Ruben Ramos: El Gato Negro's
Ruben Ramos says none of these things, but they are in his eyes. Like the eyes of an entire race, Ramos' brown eyes speak the experience of many lifetimes. His mostly, but deeper down, farther back, there's something in his eyes that all older Latinos possess, a look of stony resignation - a sadness that stretches across the graves of countless generations. In those eyes, hundreds, maybe thousands of years of experience reside. Sit one of these elders down and ask for a cuento, a story - their story - and suddenly one is lost in the labyrinth of forgotten history - some of it not so forgotten.
"When we were young, we used to migrate from field to field, picking cotton," says Ramos. "Toda la familia. I did that from the time I was 8 years old until I was 17. We went all the way to Minnesota - I don't know what they grow there, pepino [cucumber] - Wisconsin, la manzana [apple], cherries, all the way to Washington."
Leaning back in his chair, Ramos, who will be 58 on Monday, stares straight ahead at the wall above his mother's bed, thinking - remembering. "Finally, after 10 years of that, my momma told my father, `Ya [enough], you go back to Sugarland, we're staying here - me and the kids. I'm staying here. I don't know about you.'"
And she did - the whole family did. That was 1949. Nearly 50 years later, Ramos sits in the same house his mother, Elvira, born just outside of Austin - in Utley - has been in ever since. His father, Alfonso, lived here up until his death two years ago August. Son Ruben, one of Elvira and Alfonso's seven children, has lived here since returning to Austin in 1991, saying his parents liked having him at home, because he made them feel safe. "They started leaving the door open again, and opening windows." It's a small, modest house in East Austin, as modest as the man who takes care of his 93-year-old "momma."
Not quite as modest, perhaps, is Ramos' career in the music business, which began more or less in earnest three years after his mother decided to stay in Austin. Going on five decades, and what Ramos estimates is 35 albums later, "El Gato Negro" has left another marker of his history, El Gato Negro Smooth. Released late last fall on Plano-based indie Barb Wire, which is distributed by Virgin Records, El Gato Negro Smooth is Ramos' third full-length album for Barb Wire in as many years, preceded by El Chupa Chavas (1996), and Nueve Vidas (1995). A festive, horn-driven mixture of polkas, salsas, and catcalls, El Gato Negro Smooth is a testament to Ramos' perseverance and enduring spirit. If it sounds like he's having a good time, he's earned the right.
But you say you've never heard of Ruben Ramos? That's no surprise. Just as you can't see the gleaming, sky-scraping pyramids of downtown Austin from the tree-shrouded confines across the interstate, the majority populace of "The Live Music Capital of the World" doesn't see anything that happens in East Austin - musically or otherwise. That, however, does not mean there's no sound being made. On the contrary, as Ramos illuminates through a tale that takes two hours to spin, there's an entirely different and parallel musical universe that not only encompasses East Austin and the Latinos that live there, but also counts Ramos among its brightest stars. And that you've never heard of him? Well, that's the way it's always been.
This is his story.
Ruben Ramos was born on February 9, 1940 in Sugarland, Texas, outside of Houston, "in the middle of the cotton fields," says Ramos. "Literally." His father, Alfonso, was a Mexican immigrant who had come to the United States with his mother (and brother) after his father had been killed in the Mexican Revolution. When his mother was hung and killed in a well accident, young Alfonso and his brother were on their own.
"Su vida fue muy trágica," says Ramos, slipping from Spanish to English like the breeze. "Tragic. They were orphans. He didn't know how to do anything. The only things he knew how to do were those by hand - seeding. So that's what he did. And, to me, he was real successful, because he put all six of us through school."
"All 10 uncles were musicians," says Ramos. "All ten. They had a six-piece horn section, and the other four were the rhythm section. They went to war and came back, at which point they became Justín Pérez and the Ex-G.I.'s....
"When I was a young kid, they used to get together in Sugarland, at the house of the Martínez's or whoever, and have parties. My momma, my father, an accordion player - they'd set up in the corner of the room, or outside in the dirt, and everyone would start dancing. The music is in the blood, and it's run from them, my uncles, to me."
