Ry Cooder: The Boy and The Bubble

"Where can you go in the world anymore where you can be in any kind of atmosphere other than the post-media, post-consumer world that we live in now—one that's available and that's musically rich? So it's very attractive in that way."

The land and culture Ry Cooder is speaking of are Cuba's. Whether it was luck (as he would have it), or his canny sense of the larger world being ready for something real, the always adventurous Cooder, who had a long and distinguished career prior to 1997, will now always be remembered as the man behind the breakout success of Buena Vista Social Club. His collaboration with the fast-disappearing generation of older Cuban musicians such as Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, and Ruben Gonzales was a bestseller—and the album and Wim Wenders' accompanying film were critical successes as well, and made Cuban music a cause célèbre for several years following their releases.

In 1999, two years after Buena Vista, Cooder returned to Cuba to make a solo album with Cuban septuagenarian singer Ibrahim Ferrer, a journey many thought might be the end of his romance with the island. But in 2001 Cooder returned, this time on an even more exotic musical mission: to make an instrumental album with legendary Cuban electric guitarist Manuel Galbán.

The guitarist and arranger for Los Zafiros, one of the most famous vocal groups in Havana between 1962 and 1972, Galbán hadn't made a record in more than a decade before the Ferrer sessions, where he and Cooder met for the first time. This time it was he who was the subject of Cooder's seemingly Midas touch (and connection with American label Nonesuch Records). The resulting sessions in Havana yielded Mambo Sinuendo (Nonesuch), a new Cooder-Cuba project that is electric, even rocking to a point, and, overall, very different from Buena Vista Social Club. It's also Stereophile's "Recording of the Month" for March.

"With Galbán you have a classic electric guitar player," Cooder says when we meet in Nonesuch's New York office. "This is the kind of thing we haven't seen since Jimmy Bryant or Merle Travis—people who took the electric guitar when it just beginning to bloom as a technical thing, as an innovation, as an instrument, after the war, and made these glorious-sounding records like Speedy West and that country swing, and all that kind of stuff. The sound of the electric guitar in those days was pretty much of a hook, and you can see why. It was big and pulsating and in the way it hit the microphone, 'cause those guys didn't play loud. They played in a large way, but not so loud.

"Galbán, to me, is a twanger. He's a twangy man. What do we think of as twang? It's a certain kind of hybrid, goofy thing. Duane Eddy, he embodies this, and made a career out of this. Galbán is very much like that. He's also a big fan of Duane. How, I don't know, but he is. But there's something about this lonesome guitar strangler, as Mac Rebennack [Dr. John] used to say, and that's what Galbán is. That's what he did on the electric, and it's not Cuban at all, really. It's some sort of hybridized, I don't know, pop-jazz thing. He's not a blues player by any means, but he's a funky guy, he plays good funk on the guitar."

With old friend, frequent musical partner, drummer and rhythm master Jim Keltner in tow, Cooder went back to Cuba in 2001 to begin a dialogue in the studio with Galbán that would hopefully become a record. To even begin the project, he had to learn a lot. He spent hours listening to records of the Zafiros and similar groups, trying to find a place for himself in their music. Finally, with a band filled out with Buena Vista bassist Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez, conguero Miguel "Anga" Diaz, and Cooder's son, Joachim, on percussion, the sextet sat down to work on material for the album. Cooder suggested songs and Galbán did the same.

"You play songs until you like them, until the drums are starting to swing and the whole thing is starting to move. Then you say, okay, now I think I see this. You imagine and anticipate.

"For me, it was like film scoring, where you're confronted with something that you have to experiment and find the answer to quickly. I did a lot of that in film scoring. It's scary sometimes. It has to be fast, and you can't stop and think about it, so you just act. The film is great because it tells you in a way what to do, it's speaking to you.

"We didn't have film behind us here, but what we did have is the Cuban resourcefulness, which they all have, and the ability to react to things. It's like having a hemi motor in a Volkswagen—you step on it and you are gonna move down the road. So you rely on this.

"Galbán, in his mind, already knew from long experience what would work. You take the voice away, and what's left? Cubans are very ingenious with their song constructions; masters of the three- or four-minute song. It has a form and it has a melody and there are enough surprises in it, one or two notes that make it interesting, so halfway through you're not bored, you're not answering the phone. And so this is the trick."

Cooder's entire career has been something of a rarified experience. A virtuoso on any fretted string instrument, Cooder, now 55, was playing onstage at L.A.'s Ash Grove folk club by age 16. He played and recorded with Taj Mahal in the now-famous Rising Sons from 1964 to 1966, before joining Captain Beefheart in 1968. He played on three Rolling Stones albums—Beggar's Banquet, Let It Bleed, and Sticky Fingers—before launching a solo career with his first album, Ry Cooder, in 1970. For a time, Cooder's solo career and stints as a sideman ran concurrently. As a sideman, he's played on a diverse list of classic records, from Randy Newman's 12 Songs (1970) and Good Old Boys (1974) to Little Feat's eponymous debut (1970) to Rodney Crowell's Ain't Living Long Like This (1974) and Steve Young's Seven Bridges Road (1978).