"I'll never forget it."

Ry Cooder is talking about his first encounter with a guitar, more than 50 years ago. The guitar was a three-quarter-size four-string tenor. Cooder was 4 years old, well into a yearlong recuperation from an accident that had cost him his left eye.

"I was lying in bed one night, and the man who brought it over was a violinist who was a friend of my parents," Cooder recalls, and suddenly it's the night before.

"He comes into the bedroom and he sets this thing down on my stomach, as you would if somebody's lying in bed on their back, and he strums the strings . . . and that was all you need to know. Because there's something about a wood box, especially the figure eight . . . You know there's something going on here.

"I couldn't tell you what I thought, but I can remember the feeling of it."

That feeling of discovery mixed with mystery has resonated and reverberated throughout Ry Cooder's career. The virtuoso slide guitarist, multi-culti mixer and film scorer extraordinaire has traveled a six-string highway from cult-level solo work to the Buena Vista Social Club, the biggest phenomenon in the history of world music.

Yet Cooder has always been discomfited by the spotlight. He toured minimally to promote his own albums, and the man who brought together the venerable coterie of aging Cuban musicians was, by choice, barely noticed as the Buena Vista Social Club traveled the world. Sitting and playing guitar in the back row of the orchestra, next to his drumming son Joachim, Cooder was eventually introduced each night, but almost as an afterthought.

"Ry has that enormous confidence that certain people have that is totally masked in modesty," says director Walter Hill, eight of whose films have been scored by Cooder since 1980. "He's genial and deferential and many times plays down his own efforts. . . . Ry's aware how good he is, but he doesn't feel a need to shout about himself."

That's not unlike Cooder's playing, which has always been marked by restraint and subtlety, reflecting a rare sensitivity to the notion that the notes you don't play may be more important than those you do. At the same time, Cooder is blessed with a wonderfully loose sense of swing and syncopation that imbues his music with a genial warmth and emotional depth lacking in much popular music. It's what has made Cooder one of the most respected musicians in America -- even if his profile isn't commensurate with his stature.

Until this week's release of "Mambo Sinuendo," a mesmerizing collection of electric guitar duets with legendary Cuban guitarist Manuel Galban, he hadn't released an album under his own name since 1993's "A Meeting by the River." That album, improvisations with Indian virtuoso V.M. Bhatt (who created the mohan vina, an instrument with a sitar neck on a guitar body), won a Grammy for best world music album, just as the Buena Vista Social Club album would a few years later.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Cooder is seldom eager to wander far from the Santa Monica area, where he was born in 1947; he's pretty much always lived in the neighborhood he grew up in. Yet that has not prevented him from three decades of cross-cultural collaborations.

What Cooder is doing with Manuel Galban is typically eclectic, what he envisioned as "the cool world of mambo-jazz, somewhere between Perez Prado and Henry Mancini," a small combo playing "ultra high-grade jukebox music" with a '50s ambience. Galban, who supplied twangy guitar (electrics are a rarity in Cuban music) and musical direction for Los Zafiros, a 1960s doo-wop group in Cuba, is as much a maverick in Cuban music circles as Cooder is stateside, which makes for some marvelous guitar soundscapes in this largely instrumental collection.

In truth, "Mambo Sinuendo" is not far removed from Cooder's first such venture, 1976's "Chicken Skin Music," which melded the Hawaiian slack-key guitar of Gabby Pahinui and the Tex-Mex accordion of Flaco Jimenez with some stylish R&B vocalists and Cooder's exquisite guitar playing. That title came from a Hawaiian expression for "something that gives goose bumps" -- an experience, and a goal, central to Cooder's work ethic.

"When I was a little kid, I can remember records [like "Mambo Sinuendo"] that I used to hear on the radio," Cooder said during a recent Washington visit. "It's the sounds of the instruments and the idea that people were together and something rare was happening. But I felt that I was missing it because it was always going on in the wrong time and I couldn't get there. In order to have the experience, to play a certain way and feel a certain way, you have to go make it up."

"The sad thing for me is, I'm 55 now and I've spent all my time either trying to find the instruments that make the sound, whatever they were, then trying to locate individuals who are somewhere; and they're dwindling and generally tend to be someplace else now. And if that's the case, you have to go where they are . . .

"So you have to say, 'I want to learn something,' " Cooder continues. "You have to say 'I have the records, and I've listened and I love this stuff and I think about it, and I'm going to go learn it.' . . . You have to build a little at a time, build some rapport and, I suppose, credibility -- friendship, perhaps.

"And then, maybe, there's a slight chance, that you could make it believable and acceptable."

