Thanks in part to his atmospheric soundtrack for Paris, Texas, guitarist Ry Cooder has gained an international reputation as a distinctive composer. Cooder has also been successful at recruiting a series of far-flung musicians to work with: Some of his musical partners have included a Navajo flutist, a guitarist from Timbuktu, and an ensemble of so-called throat singers from the Russian Republic of Tuva. Cooder's most recent field trip took him to Havana, an unusual destination for an American artist.
Culturally, this city once shone like a jewel as it hosted some of the finest popular musicians from the United States and elsewhere. Poverty and communism have dulled the shine of Havana, however, and few foreign entertainers have gotten the opportunity to swap musical influences in Castro's Cuba.
Cooder arrived there in March 1996 to have what he called "the greatest musical experience of [my] life." Four generations of Cuban musicians joined him to create not one CD but three, all of which Cooder produced. Buena Vista Social Club features 89-year-old Cuban legend Compay Segundo, whose sly vocals could charm a kiss (or perhaps more) out of almost any woman. Admiration flowed freely between Segundo and Cooder, and the professional affection they clearly felt for each other in the studio electrifies the fourteen collected classics. The title track is especially piquant. It features a cat-strutting piano, plucked bass, a skeletal percussion line, and eerie guitar effects -- film noir, Havana-style.
Son and guaracha are just two of the genres featured on A Toda Cuba Le Gusta (All of Cuba Likes It). The performances are by a transcendental pick-up band of thirteen musicians who call themselves the Afro-Cuban All-Stars. One is percussionist Julienne Oviedo, who was a lad of just thirteen at the time of recording. Other players were in their seventies or eighties but weren't about to let trifling matters such as arthritis impede their musicianship. The brass in "Amor Verdadero" would not sound out of place on an Earth, Wind and Fire album, but the percolating Latin beat and the cockily declamatory vocals (at times solo, at times in chorus) smother any resemblance.
Cooder called 77-year-old Ruben Gonzalez "the greatest piano soloist I have ever heard in my life." Producer Nick Gold was impressed too; he gave Gonzalez studio time during the last two days of the Havana sessions so Gonzalez could record a solo album. Good thinking, Nick: Some of the most dance-inspiring ivory tickling ever waxed can be heard on Introducing Ruben Gonzalez. "La Enganadora" starts with a what-me-worry? masculine swagger, but by the end Gonzalez and friends (including Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabel, whose muted trumpet nevertheless pierces through many songs on this CD) have taken the tune double time, and the song's cool sunglasses-and-machismo attitude burns right off. Gonzalez's last piano literally fell apart -- Cuba is pretty tough on pianos, and Gonzalez's electrifying style takes its toll as well. Here's hoping the royalties from this thrilling CD earn him enough to buy a new one.