Ramos and his five brothers spent plenty of time watching his uncles rehearse, and when his sister started singing with the band, the floodgates opened. Soon Ruben's older brother, Alfonso, was also singing with the band and playing saxophone. Towards the end of the decade, 1958, the apprenticeship over, Alfonso started his own band with a friend: "Ramos y Guerrero." Ruben saw his chance. "I picked up the maracas - started with whatever I could get my hands on - just to be up there, y'know?"
We know. It's called a foot in the door, and before long Alfonso replaced a drunk, unreliable drummer with his little brother Ruben. We also know what happens when a young man of 18 hears rock & roll for the first time. "My friends and I were not into polkas," laughs Ramos. "I told my brother, `Hey man, we need to play some English - some rock & roll. He said, `Cántalo [sing it].' Cántalo, si quieres [sing it if you want]. So I started with a song. I started with Fats Domino."
Finding his thrill on "Blueberry Hill," Ramos soon recruited a second drummer so he could spend more time at the front mike. It's there Ramos says he became a "pretty decent singer" in a band with a "good" following. How good? "We were the first group that leased a plane. In 1962, we leased a plane to fly us to Chicago and Kansas." Talk of chartered planes in the early Sixties usually carries with it unpleasant memories of Buddy Holly, but Alfonso Ramos' boogie band, traditional Mexican music done up slightly rock & roll, R&B more so, did well in the decade Ruben played drums in the band. So well, in fact, that there was the inevitable Ramos family spin-off, this one coming from Alfonso and Ruben's youngest brother, Roy. It was Roy Ramos who started the Mexican Revolution.
The Mexican Revolution
The revolution had been underway all of two weeks when Roy realized his new band had no singer. Luckily, getting his brother to defect from Alfonso's band was not hard since Ruben badly wanted to be a frontman. Together, into the choppy waters that were 1969, the two brothers launched their new band. They had no idea what they were getting into.
"We didn't know better," shrugs Ramos, wearing a shirt with Pancho Villa on it. "I sang the words, but I didn't know what I was saying. Now, I know what I'm singing. Now, I know the words and what it means. Back then, I was just singing the words."
What were you playing?
"Just... whatever you want to call it. It had no name. `Oh, we play Mexican music' is what we told everyone."
He pauses, taking inventory of my puzzled look.
"We called it Chicano," he says finally. "`Chicano' is short for, `Hey, I'm American, pero no soy gringo. Soy Mexicano. Soy Chicano.' That's where that word comes from. It's just a mixture of everything - salsa. I love salsa. There's that, and a little bit of rhythm and blues. Everything.
"When the Mexican Revolution started, we were playing the Chicago Transit Authority, and Blood Sweat & Tears. We started playing all this stuff, and we started getting a following with the young crowds. It was more English than Spanish then, but as we went along, the labels started booking us with groups from Mexico. Our music would kind of fit in over there, but they didn't like a lot of English. They wanted español, so we started learning a lot more Spanish music."
An important component of the Mexican Revolution, especially given the times, was the Chicano movement that came to power in the Seventies. Like many movements of the period, this one was a socio-political call to arms, a movement driven by empowerment, and it touched American Latinos from every class - from migrant farmworkers turned musicians to middle-class Hispanics living in San Antonio and other centers of Latino culture. It's no stretch, then, to discover that the Mexican Revolution was caught up in the cause.
"Yeah, that was a big part of us," says Ramos leaning forward in his chair. "The Chicano movement. Viva la Raza! That was the Chicano movement of the early Seventies. We were involved. We did a whole lot of fundraising for the movement. That was when Chicano power came in. It was empowerment for the Mexicanos.
"It was saying, `Hey, we're a power over here. We want to be recognized as such. We're very useful. We're very important to the function [of the United States]. We're not just Mexicanos that wash dishes and work out in the fields. We got some smart people out here that need to be recognized - be noticed.' The whole thing was that we were tired of being treated like peons."
And noticed they were, the revolutionaries that is. Thinking back, Ramos estimates that the Mexican Revolution cut somewhere in the vicinity of 20 albums (that's not including the 10 or so he made with Alfonso's band), so there was never any shortage of tours and grueling roadwork. And this for a guy with a day job. Sí, señor. Turns out that Ramos was supporting himself, his wife, and his growing family (four children) working for the state here in Austin as a computer programmer.
