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Charanga Cakewalk

Michael Ramos is not a rockstar. The man has toured and played with more than a handful of the biggest names in rock, pop, and country music, including the Rembrandts, the BoDeans, Paul Simon, John Mellencamp and buddy Patty Griffin, but Señor Ramos is surprisingly, well, unsurprising …and refreshingly normal.

Having made a career as a recording session player in the southern musical hub of Austin, Texas, he’d never been the one in the spotlight, but Ramos eventually got the bug to put out his own material, and the result is something completely unlike his previous projects.

Loteria de la Cumbia Lounge is an aptly-titled, slickly produced amalgam of down tempo electronica-laced cumbia that marries Ramos’s musical prowess with his Latin heritage. Under the pseudonym Charanga Cakewalk, he plays most of the instruments (and sings!) on the 14-track release, melding accordion with synthesizers, keyboards, percussion, and little else for a sort of pared-down but oh-so-21st-century version of the traditional Colombian rhythm.

With little to no link to the ever-growing "Latin Alternative" scene (he’d only just discovered Julieta Venegas at the time of the interview!), Ramos has crafted a sound that could perhaps be described as the slow, slightly shy musical lovechild of, say, Sidestepper and Nortec Collective. Fully embracing its lounge classification, Loteria is at times more mellow background listening than danceable party music, but is enjoyable nonetheless, and is starting to make splashes within the world music scene, boasting the #1 spot in the Latin category on iTunes and currently figuring among the top ten sales on Amazon.com.

Ramos was in town this past May, on tour with folkie Patty Griffin (whom he opened for at Webster Hall), and invited Remezcla over to his hotel to talk música, touring, Austin, and oh so much more.

Remezcla: What exactly is Charanga Cakewalk?

Michael Ramos: Being Latino, and growing up as such, I’ve always had this real affinity for not just Latin music, but any type of world music. My entire life, I’ve made my living playing with rock bands and pop bands, and I’ve always just really wanted to express myself with my own ideas in the Latin and world genres, so that’s kind of how it got started out.

It really just started out as a studio project, just me by myself, and whatever instruments I couldn’t play, I would call people in to come and play. It’s mainly just an idea, at this point based around cumbia music, but it’s not limited to cumbias… I don’t think it ever will be. Actually, I’ve already got ideas for my next record, as far as the direction, but I don’t want to spill my guts about that, because I did that recently, and someone took my idea and turned it into something, so I’ll save that for later.

RE: What does the name mean? Where did it come from?

MR: You know, I’ll be quite honest with you, I wasn’t going to call the project Charanga Cakewalk. It was going to be called Michael Ramos, but the night before everything was going to press, they called me from the record company (Triloka) and they said, "You know what, we’ve done some market research and we think we have to have a project name." And I said, "I’ve been working on this record for two and a half years, and now, six hours left to go before you guys send it off to press, you guys want me to come up with a name?"

"Charanga Cakewalk" was just a title of one of the songs, and that came about through a friend of mine whose his wife was down in the Rio Grande valley, driving back to Austin and [she] saw a sign in a parking lot, [that] said "Charanga Cakewalk today." She said, "That could be a great band name," and I just jokingly said, "Well, I’m going to steal that!" Well, I used it for a song title. So the ironic thing is that we started looking for the band band, and they said, "What about one of the song titles? We like this ’Charanga Cakewalk’," and I just thought, gosh, I’m never going to be able to face my friends"

And charanga, I know, is a type of dance, a style of music, like party music, turn of the century Latin music. Aside from that, it just sounds like a very happy word. People who don’t speak Spanish even say that.

NYR:  And what’s the Cumbia Lounge?

MR: The Cumbia Lounge is the name of my little studio, and the original name–the name I had for the record for two years—was "Welcome to the Cumbia Lounge," which was sort of like, welcome into my little world there, my little sanctuary. But the fact that there’s all this Asian Lounge, Brazilian Lounge, French Lounge–you know, there’s all these lounge albums coming out—the record company didn’t think that would be a very good idea. But they liked the sound of "Cumbia Lounge," so they said, "Can we make it something from the Cumbia Lounge?" You know, loteria is the lottery, and on the inside of the booklet, I have the Mexican bingo cards, and it’s called loteria.

RE: Who did the artwork for the album?

MR: It’s a guy, Tony Morvido, he’s from here, from New York, and I thought he did a great job. I just basically said, "Here’s what this song is about, so make a card up about this," and I thought he did a wonderful job on it.

