by Michael Goldberg
Monday, February 3, 2003
Ry Cooder And Manuel Galban Imagine The Past
On a new album, the Buena Vista Social Club mastermind is at it again
You'll imagine you've been transported to some idealized beach resort, circa 1962, if you listen to Mambo Sinuendo, the collaboration between American guitarist/producer Ry Cooder and Cuban guitarist Manuel Galban.
Like the retro-rad tailfin of a 1959 Cadillac Fleetwood that appears on the metallic red, turquoise and silver slip cover enclosing the CD jewel box, this music is of another time. Actually, it's of no time. Moody instrumental music like this, with whammied Fender guitar notes singing over romantic melodies, summons up a dreamy musical past that never really was.
This has been Cooder's forte since Ry Cooder, his first solo album, released in 1970. Cooder has always been an L.A.-based musician recreating the music that he loves always music from the past. He's collaborated with jazz pianist Earl Hines, with Tex-Mex accordion player Flaco Jimenez and, most famously, with the once-forgotten Cuban musicians of the '50s who he popularized with the Buena Vista Social Club album and documentary.
I love Cooder's recordings, his many solo albums and occasional collaborations, as well as many of the albums on which he's produced or played guitar (Randy Newman's 12 Songs is a classic, as is the soundtrack to "Performance"). But Cooder doesn't simply mimic old music. He puts a fresh spin on his musical tributes. As seen on the cover of his second solo album, Into the Purple Valley, which was shot on a movie lot, Cooder imagines music of exotic locales. And even when he travels to one of those countries to record the music (Mambo Sinuendo was recorded at Egrem Studios in Havana), his music is true to the feel and flavor of the real thing, yet it's different, stylized. Like those Cadillac fins and the bodies of the electric guitars he plays.
Mambo Sinuendo mixes up surf music, '60s spy themes, the instrumental rock of Duane Eddy and The Shadows, and the rhythms of Cuba, where this album was recorded. There's nothing "pure" about any of it, and yet it sounds completely authentic.
But then what really is authentic? The blues? Think about that for a minute. The blues was a music with roots in Africa, yet the most "authentic" blues, early recordings from the late '20s and early '30s by Charlie Patton or Sleepy John Estes or Henry Thomas, don't sound at all like African music. And right from the start blues artists were each creating their own version of this then-new musical genre.
The minute blues artists got their hands on electric guitars they didn't think twice about taking what was initially an acoustic music played on steel-string acoustic guitars and turning up the volume. So what exactly is "authentic" blues? The acoustic work of Robert Johnson? The raw electric Chicago sound of Howlin' Wolf? The mystical music of Skip James? How about the recordings of T-Model Ford, whose Bad Man was released less than six months ago?
In the '60s there were rock fans who longed for the "pure" sound of '50s music. Ever since the '60s gave way to the '70s purists have told me that the really good rock the authentic stuff was made in the '60s (and '50s). But then recently I've heard complaints that the new rock combos, including The Strokes and The Hives (and others from New York and Sweden), are a pale shadow of the real thing (Television, The Ramones, Patti Smith), which emerged in the mid-'70s.
Some of us, it seems, yearn for the authentic sound of the past, even if there really isn't one. Certainly great records exist. Howlin' Wolf's recording of "Wang Dang Doodle," say, or Sleepy John Estes' wondrous "Milk Cow Blues." But those recordings freeze something that was ever-changing. It's only dead genres that fossilize into what some think of as "authentic."
Or you could look at it another way. Whatever Skip James or Howlin' Wolf or Muddy Waters played was "authentic," simply because they were the real thing: men who expressed some of what was in their souls though their music.
I thought about all of this when, a day after listening to Mambo Sinuendo for the first time, I saw Phillip Noyce's inspirational yet heartbreaking film, "Rabbit Proof Fence," which has finally been released in the U.S. "Rabbit Proof Fence" tells the real story of three "half-caste" Australian children who in 1931 were, per government policy that only ended in the '70s, taken from their mothers and put into a camp where they were to be trained as domestic help. The Australian government didn't want to create a new race of half-black/half-white Australians. And the belief was that if, over several decades, these "half-caste" children grew up and mated with whites, their children would be white. The girls escape and travel more than 1,500 miles on foot to reconnect with their mothers. Their story is courageous, but this notion of maintaining a "pure" race is quite disturbing.
The history of the world, it would seem, is for a dominant culture to wipe out weaker cultures. The argument can be made that, as far as music is concerned, regional (pure) musics are giving way to some grotesque international pop amalgam that millions the world over will all listen to with a smile on their faces. Oh for the days when, in Seattle for instance, you'd hear regional Seattle rock, while the distinct take of San Francisco bands on guitar-based rock had little in common with the sounds of New York. In different parts of the country (and the world) you would find unique peoples, with their own culture. It wasn't one homogenous world.
While the world is now a much smaller place than it was, even 20 years ago, and one can hear the same bland pop hits the world over, the cross-pollination of sounds and genres, particularly in a post-Internet age, also can lead to wonderfully eccentric and (yes!) regionally unique music. Think of Ska and Reggae, musics that resulted when Jamaican musicians created their own version of American soul music. Today, we think of these "half-caste" musics, Ska and Reggae, as "authentic" Jamaican music. You know, the way we think of blues or jazz as "authentic."
With Mambo Sinuendo, Cooder and Galban (guitarist and arranger of the great Havana doo-wop quartet Los Zafiros) have looked to the past for inspiration and ideas. More than half of the songs they've recorded are obscure (well to me, anyway) Cuban instrumentals. But among them are new songs "Los Twangueros" and the title track, for instance. And the sound they got in that studio is authentic in the way that Muddy Waters, armed with a brand new Fender electric guitar, made authentic music until the day he died. It sounds like the past, and you've never heard it before.