Ry Cooder & Manuel Galban, Mambo Sinuendo (Nonesuch/Perro Verde, 2003)  

Ry Cooder has not released an album under his own name for 15 years, not counting soundtracks. He last dabbled in the commercial music industry with 1992's Little Village a band made up of Cooder, John Hiatt, Jim Keltner and Nick Lowe. It was fun but didn't quite live up to its promise. Since then he has recorded a couple of duet albums; with Ali Farka Toure (the Malian guitarist); with Vishnu Bhatt (inventor of the mohan vina); worked with Bill Frisell, Jon Hassell on some moody instrumental projects and, of course, led the world in its rediscovery of the music of Cuba with the Buena Vista Social Club series. Mambo Sinuendo acts as a summing up of the Cuban experience, and a brave and exciting new direction as Cooder seeks to find his place in the market.

All he really wants to do is make music. In interviews Ry Cooder talks like a man possessed. He hears everything. And he wants people to start listening! Listen to the music that is out there. Listen to what is going on in that music. Learn to hear. Mambo Sinuendo has stuff happening. There is plenty to hear. It is not a dry educational stroll through Cuban history...this is vibrant, exciting, hot, even sexy music...it's a mambo!

Starting with the cover, a glossy color-saturated close-up of the fin of a '59 Cadillac, this album comes from a different place and time. Cooder says, "On the album, I play a Japanese guitar that was made in the '50s -- it kind of looks like the [car] on the cover. It's the kind of car you see these days only on the streets of Havana." A matching photo of the guitar appears on the back cover! It's the kind of music you might hear on Mars! At the beach! It evokes images of girls in bikinis, drinking exotic concoctions with umbrellas and straws, men in straw hats, bright colors, the sun, the heat, but no sweat. It sounds like it was recorded in a big empty room. There is a spacey, yet rich sonic quality about the whole record.

Manuel Galban played guitar on Cooder's production of Ibrahim Ferrer's first album (Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer), and was the guitarist for the Cuban doo-wop group Los Zafiros. Nonesuch released a compilation CD of Los Zafiros tracks (Bossa Cuba) from the '60s. It shows Galban to be an inventive, even astonishing guitarist. We know what Cooder is capable of. When you put the two of them together the results are spectacular.

Recorded at the historic EGREM studios in Havana and mixed back in Los Angeles, Mambo Sinuendo begins with what many reviewers are calling its weakest track, "Dru Me Negrita." It certainly announces the intentions of the album though. Congas played by Anga Diaz set up a rhythm, then Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez's bass, then one guitar, and another lay a snakey melody on top of the mix. Sensuous and haunting the twin guitars play in and around each other. Galban playing the melody, Cooder winding here and there, sliding into the open spaces. If this is the weakest track...we're in for a treat when the good stuff gets here. Additional drums and percussives are added by Jim Keltner and Joachim Cooder (Ry's son).

"Monte A Dentro" follows with some vocals by the Compagere Sisters whose harmonies simply repeat the title over a rhythmic stew. "Los Twangueros" hints at another influence...the twanging guitar sounds of Duane Eddy. Slow and sexy, the drums and congas are insistent as the two guitars weave their magic. Original compositions sit beside versions of Cuban classics, and the next song will be instantly familiar to anyone who grew up in the '60s. Perez Prado's "Patricia" is taken for an imaginative and irresistible drive to the beach. If your feet aren't moving, if your hips aren't swaying, have someone nearby take your pulse!

"Caballo Viejo" is a change of pace, Galban plays the melody on organ while Cooder riffs on guitar. The drumming on this track is loose and invigorating. The title track presents the mambo, the "sinuous mambo," and it's contagious. This track features special guest Herb Alpert on trumpet. His Tijuana Brass was there for the first influx of Latin music, it's appropriate for him to take part in this latest re-invention. "Bodas De Oro," and "Echale Salsita," are variations on the theme each one taking the basic format a bit further, in a slightly different direction. Listen for the references to "Guantamera." One guitarist plays the melody, the other plays the gaps. The rhythm section works out. It's a simple formula but it works like a charm. The melodies are strong and captivating.

"La Luna En Tu Mirada" is a song from Los Zafiros, redone as an instrumental. Romantic and haunting. "Secret Love" is the standard, acoustic, quiet, thoughtful. "Bolero Sonambulo" is a Cuban translation of "The Dream" which was done by Cooder in 1978 on Jazz. Then it featured Earl Hines on piano, now it's Galban on the keys. Galban is almost as inventive a keyboardist as he is a guitarist. Cooder adds slide guitar to the mix. Spooky. The album concludes with "Maria La O," a perfect end to the album, the "sexteto" doing what they do.

Ry Cooder's last album under his own name was 1987's Get Rhythm. His fans have awaited a follow up with great anticipation. This is not that album. That album will never appear. Cooder has no interest in rejoining the commercial fray. He is interested in the music, the sounds, the feel. And if those interests lead him to make music like exists on Mambo Sinuendo I can only say, "Keep it up, Ry, keep it up!"

[David Kidney]