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Ry Cooder/Manuel Galban - Mambo Sinuendo

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Artist: Ry Cooder/Manuel Galban

Album: Mambo Sinuendo

Label: Nonesuch

Review date: Apr. 8, 2003

Havana Twang

Ry Cooder has been both revered and reviled for his musical archaeology, his penchant for unearthing, and inserting himself into, various forms of musical “exotica.” He was pretty much revered through his early years as a slide guitar session man, teaching the likes of Richards and Jagger the fine points of American blues, then through his curatorship and blending of various permutations of Hawaiian, Tex-Mex, folk, and rock. In recent years, however, with Cooder’s championing of vintage Cuban music, a fair share of critics have jumped all over his romantic attraction to sometimes-lost and dying musical forms; The Buena Vista Social Club and its various spin-offs have been hugely successful commercially, opening Cooder to the familiar charges of cultural appropriation and opportunism. Mambo Sinuendo, in addition to being a fun and fascinating musical collaboration, should go a long way towards laying those charges to rest.

Guitarist Manuel Galban is the featured artist here; his own music is an exotic hybrid in and of itself: as the guitarist for the legendary 1960s Cuban doo-wop and beat band Los Zafiros, Galban invented a singular style, rooted in Cuban music, but sonically akin to Duane Eddy in its spiky twang and reverb-drenched melodicism. His style remains intact and timeless: ’60s time-capsule surf and spy meet the rhythmic and ecstatic improvisation of Cuban tres (a Cuban guitar with three double courses of strings) master Arsenio Rodriguez.

The underlying rhythmic isomorph of Cuban music – the clave – insures that Cuban music will feel like Cuban music, no matter what the instrumentation, much as the structural shapes beneath the blues allow for a huge variety of sounds and styles within the genre. On Mambo Sinuendo, the structural underpinnings are taken care of by a percussion section in the classic Cuban style, along with the rock-solid yet supple acoustic bass of Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez. American drummers Jim Keltner and Joachim Cooder (Ry’s son) add shuffle and glide. With that foundation in place, the two guitarists – Galban usually up-front, Ry supplying accent and harmony, steel guitar and surf-y tremolo dips for texture and mood enhancement – make their way through rumba, mambo, cha-cha, and bolero-based songs.

Cooder is a master at playing accompanying guitar; he slips between the cracks and grows like ivy all over the place, never overpowering the architecture of Galban’s rhythmic drive and romantic balladry. This really is something like guitar heaven, a celebration of warm and tactile vintage tones; music played with grace and mutual respect between the musicians.

In addition to the players, another musical personality asserts itself on Mambo Sinuendo. The historic Egrem recording studio in Havana is as storied as Sun and Stax-Volt in Memphis or Motown in Detroit. Cooder has spoken in recent interviews about how he and veteran engineer Jerry Boys took great pains to capture the sound of the musicians in that wooden, breathing, resonant room, avoiding close mic-ing to get the ensemble sound they wanted. The efforts paid off: this is an amazing sounding record; warm, clean, with an alluring patina that shimmers gently.

Mambo Sinuendo works on a few different levels. The title song, with it’s perky female chorus and Herb Alpert’s (that’s right, Herb Alpert! ) trumpet could almost pass for a hip 1960s sit-com theme; the guitar duet on the old standard “Secret Love” is simply beautiful, an essay in restraint, lush melody and harmony. In the great late ’50s and early ’60s tradition, this album makes for evocative background music, but stands up to close listening, too.

The mythic image of Ry Cooder as a pith-helmeted explorer of musical folkways might be hard to dispel; but just listen closely and you’ll hear that the man is a musician first and foremost; one with great chops, great ears, and a generous musical soul.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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