Method in the Madness As a youngster, Ryland Peter Cooder would hang out in Los Angeles folk and blues clubs, catching traveling performers, seeking them out at their motel rooms for lessons that were less technical than spiritual. At 17, he formed a band with another country and blues junkie, Taj Mahal. The Rising Sons set quickly (an album that came out 25 years after the Sons broke up confirms that they were still ascending the learning curve).

At 18, Ry Cooder was a studio musician, recording with groups as disparate as Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Little Feat (that's his slide on "Willin' ") and the Rolling Stones. He taught Keith Richards to play slide, and the open G tuning favored by John Lee Hooker. Richards once said, "I took Ry Cooder for everything I could get," a compliment that may explain the fact that the money lick in "Honky Tonk Women" is pure Cooder-by-way-of-Hooker.

Cooder's first solo album came out in 1970, and by mid-decade he was ready to begin what he calls "a method, chemically trying to jam these things together. Today, I look back and I can't believe I did that. I got better at doing it."

"He's a guy who loves music," says Jim Keltner, the veteran drummer and Cooder collaborator. "Ry loves the eras when people played with great dynamics and feeling. He's always been a great admirer of people who know how to touch the instrument rather than strangle it or manhandle it."

Recalling his initial session on Cooder's 1971 album "Into the Purple Valley," Keltner notes, "the first thing that happened was -- and it still happens today -- he's very intense in a low-key manner. When you're playing or listening back, he listens like you can't imagine. He's got massive ears, hears things that other people don't."

Scores Galore Between 1970 and 1980, Ry Cooder made nine albums for Warner Bros.; though critically acclaimed, they never sold particularly well. (Two more followed during the '80s.) Never fond of leaving home to pursue public performance -- for him, the least rewarding end of the music business -- Cooder eventually found haven in a different medium: film.

Having worked on the soundtracks to movies like "Performance" (including the slide on Mick Jagger's "Memo From Turner"), Cooder hooked up with director Walter Hill, who was preparing to film "The Long Riders," 1980's epic retelling of the James Gang saga.

"He was wearing a big pith helmet, a T-shirt and shorts," Hill recalls, still amused. "The studio, of course, didn't want him. Everybody knew Ry was a great musician, but the idea of him doing a score was kind of daunting."

Cooder validated Hill's faith with a haunting and historically authentic score consisting of polkas, square dances, waltzes and other tunes played by a small ensemble -- a sound distinct from the orchestral scores usually favored in big westerns. Hill used Cooder scores for seven more films, utilizing his vast knowledge of musical Americana to capture historical and geographical, as well as psychological, settings.

Hill says that Cooder's tastes "are so wide and his ability to go into areas and somehow grab the essence of them and use them have got Ry a reputation of being an assimilator, which is partially true. But he takes these things and he makes them his own somehow . . .

"Ry doesn't, in the traditional sense of Hollywood, underscore the dramatic moment as much as he fills the environment and the atmosphere," Hill adds.

Consider Cooder's celebrated score for Wim Wenders's 1984 film "Paris, Texas." Its atmospheric acoustic bottleneck slide guitar sound -- Cooder's homage to Blind Willie Johnson -- has been so widely copied, from other film scores to commercials, that it's hard to remember how utterly original it was less than 20 years ago.

"Wenders must have thought that he had a film that was so fragile and so delicate that if anything too much happens in the music, the film is going to tip over," Cooder remembers. "I think he was thinking something atmospheric but minimal, small, that would stay out of the way of these characters that he was trying to depict and the tempo of the film."

In the '80s, the majority of Cooder's albums were scores and soundtracks. "I just loved it," he says, "because the record thing drove me insane -- I couldn't figure it out. I knew I wasn't connecting and I finally had to stop making these damn solo records because they just didn't happen. Something was missing, and commercially it was useless anyway, pretty much nonviable."

Which is why Cooder's '90s albums tended to be small-label, cross-cultural collaborations headlined by others, like "A Meeting on the River," or "Hollow Bamboo" with Indian flutist Ronu Majumdar, or "Talking Timbuktu" with Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure.

The Cuban Connection In 1996 Cooder went to Cuba to record what was supposed to be an encounter between African and Cuban musicians. When passport problems prevented the Africans from traveling, he shifted the focus to Cuban veterans who had been pretty much forgotten at home: among them, then-89-year-old guitarist Compay Segundo and a pair of seventy-somethings, pianist Ruben Gonzalez, who no longer even had a piano, and vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer, who was shining shoes for a living.

