The Zen of Revolution
Michael Ramos' Charanga Cakewalk
Michael Ramos bears not a single distinguishing characteristic of the revolutionary. He's a quiet, unassuming, trim, and well-dressed man who has spent almost his entire career in subordinate roles in a variety of groups. He's been a member of the Bodeans and the Rembrandts and played accordion and keyboards for Patty Griffin, John Mellencamp, Paul Simon, and, currently, Los Lonely Boys.
Yet on the long bus journeys and overnight hotel stays that take up far too great a percentage of a road musician's life, Ramos uses Pro Tools to transform all the music he's played and has grown up with into a unique synthesis that blows apart preconceptions. Ramos has released two albums as Charanga Cakewalk, which is what he calls the result. It's a conceptual group, like Steely Dan, consisting of Ramos and whatever friends, acquaintances, and heroes he manages to corral.
The first LP, 2005's Loteria de la Cumbia Lounge, fused cumbia and electronica with a go-for-broke, rock & roll attitude in which whatever works is the right thing to do. The title referenced loteria Mexican bingo so Ramos festooned the package with the lushly provocative imagery of loteria cards: bride and groom skeletons, a sacrificial heart, brown beauty booty, ghostly couples in formal dance poses, and a heart plummeting downward like a comet.
As for the album itself, it might not sound revolutionary to ears attuned to rebellion in the form of tearing down the comfortable walls of the bourgeoisie and erecting monumentally simplistic two-chord slums in their wake. Charanga Cakewalk is revolutionary in an entirely different way: It's liberating.
Loteria de la Cumbia Lounge did what seemed previously impossible: bringing intelligent writing and diverse arrangements to compositions that were mostly cumbia in form and shaping out of techno's computerized stasis a much greater breadth of structure and emotion. Ramos inflected the music with Tejano, flamenco, meringue, salsa, ska, and reggae, plus a little cheesy garage-rock tone, so whenever you felt comfortable knowing what would come next, it didn't. The result made both cumbia and electronica accessible to people who might not know charanga from cakewalk or techno from tango. It created a singular dynamic, a flow back and forth from the familiar to the exotic, from ease to disruption.
This spring's Chicano Zen (austinchronicle.com/gyrobase/Issue/review?oid=oid%3A364680 ) goes much further, partly because the songs are stronger, partly because Ramos made it with a more-eager group of collaborators many who heard what he pulled off on Loteria and wanted to participate in the new one. What Ramos created, a sound sensibility that transforms musical "play" from a synonym for work to something truly playful, doesn't come along very often.
On Chicano Zen's "La Miga Hormiga," for example, Ramos builds up the story of a little ant who finds pleasure and honor in his simple work around a typical but particularly haunting synth figure that might be techno except that a drum comes crashing in, followed by a guitar, and then a truly thunderous bevy of Mexican percussion. In 10 seconds he's taken the ear on a charanga cakewalk past a variety of expectations. And when the voices come in, Ramos and Lila Downs his fellow charanga revolutionary they erupt from the midst of thunder and make the ant's ecstasy so palpable you just about have to dance.
That's what a revolution sounds like not protest and rejection. Freedom. Liberation. Discovery. The zen of ... bingo!
Ring of Fire
Michael Ramos grew up mostly around San Antonio. He's a multi-instrumentalist, specializing in keyboards and accordion, but also singing and playing trumpet, organ, and a little percussion.
"I'm Mexican," he told me last year. "My mom's family was Spanish. Growing up in Texas was a little tough because my dad would turn me on to the Beatles and the Stones, all the cool bands at the time, yet we'd go hang out at my grandmother's, and she's listening to really hardcore Latin music, cooking in the kitchen."
On Loteria, he wrote of his song "Romanticos Desesperados":
"My parents were a great dance team. I can close my eyes when I listen to this number and see them gliding gracefully."
"So even at that point, it really moved me," he reiterates in person. "I secretly liked it. But it wasn't cool with all my friends, who were listening to the Stones and Jimi Hendrix and all that. So ..."
So he recognized fusion when he found it.
"A perfect example: 'Ring of Fire,' Johnny Cash. Those horns! There were glimpses like that.
