Ry Cooder's Cuban Era May Be Capped With New Sets

Excerpted from the magazine for Billboard.com.

"I'd hate to say this whole Cuban experience is at an end for me," Ry Cooder says. "But I can't see any way they're going to allow us to do it again. We just got in under the wire. It was a miraculous adventure, but it looks like the time is up."

Yet before the sands finally run out, the guitarist has two more installments due in the series of phenomenally successful Cuban albums that began when he produced 1997's Grammy Award-winning "Buena Vista Social Club" (Nonesuch; World Circuit in the U.K.).

First comes Cooder's own "Mambo Sinuendo," a set of guitar duets with the Cuban guitarist Manuel Galban. Due Jan. 28, it is the first album to appear on Cooder's own Perro Verde imprint (via Nonesuch) and the first record on which we have heard him play electric guitar in a decade.

March 11 brings the Cooder-produced "Buenos Hermanos," the second solo album from septuagenarian Buena Vista singer Ibrahim Ferrer on Nonesuch (World Circuit in the U.K.). Both albums were recorded simultaneously in Havana in 2001 and deploy many of the same musicians, including veteran drummer and longtime Cooder collaborator Jim Keltner.

To get permission to make the sets, Cooder fought a long-running battle in Washington, D.C. After recording "Buena Vista," he was fined for breaching the embargo against the Communist regime and had an undertaking imposed on him that he would not make another record in Cuba without official approval. When he sought permission to return, his application was refused, despite 12 months of intensive lobbying by his lawyers.

As a last resort he appealed directly to the White House. In one of his final acts in office, President Bill Clinton granted a one-year exemption from the embargo. "I've got great ideas for more Cuban records. I can see the possibilities musically. But the exemption has now expired," Cooder laments, "and I can't see this administration allowing me to go back."

Yet if the brace of albums about to appear are Cooder's last throw of the Cuban dice, they represent a fine swansong to the "Buena Vista" phenomenon. "Mambo Sinuendo," in particular, is quite different from anything else in the series. "We had to get off the road we'd been on," Cooder says. "We'd been doing one kind of thing with the Cuban records we'd been making. The obvious way to do something new was to make a record of guitar instrumentals with Galban."

The set includes twanging versions of such tunes as Prado's "Patricia," Nino Rivera's "Monte a Dentro," and even Doris Day's "Secret Love" played by a swinging sextet of two electric guitars, two drum sets, congas, and acoustic bass.

Cooder is also pleased with "Buenos Hermanos," which he produced for Ferrer. "This record takes Ibrahim where nobody else has gone. After six years of messing around with these Cubans, we've all learned to work with each other in the most amazing way."

"Buenos Hermanos" is also remarkable for the number of Grammy Award winners featured on the record, including guest stars the Blind Boys of Alabama, accordionist Flaco Jiminez, and pianist Chucho Valdes, from the Cuban group Irakere. Alongside Cooder and Ferrer, they bring the number of Grammy winners on the album to five.

Ferrer will launch a North American tour Feb. 6 in Providence, R.I. Running in two legs, the tour will finish April 17 in New York.

Excerpted from the Jan. 18, 2003, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the Billboard.com members section.

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