Mambo Sinuendo / Ry Cooder and Manuel Galbán
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Ry Cooder and Manuel Galbán
Mambo Sinuendo
Nonesuch-Perro Verde

cd cover For North American listeners, the U.S. trade embargo and general hostility toward Cuba have had enduring cultural consequences. While U.S. radio broadcasts and LPs continued to reach Cuba after Castro's revolution, popular audiences in the United States knew little of the unique, forward-oriented sound pioneered in the 1960s by Los Zafiros (The Sapphires). The enormously popular Havana doo-wop unit (the Beatles were staunch fans) owed much of its aural farsightedness to guitarist, organist, pianist and arranger Manuel Galbán, whose leadership crystallized the group's glorious four-part male vocal harmonies.

As a longtime Duane Eddy aficionado and free-thinking guitarist "rediscovered" through the Buena Vista Social Club and Vieja Trova Santiaguera projects, Galbán found common ground with the musically omnivorous Ry Cooder. Their collaboration on BVSC - together with World Circuit's timely reissue of Los Zafiros' classic Bossa Cubana - presaged this project. And the guitarists enjoy superb backing by bassist Orlando "Cachaito" López, conga ace Miguel "Angá" Diaz, with Jim Keltner and son Joachim Cooder on twin drum kits, plus a host of sessions players and singers.

Brewing a heady, devil-may-care draft of mostly Cuban and Latin classics, peppered with some ultra-contemporary flourishes of their own, they turn tradition inside out, setting the music free. It's as though they channel all the Afro-Cuban and R&B experimentalism of Ernesto Lecuona, Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaria, Candido, Patato, Willie Bobo, Ritchie Valens, Lalo Guerrero, Don Tosti's Pachuco Boogie Boys, Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Slim Gaillard, Slam Stewart, Eddy and a host of benign and kindred spirits. Indeed, the ancestors speak through Galbán and Cooder's creative incantations.

Consider the atmospheric acid-jazz vibes, conga underpinning and ringing guitar duet of "Los Twangeros" (shades of Tjader), "Bolero Sonámbulo" (with what has to be Ruben González on piano), the plunky metallic guitars and samba-like percussion of Prado's familiar "Patricia," or the sublime interpretation of "Secret Love," in sum, an effortless laid-back sound far more difficult to pull off than these immaculate explorations indicate upon initial hearing. Altogether, Mambo Sinuendo projects the speculative, imaginary, post-futurist popular music of the 1950s, when everything seemed possible.

Cooder has paid dearly for his commitment to bringing Cuban music to world audiences, having been slapped on the wrist by the U.S. State Department for "trading with the enemy," and barred from returning to Cuba. A musician for whom understatement is the operative mode, Cooder remarks that what he and Galbán have sought to forge is the sound of "a band that never was, playing high-grade jukebox music, at a price you'd care to pay." This is a real Ry Cooder recording, another way of saying that (despite an enduring cold-war paranoia, extending back to the '50s from which this project's artistic inspiration emanates) in the occasional fluke of capitalist history (and this from Cuba), you actually get what you pay for, and quite a bit more. - Michael Stone

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