"I had a good job - good money - y'know, making almost $2,000 a month from 1969 to 1973 when I quit. I guess that's why my first wife divorced me; she said I'd made a bad move going from all the security and medical benefits for the family to being a músico. But the job had already given me ulcers; I was smoking two and a half to three packs of cigarettes a day, and drinking 8-10 cups of coffee a day. So I got bleeding ulcers. I almost died. One day they told me, `It's either this job or your music.' So, I chose music. And I'm glad I did. If I stayed in the other, I would have died. I know I would have been dead, already."
He ponders the weight of his statement, El Gato Negro, his handsome face showing no emotion - the salt-and-pepper hair, each strand perfectly in place, crowning Ramos' regal bearing. In no way does he look like a musician, much less one that has been on the road all his life. He looks even less like a computer programmer, mind you, but at least that seems within the realm of possibility. What he really looks like is a politician. He laughs at this.
"Music is in my blood," he says shaking his head. "A lot of people ask me, `To what do you attribute still being in the business?' First, I would say, 'Cause I gotta pay the bills.' But mostly it's 'cause I love the music.
"Gracias a Dios que me da la energía, la salud - the gift to be able to sing and entertain."
What It Is
Through the mid- and late Seventies, Ramos did just that - sing and entertain, giving himself over full time to a music career, singing, travelling, booking the band wherever they drew - Kansas, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Mostly he and the band got burned. "I didn't know anything about contracts," he says. "Now, it's `This is what we charge; deposit the money, sign the contract, notarize it."
Unfortunately, it wasn't just promoters and club owners that were undermining the Mexican Revolution. Ramos counts off a half-dozen record labels that never payed him a dime after issuing a slab of vinyl. Truth be told, Ramos & Co. were having too much fun to really care; remember, this was the Boogie Nights era plunging headlong into the debauched Caligula years: the Eighties. That's when Ramos began wising up.
"The older you get the wiser you get about how to do things," says Ramos. "Now, we know we have to rehearse, we gotta get tight. We have to present ourselves good. Back then, we just got on stage in our T-shirts - the hippie days. The mentality was `Who's gonna sing?' or `Who's turn is it to solo?' In the Eighties, we started saying, `Hey, we need to present ourselves better.' The better the package, the better you sell."
It was around this time that the band changed its name from the Mexican Revolution to the Texas Revolution. It was felt by Ramos and those around him that in order to appeal to the white market, he would have to smooth some of those radical edges. The magic word then was "crossover," and RCA, which signed the band in 1981, was throwing it around plenty. It caught on, too.
"Everyone was thinking, `Hey, man, we want to cross over. We want to cross over to the gringos - be accepted by the gringos. And `The Mexican Revolution' didn't sound too good to crossover with. So, we finally came up with `The Texas Revolution.'"
Also in this period, the nickname "El Gato Negro" found itself attached like a tail to Ramos, who covered the well-known Spanish song about a swinging, hipster cat with lots of nasty habits. Ramos grins sheepishly trying to explain how he became associated with the song, pointing out that he's been sober now for six years. Questions of Eighties lifestyle endorsements aside, "El Gato Negro" continued to garner popularity in the Latin sector, though the much-sought-after "crossover" appeal was not happening.
"Some gringos liked the music," he asserts. "Polkas are polkas, you know. I don't care if they're Western or German or what. They're the same rhythm. Maybe the language is different, but polkas are polkas...."
"We were looking for crossover, but to me that was dumb. Why do I want to cross over where they probably don't even want me? Why do I want to cross over when it's, `Hey, man, do you think you could sing country?' They got country singers that can sing circles around me and they look younger, and better, and cuter. How do you think you're gonna get into that?
"No, stay here. Stay here with the people that have been feeding you the longest. That's where I am right now. I'm not going over there, I'm staying here. There's a lot of people here to make me millions if I do my music right. I don't want to cross over anymore."
