Ry Cooder is arguably the great lost rock’n’roll guitarist. Remember the spitting slide on “Memo To Turner”? The growling licks with the Magic Band on Safe As Milk? The brilliant blues-based excursions of Into The Purple Valley and Boomer’s Story? No wonder the Stones considered him as a replacement for Brian Jones after he provided the (uncredited) central riff to “Honky Tonk Women”. But he simply wasn’t interested in being a rock star, and we’ve hardly heard him play electric guitar in a decade.
In recent years he’s found satisfaction first playing acoustic guitar duets with Ali Farka Toure (with the occasional splash of slide) and then sitting in the producer’s chair with Cuba’s venerable Buena Vista Social Club. And we’d pretty much despaired of ever hearing him play rock’n’roll again.
Recorded in Cuba (he had to get special permission from the White House during the last days of the Clinton administration after the State Department had fined him for breaching the anti-Castro embargo over Buena Vista), Mambo Sinuendo is hardly a conventional rock album. But it’s as near as we’re going to get from the great man, and the quality of his playing only adds to our frustration at his reticence.
With ’60s doowop quartet Los Zafiros, Manuel Galban became the toughest, rockingest exponent of the instrument in the country’s musical history. And he and Cooder have here made an album full of big, fat, twanging lead guitar lines that hark back to the days of Duane Eddy and the Perez Prado-style mambo-jazz of the 1950s. Not so much post-rock as pre-rock.
With a rhythm section including Buena Vista bassist Orlando ‘Cachaito’ Lopez and long-time Cooder drummer-of-choice Jim Keltner, the dozen tracks are almost entirely instrumental, but that doesn’t mean it’s background music?any more than was Cooder’s soundtrack to Paris, Texas. Agile, sexy, witty and lyrical, it’s an exquisite album, and even at this early stage, the guitar playing on rocked-up mambo “Monte A Dentro” sounds like one of the musical highlights of the year.