Veteran slide guitarist Ry Cooder is no stranger to the exotic. He's worked with everyone from Captain Beefheart and the Rolling Stones to Ali Farka Toure and V.M. Bhatt. And 'Buena Vista Social Club,' which he organized and oversaw, introduced much of the world to traditional Cuban music. In 2001 he returned to Cuba to record his latest CD, the excellent 'Mambo Sinuendo,' a set of duets with Manuel Galban (guitarist for Cuban group Los Zafiros).
Today, however, he's a bit overwhelmed by his surroundings: Times Square's noisy Virgin Megastore, a cavernous, assaultive complex where Cooder has come to do some CD shopping. He coolly eyes the spectacle. ''I protest against this kind of insanity,'' he says. ''You hit this environment and your mind just implodes. Okay. Okay. I have to get oriented a little bit. Let's start with the simplest thing, which is the world stuff.''
Virgin's world-music section turns out to be vast but unsatisfying. ''A lot of this is just nothing much,'' says Cooder. ''Very modern, very commercialized. It's kind of sad. I don't trust a lot of this stuff.'' He does find a couple of nuggets, though, including 'El Tambor de Cuba, a boxed set from 1940s Latin-jazz percussionist Chano Pazo. ''Now this is cool,'' he says. ''If you really want to rock and swing, this is very hyperactive music. He was the man.''
Jazz proves more fruitful. ''Now we're cooking,'' he says. ''There's all kinds of good...oh, here it is! I'll be damned. Everybody should have one of these. The Hi-Lo's. I did not know this stuff was on CD. They were pre-Four Freshmen, a four-piece with weird harmony voicings. It really is bizarre.'' Cooder settles on the group's 'Love Nest/All Over the Place.' He also grabs CDs by Jimmy Scott and pianist Hampton Hawes, whose All Night Sessions is, ac-cording to Cooder, ''hot s -- -.''
Now he sets off for truly scary territory: the country section. ''With country, it's hard to penetrate the thick layers of commercialism that have been applied like shellac coatings over the real thing,'' he says. ''That's a fact, and I don't mind saying it. I'll offend all kinds of people, I guess. But what we're looking for here is something really moving and interesting and.... Here it is! Speedy West featuring Jimmy Bryant. 'There's Gonna Be a Party.' Just dig the musicianship. They were in my mind when I was trying to think up this [Mambo Sinuendo] thing. They were so good.''
One last stop. ''We have got to have some gospel,'' says Cooder, picking up a CD compiling the Swan Silvertones' self-titled and Savior Pass Me Not albums. ''I don't mean to be authoritarian, but you have got to hear [Silvertones singer] Claude Jeter do his thing. Unmistakably correct. A person of incredible genius, never to be heard the likes of which again.'' He pauses, his enthusiasm momentarily distracting him from the din. ''Okay, this is the real deal,'' he says, turning toward the chaotic cash-register area. ''That's about it.''