The success of the Buena Vista Social Club project headed up by US guitarist Ry Cooder has become rather a cottage industry now, with everyone jumping on various bandwagons and putting out Cuban records like there’s no tomorrow — and, given the fickle nature of the listening public, and the age of some of these musicians, there might well be no tomorrow indeed. In fact, Cooder himself doesn’t anticipate returning to Cuba; he’s fed up with the hassles of fighting our asinine Cuban “policy”.
Among all the great new records of the New Cubanismo, there have also been some splendid reissues. My favorite was the collection of songs by Los Zafiros called Bossa Cubano. This wonderful record, which never caught on the way some others did due to its departure from the tried-and-true Buena Vista formula, displayed the talents of four superb vocalists who married doo-wop to more traditional Latin styles. They were famous everywhere in the world except here; the Beatles saw Los Zafiros in Paris the night in 1965 that they received an 11-minute standing ovation, and always counted their singing as a huge influence. Anyone who heard the piercing high tenor (some would even say soprano) of Ignacio Elejalde or the way “Chino” Hernández ripped it up on “La Caminadora” became a true believer forever. If only they’d been really old, and alive, so that Ry Cooder could have re-discovered them!
But for me the true revelation was the work of the group’s fifth member, electric guitarist Manuel Galbán. His unbelievably haunting work on one song could then suddenly turn sprightly and jangly on the next. Galbán was the soul of the group, and his restraint and discipline held Los Zafiros together until 1972, when he finally fled, no longer able to keep the rest from destroying themselves with alcohol and drugs and violence. Galbán landed on his feet, heading up the traditional Cuban music group Batey for more than two decades, and becoming one of the crucial components of the Buena Vista sound.
This is Galbán’s first stateside release as a “solo” artist in his own right, and if it took a collaboration with Cooder to cause Galbán to start thinking like a solo artist, then so be it. To say that it breaks with the past is to tell another lie, because most of the songs here are traditional Cuban tunes; to say that it hearkens back to more traditional Cuban music is to tell a lie, because no Cuban guitarist ever really dared to follow in Galbán’s twangy echoey footsteps. What this is is an impossible record, one that cannot possibly really even exist: a record without precedent yet steeped in history, a record made by two music veterans who have managed to figure out a way to combine their own separate journeys into a new third path.
Oh, and it kicks ass too. The instrumentation is stripped down and Spartan: on most tracks it’s just the two guitarists, two drummers (session veteran Jim Keltner and Cooder’s son Joachim), conga star Miguel “Angá” Díaz, and inventive bass player Orlando “Cachaíto” López. Sometimes, they add other musicians, but this is kept to a minimum. This is very different from the Buena Vista stereotypical Cuban jam session, and it works like a newly minted charm.
This is most evident on the record’s three original songs. The title song is the flashiest, with phased-out hip-hop percussion effects and Juliette and Carla Commagere singing wordless syllables and then “Mambo Sinuendo!” on the chorus and Cooder noodling around on an organ and a guest appearance from Herb Alpert on trumpet — but they acknowledge how atypical this piece is by fading it out after two and a half minutes. “Los Twangueros” is more like it: a slow homage to Duane Eddy where Galbán’s signature spooky chords resounds for days, weeks, years. Cooder remains well in the background here, contributing atmospheric guitar squiggles and some train-whistle vibraphone work. This hypnotic effect floats above a huge fat bed of percussion, augmented by four guest Bata drummers. It’ll stay with you, this one, long after it’s over.
For me, the biggest mystery about this disc is the third original piece, “Bolero Sonámbulo” — as you might guess from the title, it’s a kind of restatement of Santo and Johnny’s classic 1950s instrumental “Sleepwalk” in foxy Cuban clothes, but it becomes its own thing. Cooder gets to show off some of his Delta slide work, Galbán hits his notes dead-on, and the mood is all hushed and cool — but who is playing the hell out of the piano all over the track? This uncredited musician deserves some kind of award . . . but we don’t even know his name (might it be Chucho Valdes?). I might be able to find it out on the Internet or something, but I’d much rather listen to the music.
The rest of the LP, with one exception, contains restatements of traditional Cuban songs. It is entirely to Cooder and Galbán’s credit that they were able to find a way to do these songs in the least “traditional” way, but that doesn’t mean that they have abandoned that particular Cuban swing; on the contrary, hearing these songs in their new atypical context restores some of their luster. It’s easy to trot out the name of Cuban hipster-bandleader Pérez Prado, but the dueling-guitar trope Galbán and Cooder bring to “Patricia” makes it sound Hawaiian, then bluegrass, then Jamaican . . . but, finally, just impossible. The same formula turns “Échale Salsita” into pointillist pop and “María la O” into spaghetti westernismo — they’re still the same songs they always were, but they’re different.
It’s pointless, ultimately, to talk about the skill of people involved; everyone here is a master, and the only missed notes are missed intentionally, only to be resolved with the next chord or phrase. What is more important is the discipline, the restraint, the attention to detail. “Caballo Viejo” is straight-up cumbia, with a lovely lope by both drummers and some hilarious polka bass from Cachaíto and a measured organ line from Galbán with Cooder doubling him on guitar. It’s all cool and slow and mellow, but for a reason, because when Galbán starts Absolutely Going Off on organ and the drummers shift into double-time to match him, you don’t see it coming and it hits you harder. I want to also extend extra congratulations to Cachaíto, whose selfless bass playing throughout pays off when he gets to solo, magnificently, on the jazzy “Bodas de Oro”.
No way to sum up the six-minute guitar clinic of “Secret Love”, because there are no words. Similarly, to hear Galbán take on his old Zafiros hit “La Luna en Tu Mirada” as a soloist instead of a backup inspires nothing in me other than awe and a dropped jaw. This record couldn’t possibly exist. It’s impossible. I keep expecting it to vanish into its own perfection. Luckily, that hasn’t happened yet. So, for now, all is well in my world.