Ry Cooder is a guitarist with an ear tuned to a past no one else hears anymore. Inspired by the music of old-time Havana, he brought together a troupe of master Cuban musicians to record 1997’s sensational Buena Vista Social Club. In the process, he resurrected the world’s love of Cuban sounds.
Now, six years later, Cooder is back. This time, he has teamed with Cuban guitar hero Manuel Galbán to create Mambo Sinuendo, an amazing journey back in time and a phenomenal guitar album all in one.
Mambo Sinuendo returns to a historic point in American-Cuban musical trade relations. In the 1950s, Americans were swinging to Cuban sounds, from the high-voltage mambo of Perez Prado, who was making it big in Vegas, to Henry Mancini’s soundtrack for the Orson Welles’ film masterpiece Touch of Evil with stylish guitarwork by none other than jazz stalwart Barney Kessel. Yet in Cuba, the hottest bands were listening to American pop and doo-wop and amalgamating it into their music. It was musical fusion at its best.
Galbán was in the hurricane’s eye of all this. Born in 1931, he began his career in the small Cuban fishing village of Gibara playing guitar and tres in local groups before moving on to Havana in the ’40s to play the nightclub scene. In ’63, Cuba’s top hitmaking vocal group, Los Zafiros (The Sapphires), heard Galbán’s wildly electric, surf-riffing guitar and hired him on the spot.
Los Zafiros were fueled by the doo-wop sound of American groups like the Platters and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Now, with Galbán’s influence as guitarist, pianist, and musical director, the group scored a stream of hits that became Cuban jukebox standards for decades thereafter. Playing Paris’ Olympia hall, Los Zafiros won a famous 11-minute standing ovation. Even the Beatles were fans.
When Los Zafiros disbanded in ’72, Galbán joined Cuba’s national music ensemble, the Direcci”n Nacional de Música. In ’98, he became one of the Vieja Trova Santiaguera, performing a repertoire similar to that of the Buena Vista Social Club. Now, he and Cooder have teamed up to create a jewel of an album.
The music here is alive and vital, like a funky cross between the best of Perez Prado and the wildest of Dick Dale. On many songs, Galbán holds down the melody line, rarely deviating from the theme, yet playing it with an experimentation, twang, and innate Cuban sense of swing. As he did on Buena Vista Social Club, Cooder plays around the true star of the music, Galbán, adding shimmering chords, tremolos, vibrato, and long bottleneck slide glisses that accent the melody perfectly.
Yet Cooder and Galbán have not sought to simply cover these songs. Instead, they are interpreting them in a modern sense, reinventing them as a guitar duo, reincarnating them in a new form. It’s like the second coming of the original American-Cuban musical fusion.
As Cooder relates, “…there was a sound that had not been explored – a Cuban electric-guitar band that might reinterpret the atmosphere of the ’50s with beauty, agility, and power.
“We figured on two guitars, two drum sets, congas, and bass – a sexteto with enough horsepower to swing like a big band and still have the subtlety to reveal the nuance and mystery of classic songs.”
Cooder and Galbán are backed by Buena Vista Social Club bassist Orlando “Cachaíto” Lopez and fittingly, on the title track, by the trumpet of none other than Herb Alpert. Yet along with the guitars, it is naturally the percussion section that is the other force on this album.
The band’s sound is filled out by Cooder’s longtime collaborator Jim Keltner, Cooder’s son, Joachim, and conga master Miguel “Anga” Diaz. Together they create a rhythm that’s always moving, propelling the music forward, driving the songs like the tailfinned Cadillac on the album cover.
Yet most importantly, Mambo Sinuendo brings back something that has been lacking in Cooder’s recent music – a sense of fun and humor. Others have explored ’50s and ’60s Cuban music, and seen the kitsch in it. And Ry’s earliest albums often had a wry smile behind the music, yet his latest have been in danger of becoming overly serious.
With Mambo Sinuendo, Cooder sounds as though he’s having fun again. As he states, “The music is powerful, lyrical, and funny. What more could you ask?”
This article originally appeared in VG‘s May ’03 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.