Not that it was working, anyway. After making one album for RCA, on their Hacienda imprint, CBS bought the label, and decided to keep Ramos and the Texas Revolution on board, an arrangement that lasted five years and five albums - an arrangement that never stopped revolving around the concept of "crossover."
"It didn't work, because they wanted me to leave my brass section - my horns. That was right at the time that synthesizers were starting to catch on. They wanted me to get rid of the horns and just use synthesizers. Then five years later, the accordion caught on real heavy and they wanted me to use that. I said, `No.' And they said, `We think you should.' But I refused, so they wouldn't let me go. They let me record a CD every year, but they wouldn't let me do a video. All the others, like Jay Pérez or whoever else, they got videos, because videos were catching on."
In other words, they didn't market the Texas Revolution.
"Hardly, I just sat there on the shelf. The last year, with the last CD [1993's romantic Amor y Paz], they didn't even do me posters or pictures. And their excuse was, `This is not in our budget.'"
On the word "posters," Ramos' stoic resolve cracks a bit, and in his eyes a world of wounded pride floats to the surface. Whether it was Sony Discos, RCA, or any of the many small Spanish labels that blatantly ripped off Ramos, it seems labels are labels; no matter who runs them, gringo or Latino, they'll rip you off regardless of race or color. Equal opportunity screwing.
"Yes, sir," he says adamantly. "Yes, sir. Misma cosa [same thing]. No importa que tu eres Mexicano y ellos son Mexicanos. They'll get to you if you let 'em. We let 'em. Por muchos años.
"But like I said, in the mid-Eighties we got smarter. We said, `We gotta do this better. We gotta think. Forget this partying and let's get smart. Let's get wise. From the stage to the contracts, we took control of our affairs, so we didn't get screwed anymore. And it's working out good. I say to my guys, `We gotta work like the white system. We gotta work like they do it.' It's working for them. Why can't it work for us?
"So, we've been aggressive instead of being passive. 'Cause Mexicanos are taught to turn the other cheek - to be passive - since we were young, because we were always under the thumb of the gringo. Now, we have our own land, our own houses. `Hey, man, we don't have to live like that.' But we do have to work like the white system works. 'Cause that's what it is."
Separate Not Equal
Obvious is what it is - obvious that Ruben Ramos has existed in two different worlds his whole life - parallel universes. Born Texan, he has lived Mexican. In his world, people speak mostly Spanish to people with dark skin, dark eyes, and dark hair. They eat different food, have different customs. Though a rock & roll convert at a young age - and even now Ramos still loves his rock & roll (see "Vehicle" on El Gato Negro Smooth) - he sings mostly Spanish while his band plays music made for south-of-the-border sensibilities. Some call it Tejano, Ramos calls it Chicano. His entire musical career has had little to do with the music business most Americans are familiar with; parallel universes, and never the twain shall meet.
"It's true," nods Ramos. "It's very true. But I can't cry about it. I gotta keep working. I gotta keep doing what I love to do. I know there's racism in the music business - all over. People say it's gone down, but no, it hasn't gone down. It still has a lot. There's still a lot of baby boomers that don't believe that racism is being spread. There's still a lot of that, and you have to know it's out there."
Take, for instance, the segregation that exists here in lovely, liberal Austin. ¿Qué te parece? What about that?
"No me parece," says Ramos. "I don't like it very much. Very segregated, but I'd rather live here. I love Austin. Austin tiene todo (has it all). Has lots of green, lots of trees, lots of grass, water - a little bit of some hills. What else can you ask for?
"San Antonio is a city like no other city in the world, but I'd rather live here. For what I do, it's perfect. I love to jog. There's the most beautiful jogging trail that I've found in the United States. I love to golf. Some of the best courses are around Austin. I wouldn't move from here. I'm very comfortable. Plus it's centrally located for my business."
And business is good?
"Business is good, gracias a Dios. Looking for it to get better. I've just started, to me. I'm just beginning. I've gotten wiser. We should have done this a long time ago - gotten serious. Do this the music business way."