Cooder had first visited Cuba in 1976 with a clandestine jazz tour featuring Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and Earl Hines. Ever the collector, he'd brought home trunks full of music, but opportunities to work with Cuban musicians were always thwarted by the U.S. ban on travel there. In fact, Cooder's 1996 visit would result in a $100,000 fine, later reduced to $25,000; he hadn't applied for a license because he believed cultural exchanges were exempt. That would cause major problems when Cooder tried to go back to record follow-ups to the three albums that launched the Buena Vista revolution: "The Buena Vista Social Club," "Introducing Ruben Gonzalez" and "A Toda Cuba le Gusta" by the Afro-Cuban All Stars.

Of course Cooder had already made great albums with obscure musicians from varied cultures and seen them disappear. "Every time those . . . records would get made," he recalls, "I'd sit there and I'd think they're missing all of it, and it bothered me a lot."

Enter Wim Wenders, for whom Cooder was then scoring "The End of Violence." Cooder sent him a rough demo tape of the ballads, boleros and sons he'd recorded in Havana. Wenders, like so many others later on, promptly fell in love with the music.

"I knew there was a story there," says Cooder. "I simply said to Wim Wenders, 'These people are incredible, vivid characters, very poignant. I want you to come down and just check it out.'

"And of course the film taught everybody what was in the music that they wouldn't have seen, wouldn't have known. Most folks don't hear things like they see them."

Wenders's film would go on to become one of the 10 highest-grossing documentaries, as well as an Oscar winner. Sales of the soundtrack topped 8 million (more than Cooder's 11 solo albums combined) and transformed the lives of many of its musicians, notably Gonzalez, Ferrer (whose new Cooder-produced album comes out in March) and now Galban.

But Cooder was almost blocked from making the new Ferrer and Galban albums.

In January 2000, he applied for permission to return to Cuba; federal authorities turned him down. A second unlawful trip would have subjected him to higher fines and possible criminal penalties.

As a last resort, Cooder appealed directly to the White House and, as one of his final acts in office, President Clinton granted Cooder and his American band members a one-year exemption from the travel ban. Soon Cooder was on his way with his portable rhythm section: Keltner, one of the greatest drummers of all time, and Joachim Cooder, who's played with his father since the age of 10.

Also aboard were two dozen cases of instruments and recording equipment for making both the Galban album and the second Ferrer album. The massive collection provoked laughter from Galban the first time he walked into the studio.

"I was truly amazed, truly in awe," Galban says from Havana through a translator. "I thought, what is all this for?"

"You need everything," Cooder insists. "If tone and sound is your goal, then you must have things to produce this. For instance, in the drum department, my God, we had all this stuff you've never even seen, all sorts of esoteric junk that Keltner and Joachim have and electronics and bizarre variants and all kinds of found stuff. I brought my pedal steel and all my guitars and amps and weird devices. It's nothing you buy in the store, it's all collected and doctored and worked over and hot-rodded.

"You lay this out and sit there and say, 'Well, we will approach each tune from its nature, and I hope I have the right thing.' The other thing is, in Cuba you can't get anything. . . . You might as well be on the moon, see."

"Mambo Sinuendo" and Ferrer's "Buenos Hermanos" are the first two projects on Cooder's new Perro Verde label (distributed by Nonesuch). "I have drawers full of all sorts of music I love and want to put out," Cooder says.

The next will be close to heart and home: the soundtrack for a documentary inspired by photographer Don Normark's "Chavez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story," a study of that largely Mexican American barrio community before it was displaced by the building of Dodger Stadium. Cooder is working with Lalo Guerrero and Don Tosti, both in their eighties and pioneers of Chicano music, on what he calls "a real L.A. story of corruption and greed."

The thing you're not likely to see is an old-fashioned Ry Cooder album. The last one to carry just his name was 1987's "Get Rhythm," and you sense he has no interest in adding to the 11 albums that constitute his pop discography. Don't look for another Little Village, either. That was the 1992 semi-star project that brought together Cooder, John Hiatt, Nick Lowe and Keltner.

Taking its name from a Sonny Boy Williamson tune, Little Village was meant to be a creative democracy of mutual writing and shared credits, and it did garner critical acclaim. But you sense it was Ry Cooder's last commercial accommodation.

"Those songs are good . . . wicked songs," he says of Little Village's one album. "The good part of it was the song creation. The rest of it wasn't fun at all.

"I give up on pop music. As far as a commercial entity, as far as pop music goes, I quit, I absolutely throw in the towel. I can't handle it. I can't do it. I can't be what they need you to be."

After recording 11 solo albums, Ry Cooder gave up on pop music, devoting himself to movie projects. "The record thing drove me insane -- I couldn't figure it out," he says.Cooder, says a longtime colleague, has "always been a great admirer of people who know how to touch the instrument rather than strangle it or manhandle it."Cooder envisions "Mambo Sinuendo" as coming from "the cool world of mambo-jazz, somewhere between Perez Prado and Henry Mancini."