RE: Why cumbia? How did you get introduced to cumbia music?

MR: Well, I’ve always kind of loved that groove, ’cause I grew up listening to Latin music. There was always the traditional norteño music, which, to me, growing up, sounded very old fashioned. But then whenever the cumbia songs would come on, they, to me at the time, had a little bit more of a rock feel.

So I’ve always loved it, and it’s funny to me; I’d always thought that Mexicans invented cumbia, but it actually came from Colombia, and before that, those rhythms came from Africa. I just saw how a lot of musicians were taking music from their cultures–especially the Brazilians–and just really making something cool and hip from that. I wanted to do something for cumbia music that would make it kinda hip and current and not just the run of the mill, cookie cutter sound, so that’s basically why I did that. That’s why I chose cumbias. I didn’t know if it had been done or not yet.

NYR: Could you talk a bit about the artists who have had an influence on you?

MR: I love José Feliciano, Perez Prado, and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Back in the ’70s, Deodato. The Brazilians, to me, of course they have this unlimited source of wonderful music, and they’re still continuing to take that and mold it into just really beautiful, wonderful music, great grooves and stuff. Like Bebel Gilberto, I love her producer, the one who died: Suba. I really enjoy his work. And, you know, hearing his work, really started to make me think, "God, maybe I could do something like that for cumbia."

And as far as my contemporaries go, I love Sidestepper, Manu Chao… I love his records
… I love Ozomatli… I just think there’s so much great music right now, and as far as Latin music goes, it’s like what music was back in the ’50s and ’40s–there was no limit, everything was wide open–you could try any experiment you wanted, and if people liked it, it was great. Whereas now, with a lot of music (like rock music, country music, any kind of music), it’s so stylized and so compartmentalized that if you step outside the mainstream of those genres, they don’t know where to put you. And to me, that’s one of the things about world music and Latin music that’s happening right now that’s so appealing to me: it’s almost free-form.

RE: How has this experience (with Charanga Cakewalk) been different from working with rock and pop musicians?

MR: It’s very different, in the sense that the music is structured differently. Like in rock and pop music, 80% is based on what the singer is singing, and then the other 20% is the music. To me, in Latin music, it’s the exact opposite. Probably in world music as well. Not that there’s not a message there, but the message is also physical as opposed to [simply poetic]. And for me, my favorite music has always been rhythmic music with beautiful melodies. In that sense, it’s [very] different.

We’d be out on tour with so-and-so and so-and-so, and the minute I’d get off stage, I’d run back into the dressing room and put my headphones on and I’d listen to African music or reggae or Latin music or something. I wouldn’t really listen to rock music. When I get home, I listen to all my favorite world artists. That was sort of like my job, and this was what I went home to. Not that I don’t enjoy playing rock music and all that stuff–I enjoy playing all music–but the music that really moves my soul, obviously, is Latin and world music; world-influenced music.

RE: How did you first get into music?

MR: I can’t really remember what triggered me to want to play music, but as long as I can remember, that’s all I wanted to [do]. Growing up, of course, my parents wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer, and I was really interested in architecture and stuff, but music was always just such a prevalent force in our house. There were always two or three stereos going in different rooms, and there were always musical instruments. We didn’t really have money, but somehow, some way, musical instruments always appeared when we needed them. As a result, I don’t know how else my life could have possibly gone without being a musician. Sometimes I wonder what I would have done. If I wasn’t a musician, I probably would have been something just as ridiculous. I would have been an artist or a glass blower or something, something creative.

I have a lot of friends that I grew up with playing [music], and a lot of them stopped playing, and they’re off in successful careers in other fields, but I just remember always thinking that I was not going to stop until I couldn’t go any higher. And I just keep trying to push myself, and I just can’t imagine life without music. I’ve actually met a couple of people who don’t listen to any music at all, and I don’t know how that is humanly possible. It’s just the core of every human being. There’s something very primal about it. You can put on music for a one-year-old whether they’ve ever heard it or not, and they immediately start moving to the beat. I mean, how much more natural can you get than that?

RE: What instruments do you play?

MR: I play pretty much all keyboard instruments: piano, organ, synthesizers… I play a little bit of trumpet. I play melodica, which I guess you could consider a keyboard instrument. Accordion. I play percussion, and I’m really trying to push myself. I just ordered a vintage lap steel fender, and I’m going to try to incorporate that into my music. I’m very interested in traditional world instruments. I just bought–and am also having one built–a marimbula, an instrument used in Cuban son music. It’s a giant kalimba, but it’s a bass. It’s a really beautiful sound.

