Ry Cooder's 1997 collaboration with a group of septuagenarian Cuban musicians, Buena Vista Social Club, sold 8 million copies and earned a Grammy for Best Tropical Latin Performance. It also earned Cooder a $100,000 fine from the U.S. government. "I learned that what Buena Vista means to the people who enforce the [Cuba trade and travel] embargo," says Cooder, "is not very much."
The fine was reduced to $25,000, but Cooder was ordered to stay out of Cuba at the precise moment the public was thirsting for more Cuban music. On the last day of the Clinton presidency--after Cooder had lobbied the State Department for two years--he was given a one-year exemption from the travel ban. The result is Mambo Sinuendo, Cooder's playful, dueling guitar album with Manuel Galban. "I knew that I wanted to work with the Buena Vista musicians again because, hey, many of them are geniuses," says Cooder. "But Manuel's the most surprising of them all. This kind of versatile talent I just hadn't figured on."
Most Cuban musicians stick close to the technical requirements of their discipline. "For whatever reason," says Cooder, "Galban has made adjustments during his life, and he's developed into a free player. He breaks away from patterns and styles in ways that other Cubans don't. That suits the electric guitar really well, and it also allowed us as collaborators to kind of meet in the middle, 'cause I'm not Cuban." Mambo Sinuendo has moments where it sounds like the sound track to a particularly cool Havana nightclub, but the two players achieve a dynamic so loose and easy that they also float over Africa, Mexico, Hawaii and Birdland, incorporating whatever style catches their ears.
That freedom belies the geopolitical and logistical circumstances under which Mambo was recorded. Cooder and Galban, 72, tried to create a lifetime's worth of musical repartee in pressure-packed 10-hour recording sessions. (During his exemption, Cooder also produced an album by Buena Vista vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer, Buenos Hermanos, due out in March.) "Because every minute counts," says Cooder, "you pretty much just keep the tape running." The continual recording paid off when Galban walked into the studio one day, sat down at the piano and played Bolero Sonambulo, Mambo's best track, fully formed. "You knew right away that this was nothing he'd written or thought about," says Cooder. "He's just sitting down. So I ran in and grabbed a guitar. If you had stopped and said, 'Start this again,' it would never have happened."
Cooder faces imprisonment by the U.S. government if he returns to Cuba, which means Mambo and the Ferrer album are the end of his Cuban excursions. "It's totally impossible for me to go back until some comprehensive change occurs in the embargo," says Cooder. "The sad thing is, these players are indispensable, and none of them are getting younger."