Mambo Sinuendo

Ry Cooder / Manuel Galban

Nonesuch Records, 2003

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/31/2003

Ry Cooder is a musician's musician. That's the first thing you have to say about a guy whose talents are respected and diverse enough to earn him studio time over the years with acts ranging from Little Feat to Taj Mahal, not to mention stints supporting the Rolling Stones, John Hiatt and Gordon Lightfoot, and more soundtrack work than you can shake a stick at.

What you can't do is pin him down in one specific category of music. Depending on his tastes and mood, previous solo albums might find him laying down some sweet slide on an R&B tune, rearranging traditional Hawaiian folk songs, or reaching back to cover the roots of rock and roll.

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This particular album grew out of Cooder's work with the Buena Vista Social Club, an all-star group of Cuban musicians whose 1997 album captured the imagination of world music fans who have rarely caught a glimpse of that isolated country's prodigious musical talent at work. His partner in this outing, recorded primarily in Havana, is Cuban guitarist Manuel Galban, whose twangy, gently swinging stylings meld Dick Dale, Don Ho and Herb Alpert into music that's both otherworldly and joyous.

There's a uniquely exotic tone to this almost exclusively instrumental album; the music manages to be tropical and dusky at the same time. The pace is generally languid, but the rhythms are steady and intricate, with two drummers (session superstar Jim Keltner and Cooder's son Joachim) and multiple percussionists supporting Galban, Cooder and acoustic bass player Orlando "Coachito" Lopez on most cuts.

As with most instrumental albums, it's all about atmospherics, and this music, while it often swings and sometimes shimmies, carries undercurrents of both celebration and lamentation. The island vibe is thick in the tropical rhythms of tracks like "Drume Negrita" and "Maria La O." What's fascinating is to hear them blending beautifully with Latin rhythms as in "Caballo Viejo," "Bolero Sonambulo" and especially the foot-tapping title track, which plays Cooder's organ off against guest Herb Alpert's trumpet and some especially twangy lead work from Galban.

A collision of styles makes other tracks especially memorable, such as the frothy Latin-surf fusion of "Monte Adentro" and "Patricia." "Los Twangueros" features plenty of twang but also a sinuous, polyrhythmic, almost psychedelic melody. That dreamy quality is the true unifying element of the album, which is rich with island atmosphere and utterly devoid of flash.

On the whole, this effort comes off as a loving homage in which two veteran musicians sit down in a room and pretty much play whatever they feel like. The results, while not what you'd call rousing, never fail to engage and entertain. This is mature, densely textured music, to be digested slowly over a long period of time.

And yes, a straw hat, a cold drink and/or a cigar might go nicely…

Rating: A-

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© 2003 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Nonesuch Records, and is used for informational purposes only.