So I’m constant looking for new sounds. I was cursed with an over-the-top curiosity, and I would like to think that I could continue to play new instruments till I die, you know? I’m just really fascinated by different combinations of instruments that wouldn’t normally go together. For instance, lap steel in Latin music. I can hear the sound in my head… so we’ll see how that turns out.

RE: Do you do the vocals on the album as well?

MR: Well, I do some of it, but I never envisioned myself being the lead singer of a band. The one cover song I have on my album is "La Negra Celina," and I had a guy [George St. Claire] come in and sing that [on the album], but [on tour] with Patty [Griffin], none of the guys in her band speak Spanish or sing, so it’s me. Again, it’s that thing about pushing yourself, taking chances. I mean, it’s really scary for me, but what are you gonna do? Whenever I play with John Mellencamp, I have to get up there and sing "Hurt So Good," which is crazy. So I just figured if I can get up there and sing "Hurt So Good" in front of 26,000 people, I can sing "La Negra Celina" in front of 2,000, no sweat. And I gotta tell you, it’s more scary singing "La Negra Celina!"

RE: So who’s in your band?

MR: Well, on my tour with Patty [Griffin], I use[d] her band, and fortunately, the drummer/percussionist in Patty’s band [Michael Longoria] also played a lot of percussion on my album. So that made it a little easier.

When I’m back in Austin, I have this young group called Maneja Beto, and they’re this young band there, and they’re just very vibrant. When I play with them, there are eight of us. When I’m on the road with Patty, there are four of us, so it’s quite a challenge to pull it off. With Maneja Beto, it’s great. They are so many guys, and they’re all young, and they’re all moving around… there’s so much to watch, you know? With Patty’s band, we’re all kind of confined in this small space. All of a sudden, it’s all on me, whereas I feel a lot less pressure when I have my band playing.

RE: What’s the Latin music scene like in Austin?

MR: [Austin has] always had an extremely vibrant, alive, active, living music scene; all genres that you can imagine, every style of music. I’m very proud of the fact that Latino music and world music [are] really growing there. It’s always been there, but I think the fact that Austin has quadrupled in size in the last twenty years [has something to do with its recent growth]. There are a lot of people from all over the world that live there now, especially a lot of people from Central and South America [who are] moving there, musicians coming through there… it’s sort of a stopping point before they go wherever. Some of them stay, some of them
don’t, but I think that’s really influencing it, and they have all these wonderful players there now, and the crowds that go see them are just getting bigger and bigger.

That makes me really happy, because that’s always been one of my secret wishes: that Austin could have a Latin scene that would be respected around the country and around the world. Because it’s already respected for so many other types of music, and I would just like to see Austin on the map for Latin music.

RE: Who are some other Austin-based Latin bands people should know about?


MR: There’s a really good one called Grupo Fantasma that’s making some waves. There’s another one called Ghandaia, and they’re great, they’re really good. There’s a woman there named Susanna Sharpe [who] does Brazilian music, and she’s great. She’s always surrounded by these wonderful, wonderful musicians. A young buddy of mine [Rey Arteaga]–who actually co-wrote some of the songs with me on my record–has a group called Son y No Son, which is a really cool name, I thought.

There are so many great bands there and every week you hear something else, and you’re like, "Oh my God, where did they come from?" There are just so many young musicians and so many great musicians in that town.

RE: What was South By Southwest like for you this past year?

MR: I’d performed at SXSW so many times, but last SXSW was the first time that I did it for my own project, and I have to say that it was one of the most nerve-racking experiences of my life. You know, you want to go out there and present your best possible show, and you’ve got forty minutes, and they give you twenty minutes to set up, and it’s just so chaotic. If you go over your twenty minute allotment for setting up, they deduct it from your set. In my group there are eight of us, and we’ve never set up in less than an hour and a half, and that was [if we were] really moving. How we pulled it off, I don’t know. It was a pretty good show. As an artist, of course, I’m always going to think that it could have been better, but the only one who could have really improved was me, because everybody else did a great job.

RE: What are your plans for the future?


MR: With Charanga Cakewalk, I just want to continue trying to spread the word. I’d love to see someone use some of the music on this record for a movie. I’ve been working on some music for a film, for an upcoming documentary, so I’m slowly but surely getting my foot into the film world, which is what I’ve always wanted to do anyway. I kind of got sidetracked with the touring career. I’ll just continue to make more Charanga Cakewalk records, and I’ll explore other Latin genres with that.