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Buy Ry Cooder and Manuel Galbán's 'Mambo Sinuendo.'

Buy the 'Buena Vista Social Club' CD.

Buy the 'Buena Vista Social Club' DVD.

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Big Ears: Ry Cooder and Manuel Galbán explore a hitherto undiscovered sound.

A Fresh Slice of Ry

Global trekking guitarist rocks in Cuba

By Greg Cahill

"Ry Cooder has big ears," music writer Michael Dregni noted in a 1998 review of the guitarist and producer's Buena Vista Social Club recording. "He hears music from far away, music that most of us never even sense. And he brings it to us. Spreading the gospel, as it were."

The songs on that blockbuster album--and its multiple spinoffs--spotlighted several forgotten Cuban legends and offered gringos a passport to a lost musical world just 90 miles off our shore. It was a complex sound, as evidenced by "Chan Chan," the grinding country soul by 89-year-old Francisco Repilado (aka Compay Segundo) that opened the album.

Buena Vista Social Club (World Circuit/ Nonesuch) emitted a warm glow with its musical mélange of driving bongo beats, sensual boleros, and lonely trumpet solos. It was like stepping into a 1940s cafe teeming with workers out for a carefree night of dancing and revelry.

The Grammy-winning international bestseller introduced Cuban music to a mainstream American audience, led to an Academy Award-winning film documentary by German director Wim Wenders, and spawned a record franchise that featured numerous solo albums from the Buena Vista contributors.

For many Americans, it is the quintessential Cuban CD. "If you get one album of Cuban music," the All Music Guide opined, "this should be the one."

Five years later, Cooder has revisited Cuba and emerged with something quite different. Mambo Sinuendo features the densely layered, twangy sounds of pioneering Cuban rock guitarist Manuel Galbán. The dozen mostly instrumental tracks harken back to a period in the late 1950s when Cuban artists were beginning to experiment with a fusion of American pop-jazz and the modernistic compositions of such Cuban composers as Pérez Prado, a major influence on stateside composers like Henry Mancini and Stan Kenton. Duane Eddy, the king of twangy guitar, even scored a Top 10 hit with the mamboesque "Peter Gunn" theme during that time.

Mambo Sinuendo brings the mambo full circle, reclaiming these sizzling sounds from a freeze-dried existence in the mythical Las Vegas lounge of the mind.

For Cooder, the perfect realization of this pop-jazz fusion is found in Galbán, guitarist and arranger for the immensely popular Havana doo-wop quartet Los Zafiros. "Galbán and I felt that there was a sound that had not been explored--a Cuban electric band that could reinterpret the atmosphere of the 1950s with beauty, agility, and simplicity," Cooder says in the album's liner notes.

To accomplish this feat, Cooder and Galbán used two guitars, two drum sets, congas, and a bass to create a sextet "that could swing like a big band and penetrate the mysteries of the classic tunes.

"This music is powerful, lyrical, and funny--what more could you ask?" Cooder wonders. "Mambo Sinuendo is Cuban soul and high performance twang."

That said, trendy enthusiasts who flocked to Buena Vista Social Club may find that Mambo Sinuendo lacks the warmth and quaint charm of its predecessor, which captured Omara Portuondo, the Cuban Edith Piaf, and other top vocal artists in the twilight of their days. For instance, 72-year-old composer and singer Ibrahim Ferrer reportedly interrupted his daily walk through Havana just long enough to record his contribution to the Buena Vista album.

On the other hand, Galbán is simply extraordinary--a guitarist's guitarist, a role with which Cooder is quite familiar. Rock aficionados will be impressed by the sun-baked licks and drawn in by such familiar-sounding tracks as "Los Twangueros" and "Bolero Sonámbulo," primeval rhythms that reverberate with the roots of '50s rock and roll.

And those longtime Cooder fans, who have followed this intrepid traveler through his eclectic collaborations with Mali's Ali Farka Toure on Talking Timbuktu and India's V. M. Bhatt on A Meeting by the River, won't be disappointed by this latest chapter in his world music trek.

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From the January 30-February 5, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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