"The obvious bridges were like Carlos Santana and stuff. But then, whenever José Feliciano did 'Light My Fire,' I thought that was really cool. A defining moment for me was when we were in our big station wagon, and we were cruising down the road, and 'Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard' came on the radio. Here it was: Top 40 radio and this guy is singing with this huge Latin group behind him.
"So then I thought, well, maybe liking Latin music is OK. And then, as I started getting older, instead of it becoming a source of embarrassment or whatever, I became really proud of it and really embraced it.
"Latin music has always been with me and world music. When I was on tour with all these rock bands, the minute we'd get back on the bus, I'd have my headphones on, and I'm listening to the furthest thing from what I just got through playing. It was sort of my guilty pleasure."
Just as Charanga Cakewalk is a revolutionary concept built on traditions, it's a studio endeavor born on the road.
"I did the bulk of it at home," says Ramos. "Whenever I'd go on the road, that was one of the things that used to kill me. I've been a sideman for so many years, it really is a struggle for me to be out touring most of the time.
"So I just figured, OK, what are the things that make it hard for me to be away from home? Number one, I basically have to stop working on my own stuff. So I took my laptop. Now they have it to where you can basically take a virtual studio with you out on the road. One of the tracks on [La Loteria] I actually did in the back of a tour bus on a drive from Seattle to Austin that took us three days.
"We were out with Patty, and that's where her tour ended. They said, 'OK, we'll give you the option of flying home, or you can ride the bus. Now, if you fly home, we only pay 'til this date, but if you ride the bus, we'll pay you a half week's salary.' I thought, 'Oh, that'll be easy.' But let me tell you, the only good thing that came outta that ride for me was that song.
"I was just going crazy, so I pulled out the old laptop, got the headphones on, got a little keyboard, and wrote a tune. And it ended up on the album! Which I think is really funny. That's even more drastic than a hotel room."
"Chispas," the song that began on the bus, resembles a hypermodern Jimmy Smith tune, with synth and B-3 figures interlocking with heavily strummed guitar by David Pulkingham that invokes John Lee Hooker. The Ramos vocal, set so far back in the mix that the lyrics almost don't matter, has a West Coast hip-hop cadence (a sober "Wild Thing"), but the highlight is Becca Rodriguez's wordless sighs over the last verse that take the performance toward Gilberto territory. It's a world of music, even though, or maybe especially since, it grew out of a lone man's attempt to conquer nonstop-bus-ride boredom. A freedom ride.
When Michael Ramos first started putting together an album of his own music, he was already playing with Austin's Patty Griffin, a close friend. She was going to make an album, the one that became 1000 Kisses.
"Before she started, she said, 'If you want to do some of it in Austin, we can.'"
When Ramos called her back two weeks later, she was already done.
"I was more hurt from a friend's standpoint than professionally," says Ramos. "So I let it go. I didn't stew for more than seven or eight days."
Culling through songs for his album, Ramos remembered the Spanish ballad "Mil Besos" ("1000 Kisses"). "I remember it from when I was growing up. It was just so beautiful. I said, 'You know what? I gotta record this. I don't know what I'm gonna do with it, but I've gotta record it.' So I called Patty up. I was going down the road, I was on my cell phone, and I said, 'Patty, you gotta record this song. It's great, it's great, it's great.' She said, 'What's it about?' I said, 'It's about this guy who kisses a woman and loses his heart on her lips.' She said, 'Oh that's great, it'll be the title track.'
"Here she thinks I'm still trying to muscle my way onto her record, and I was talking about it for my record! But when she said, 'Oh, great,' I said, 'OK.' I snuck it in through the back door."
"Mil Besos," cut at Ramos' house, sounds like it was made 50 years ago in a studio floating somewhere between Manhattan, Madrid, and Mexico City. It has a simple, elegant arrangement, led by a basic clave, joined by strings, and finally that husky, breathy vocal. The song swells and swells, yet always complements the singing, never competing with it, while still incorporating three marvelous solos: Brian Standifer's on cello, and Ramos' on both accordion and piano. The latter can't last eight bars. It's 50 times smarter and more gorgeous than any of the myriad efforts at recording standards in the post-Tin Pan Alley era. Ramos' father had the best review: "I didn't know Patty Griffin was Mexican."
