It makes some kind of cosmic sense that Ry Cooder — a slide guitarist whose collaborations with Indian classical musicians and Tex-Mex stars have yielded recordings of rare and unconventional beauty — would wind up in Cuba. The island is one of those places where there are few barriers between high and mass culture, and folklore isn’t something that gathers dust in museums. For a category-basher like Cooder, it’s almost heaven: Hip-hop kids know the words and music of Beny Moré, the prototypical Cuban singer of the ’50s; the decades-old pulses of rumba and son turn up in current radio hits.
On Buena Vista Social Club, Cooder was looking for the old stuff — storysongs handed down through generations, rhythms and melodies that were popular before the revolution became a glimmer in young Fidel Castro’s eye. Aiming for the front-porch-casual feeling of traditional Cuban sextets, Cooder gathered a group of active and semiretired artists, including magical vocalists Compay Segundo and Ibrahim Ferrer, to revisit the lovelorn ballads, patriotic hymns and gentle son-based dance numbers heard in swank Havana lounges as far back as the 1920s.
Though the musicians honor the general outlines of these compositions, Cooder can’t resist the impulse to stretch the traditional-folk-song settings. His curiosity is a two-edged sword: Sometimes, like on the stately “Chan Chan,” his moaning, pitchbending lead lines enhance the bittersweet feeling of the melody. Other times, particularly on “Orgullecida,” the Western swing-guitar ad-libs become intrusions, dispatches from a more cluttered (and cynical) age that distract from the world-weary testimony of the singers. But Cooder never tramples the songs. He knows that his guitar embellishments can’t do much to improve these wistful melodies, enduring reminders that in Cuba, the wisdom of the ages still counts for something.