One music business "way" is the indie route, and since taking his act to Barb Wire ("three guys in Plano"), Ramos' musical career has definitely been on the upswing. Nineteen ninety-six brought an invite to play the Presidential Inaugural gala, 1997 swept him into prestigious Pura Vida Hall of Fame, and this year will find Ramos receiving an honor equivalent to being enshrined into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame - induction into the Tejano Music Awards Hall of Fame on March 7 at the Alamodome. Yes, business is good, and Ramos and his band prove why the next night in San Antonio.
Playing a fundraiser for congressional hopeful Walter Martinez (20th district, Democrat), Ramos and his Texas Revolution take an old style cafeteria, the Flamingo Ballroom, and turn this staid event with a lot of older Hispanics into a bonafide rocanroll show, complete with smoke, light show, and more catcalls. The nine-piece band, complete with a quartet of horns, cranks out tunes such as "Juana la Cubana" like there's no tomorrow; this isn't wimpy Tejano crap, the R&B is too prevalent, the salsa too pronounced. It ain't Storyville either, but it packs the floor instantly and keeps it packed. The line for menudo is non existent throughout the band's nearly two-hour set.
In the midst of it all - the smoke, the red, flashing lights - is Ramos, impeccably dressed in a beige suit and sunglasses, shaking a maraca and looking like either a Secret Service agent or a visiting foreign dignitary. These days he admits his voice isn't that great, but when you have a band like his that may not be the point. About 30 minutes into the show, Ramos brings his twentysomething son Mark onstage, and the two belt out a version of "Ya Yo te Quiero" from the new CD. Shaking their well-dressed stuff, father and son revel in the family business.
By the way, dressing up means more to Mexican audiences, doesn't it?
"Exactly. The Mexicanos like you to look good. That's what I'm catering to. For a while, we thought, `Who's gonna play, you or the tie you're wearing?' But hey, we're dealing with the Mexicanos, and this is the way they see success. If we get up on stage in short pants and ripped tennis shoes, it's not the same as getting up there in a tuxedo or a double-breasted suit where people are saying, `Híjole, they must be good.' These are the people that we're catering to. We're not catering to gringos. We're catering to the Mexicanos, Latinos."
Catering to them to the tune of 200 nights a year, actually. This has been Ramos' life for almost 40 years, the legacy of 10 uncles who all played music, the great-grandfather that paid hard-earned money to have them tutored, and the relation before him that made getting a tutor seem more like a necessity than a frivolity. The family legacy.
"I think I'm part of that, yeah," nods Ramos. "My son, Mark, has started to sing. So I see him as continuing that [legacy]. But you know a lot of [Mexicanos] have a different concept of music: `Música es para los marijuanos.' You know? Like, it's no good. That's a bad label. But that's the concept some people get. You know, música isn't any good. And that's another thing I'm proving here.
"See, my uncles were good musicians, but five of them died before my age, from puro alcohol - [drinking] every day, every day, every day. I want to show that music is a reputable business - can be a reputable business. That's one of my goals."
Probably a better one than "crossing over."
"It's a gringo world," says Ramos without a hint of emotion, his eyes betraying nothing. "You know, there's rhythm & blues players that play circles around these big-time white, guitar rhythm & blues players, but you know, who gets known? The whites, because they're the ones they're gonna push. It's always been like that. The blacks wrote all these songs, and who took over? Elvis Presley. The Beatles."
Forget Elvis Presley, I mumble, I'll take Little Richard.
"Exactly. They say, `There's the King.' I say, `Where?' `Right there, it's Elvis Presley.' He's not the fucking king. The king of what? And I'm not running down Elvis Presley, he was a nice person (I saw him when he came to Skyline Club on North Lamar). But it's always been like that.
"That's where I'm at now. I don't say forget the gringo world. We gotta do business with the gringo world. But as far as me wanting to cross over or wanting to be accepted, fuck it. I have enough raza - Latinos - here. I've got the Cubanos, the Puertoriqueños that come and say, `Hey man, I liked that merengue you played.' They come back, too, because we play a little bit of their music. Those are my people. I don't need the gringos to support myself."
Es verdad. It's true. Let history record this.
Ruben Ramos & the Texas Revolution play Dance Across Texas with Little Joe, and Rocky y La Familia, Sunday, February 8. On Thursday, February 26, Ramos and his band play Antone's.