Betto Arcos: Ry, can you talk about the project, about the recording process...

Ry Cooder: To me, the essence of the music is the most important thing. You can get notes on tape, you can put a microphone up and somebody plays and you can get notes on tape anywhere in the  world, and you can bring musicians here or go there. But unless you get the true atmosphere... The essence is in the atmosphere, it's in the place, and the people and the place. Especially in this room [Egrem Studios, Havana.] Because this room has seen the greatest Cuban musicians, including Arsenio Rodriguez. Since 1940, they've all played in this room; they've lived in this room. The piano is the same piano Ruben  Gonzalez played when he recorded "Guaguanco a Todos los  Barrios" in the late 70s. And if you go down to the vault downstairs, you see the tapes in the shelves, it says "Arsenio Rodríguez, 1950". All these guys, Beny Moré, they've all been there. They walked through, they had their coffee and their cigarettes. So, what we tried to do, the essential point is, to make you sense what we sensed. The surround sound, the circle. They set up in a circle, they sit around the bass player. And everybody is gathered there, focusing into the middle. And for me this is the whole. And I want to make sure this record has that to say. Otherwise it's flat, one-dimensional, it could have been in New York, Canada, anywhere. This is what I think is one of the great things about this record. You put in on and you feel that you can see it. You can imagine the space, you can feel the interaction. That's not easy to do either. Two mics do it and then a couple of close mics for the voice and that's it.

BA: There's something very special about the recording. At the end of every tune, you hear someone making a remark...

RC: Yeah, a comment on something. And they went on at length in their comments. In fact, we had to say to them, "try not to talk for just a little". And there was this explosion of language, this and that, you got to change chords, play this note, that's the wrong, incorrecto bass part or whatever. And that would go on for another hour before you could get Take 2. So many of these aren't Take 2 or Take 3, they're Take 1. It's like 'there it is'. They do it and they do it right.

BA: Originally, you were supposed to be in Havana to record with High-life musicians from Africa. And Nick Gold, of World Circuit, invited you to come to Havana to record with Cuban and High-Life musicians. As it turned out, the musicians from Africa did not get their visas...

RC: At the last minute, they just didn't show up. By the time we got down there ready to start, Nick Gold said, "Well, the Africans can't come". They're lost in transit, we don't know where they are. So we said, all right, we'll dig in here. We'll just go for it. We'll make a 'Son' album. Everybody is here, they had found Rubén González, like a miracle. Compay was in town. And it just sort of began to take shape and within three days, we had our room set. Everybody was there; they were happy to be there. It was sounding good. It was just blessed. You could've easily gone down there and got nothing. Or just something generic, or whatever. You know, you worry sometimes these people are going to say, "Here come the carpetbaggers, let's just give them what they want and send them on their way." But in this case, everybody seemed to feel that this was worth digging down into. And they're a bunch of open-hearted people. They share whatever they have.

BA: Talk about the energy that you felt during the recording process. It was sort of an unusual experience for you, in terms of how musicians relate to one another, how they go about creating, making music. How was it special or different from what you've done in the past?

RC: Well, different and the same. Although I would say different in a heightened way. What I look forward is the interaction between  players. Because you want to find where the psychic level between the people is. How they relate to each other, how they think and talk and work in the music. So, when you find that there's a group, a group energy is very important here. In any record or any experience that you have. I have had some experiences. So, you want to make sure that everybody is in it, in the game, helping out, so you can get where you want to be. And in Cuba, this is what life is for these people. They don't do anything else. They don't drive on freeways, they don't talk on cellular phones, or go rent videos. They have nothing else that occupies their entire being. So we realized right away, this is happening here. This is very juicy. And they love the music, and of course with total respect. This is their life, so what you get is everything they have, really. There's nothing more you can ask for.

BA: How did you manage to talk about the music with the group?

RC: Musicians understand each other through means other that speaking. We had an interpreter. Oddly enough, you come up with words and pictures that you both understand and so on. For instance, you might say, "What is this song about?" And these songs are very complicated, highly complex, multi-tiered songs and you want to know. What are we doing here? What's the story? And I  began to realize the stories of these songs are like microcosmic little epics, miniature epics. There was some disappointment for me because these guys speak almost an archaic regional Spanish, very poetically inflected. So, you have a lot of imagery. The poor young  interpreter, he admitted, "I don't understand a lot of what these guys are saying." But it's fun to try.