Ry Cooder & Manuel Galbán

Ry Cooder almost didn't get to make Mambo Sinuendo. Partly to blame, because of its megasuccess, was his Buena Vista Social Club LP, the best-selling album in world-music history. Indeed Cooder was this close to being denied his latest experimental excursion into Cuban music. Produced in Havana in 1996, Buena Vista did more to rescue Cuba from cultural obscurity and isolation than any single event in the embargo's history. Not surprisingly some Washington power brokers raised their eyebrows as a result. Cooder won a Grammy for Buena Vista and he was also slapped with a $100,000 fine from the U.S. State Department.

By 2000 the gringo guitarist was itching to revisit the island's musical landscape and start on his next project. This time he'd join forces with Manuel Galbán, a Cuban guitar legend who headed the Sixties doo-wop quartet Los Zafiros. But Cooder's lawyers advised him there was little chance the U.S. government would grant him permission to travel. Then, at the last moment, with George Bush about to enter the White House, Cooder appealed personally to Bill Clinton and the outbound president overturned the State Department's ruling. Cooder was on his way.

The first release on Cooder's own label, Perro Verde (Green Dog), Mambo Sinuendo is a collaboration between him and Galbán. The album features a swinging sextet of two electric guitars, two drum sets, congas, and Orlando "Cachaíto" Lopez of Buena Vista fame on bass. Classic Cuban compositions, such as Ignacio Piñeiro's "Echale Salsita," are done up in a twanged-out, electric-slide guitar version of 1950s mambo jazz. The kind made famous by Perez Prado and Stan Kenton's "Cuban Fire" orchestra. The kind that later gave way to lounge music. Mambo Sinuendo is at once ethereal and down-to-earth; a glimpse into the past and a vision of the future drawn together by Cuban soul.