuba on a mission that would put Cuban music back in the pop charts.
"Somebody gave me a cassette that had one of the Zafiros songs on it, and, man, did that ever fuck me up," Cooder snorts from his Santa Monica home.
"What Galbán was doing wasn't Cuban. Sure, he was playing Cuban music, but they don't play electric guitars like that. We in America have heard guys like Santo & Johnny or Scotty Moore playing all sorts of stuff on their guitars, but the Cubans never heard any of that. And yet here's Galbán coming up with this completely unique but totally familiar sound. It's unusual as hell."
Cooder was hooked, tracking down Galbán during the initial Buena Vista sessions and first working with him on the ensemble's Ibrahim Ferrer disc. Galbán was flattered, in part because he'd given up his guitar for a job tuning pianos.
"He wasn't hard to find," Cooder offers. "We asked, and someone said, "Oh, Galbán's over there. Go down the street and then left, then right, then left.' He was at home, just ready to go.
"Unfortunately, he hadn't been playing much guitar because he didn't have an amp. He's greased lightning on piano, and now he's back up to speed on the guitar, too."
Galbán sounds deliriously in his element on Mambo Sinuendo. The disc has an airy, open-ended sound. The two guitars weave their way through Cuban classics like Arsenio Rodriguez's Monte Adentro and Ignacio Piñeiro's Echale Salista with grace and gusto, stirring up memories of a time when Cubans drove Cadillacs with massive fins for style, not because they were the only cars left in the country.
"We'd sit in the studio and he'd just start playing songs," Cooder chuckles. "He has this incredible capacity to remember tunes, thousands of them. So he'd play stuff and then we'd start to take them apart and figure out what we wanted to do with them.
"It took a long time to settle on what we wanted this record to be, because it's not rock. This is an environmental sound, one that comes really gradually. I had a year, so we took our time."
Time wasn't really on Cooder's side, though. For all his successes with Cuban music he was still technically collaborating with the enemy, and his efforts were met with a $100,000 fine from the U.S. government and a notice to stay away from the island.
It took a nod from Bill Clinton to get Cooder back into Cuba. That permit lasted a year, enough time to record Mambo Sinuendo and Ibrahim Ferrer's sublime new Buenos Hermanos disc. With the exemption now expired, Cooder isn't sure if or when he'll get back.
"We'd try to record here, but you couldn't do this kind of work somewhere else," he signs. "If you tried to transplant it, the organ would be refused, which is what drives me insane about the situation now. There's an army of cats ready to make music, but for me it's over for the time being."firstname.lastname@example.org