After his first album got such strong reception, Griffin, who sang on its unreleased precursor but not Loteria, began taunting Ramos: "You wouldn't let me sing on your record." Ramos taunted back: "You better be careful, or I'll make you be on my second record." He was seeking a song to do with Austin's Ruben Ramos, perhaps the greatest living exponent of northern Mexican (or South Texas) singing, when he fell upon a track from an old José Feliciano album, "No Soy Feliz." It dawned on Ramos that the song would work beautifully as a duet between Ruben Ramos and Griffin, "Two [singers] who would never be in the same room together."
It's at the other end of the spectrum from "Mil Besos," a strongly rhythmic tune, with the singers trading lines at the start and ending in harmony. By the time Ruben Ramos gets to "No, no, no!" just before the bridge, it's already a triumph. Michael Ramos expresses his pride in it with typical modesty.
"José Feliciano is one of my heroes. I'd love him to hear that track."
In a better world, Feliciano might be sick of hearing it on the radio by now.
Chicano Zen isn't so much a star-studded affair, although if you're a fan of great singers, having Ruben Ramos, Downs, Griffin, and Martha Gonzalez on the same LP is awe-inspiring as it's a reflection of Michael Ramos building a community around his concept. It's not a stretch to compare it to a group of musicians who gathered around that ultimate studio band, Steely Dan, in its heyday. Charanga Cakewalk is in its own way just as singular, the music it plays equally intricate and engrossing, not to mention inviting.
On the first album, although he used several other players, Ramos seemed to be working in isolation, following his own instincts. "If I felt a song getting a little too traditional, then I started throwing electronica in," he explains. "If I felt it getting too electronic, then I tried more traditional. I tried to make it a thing, as opposed to two things put together. I really wanted to do something that was modern yet pointing people in the direction of what cumbia music and what great Latin music is at its core, which is melody and rhythm."
At the same time, "I wanted to show people that you can actually use technology, and it doesn't have to sound canned or cheesy or whatever. It can sound beautiful and warm. An instrument is an instrument, that's the way I see it."
On Chicano Zen, the edges of his isolated vision blur a bit, which opens the sound further. He was surprised to find, often through comparisons in reviews, that quite a few other artists were working on a similar approach: Downs, Quetzal, harpist Celso Duarte. And he incorporated more ideas from others in the creation process. At one point, Quetzal's Martha Gonzalez and her husband, Quetzal Flores, came to stay with him and basically barred him from the studio for a day or so. When they emerged, Gonzalez had written lyrics and recorded vocals for "Vida Magica" and "La Corriente," tracks Ramos had thought instrumentals. The result is an audible and exciting progression.
"I could take what I already started, but I didn't want to wander the same roads," he says. "I wanted to push it just a little bit farther."
There's less synthesizer on Zen, because there's a much larger palette, yet the result is, if anything, a greater synthesis. In fact, the success of Loteria let him do several things. Most important, it let him make Chicano Zen and to make it on his own terms. It also let him take a band on the road for the tour with Downs, and led him to manager Gil Gastelum, who also handles his friends in Quetzal and Davíd Garza, among others.
"At this point, I can do whatever I want to do," says Ramos.
What he wants to do is make sounds that reflect himself and his concerns. To me, the two most moving tracks on Chicano Zen are instrumentals: "Gloria," the boisterous, modernist ranchera he created in honor of his mother, and "El Ballad de Jose Campos Torres," a haunted piece of synth and piano written in tribute to the Mexican youth beaten and drowned by Houston cops, who were fined $1 each something that happened in 1976 and is still honored in Houston today.
"So many people think of what happened to Jose Campos Torres," Ramos told me recently. "But I got thinking about him as a person, who he was, what he felt, how he lived."
As for "Gloria," its composer addresses the song in Zen's liner notes: "When you listen to this imagine the smell of warm homemade tortillas and Spanish rice simmering on the stove."
Both of these thoughts, in this time and place, are revolutionary.
"I was born in the wrong era," said Michael Ramos. "But there's nothing to keep me from going back there."
Or from bringing that past into our future. If you don't understand these things, the best suggestion would be to begin your exploration of Chicano Zen, the sooner the better.