I’m mad as hell at Artemis Records and Triloka Records and Michael Ramos, who for all intents and purposes IS the group called Charanga Cakewalk. They let this record come out last year without sending me 50 copies to rave about and send to all my music-nerd friends. Retroactively, I’m furious.
Because this would have been top 10 stuff for me last year, or this year, or whatever year it was released. Michael Ramos has taken the two-beat Central American cumbia and run with it. He uses cumbia, that extremely popular but much-maligned music of the people, to fuel this record, which contains more than an hour of atmospheric strange pop music full of all the other musics in the world.
“Mexicanos” is this album in a nutshell. Ramos takes a basic cheesy polka beat and keeps loading elements on top of it to see what will happen: reggae-ish organ, accordion, chanted vocals, tons of percussion lines with dubby echoes, short proggy synth stabs that sound like mariachi trumpets but are clearly nothing of the sort. It’s all very smooth and non-aggressive and easy to take, but sticks in the memory anyway.
Ramos, who has played with the BoDeans and the Rembrandts and Patty Griffin and Paul Simon and a lot of other people, is working on a kind of mythos here. Cumbia is a lower-class art form in Colombia and Central America and Mexico and in Mexican America, a music of the people that gets no love from anyone else. But Ramos loves it, and loves it enough to mess with it.
“Tu y Yo” sounds like a cumbia jam turned inside out, with ska coming to the fore rather than submerged the way it usually is, and with the accordion line punched way up over the percussion line to underscore the song’s essential melancholy. “El Indio” does the same thing in a different way; he repeats the three words that he says are used in most every Latin song (Corazón, Amor, Porque) so he can squeeze every bit of real emotion out of them. The song also gets a Caribbean feel from all the synthesizers Ramos uses in one section, only to drop them out on the song’s yearning chorus so that it hits harder.
The song “Charanga Cakewalk” shows Ramos’ true range. It starts like a weird muted dance-pop number, funky bass interacting with world-music guitar, and then bursts into flower with some big-chorded action and a hot accordion line. Larry Chaney’s work on guitar and cuatro comes in, then drops out for a haunting keyboard line. Then, just when you have it all figured out, an electronic chamber-music quartet comes in to mozart everything all up. It’s stunning and funny and charming, while still managing to be inoffensive and light. I could go on and on here, raving about how “Volcanico” sounds like Tex-Mex Eno, or how “Romanticos Desesperádos” is sexier than any music has a right to be, but I think I’ll just let you discover all this stuff for yourself.
The vibe here is NPR-friendly but still adventurous, forward-looking but respectful, multicolored and single-minded. Ramos is looking for nothing less than a new definition of Mexican American music, one that incorporates all other music in the world together with that cheesy insistent beautiful workingman’s and -women’s “low-class” cumbia beat. He has succeeded brilliantly in every way.
Well, every way but one — namely, that he didn’t get me 50 copies of this record last year so I could have raved about it at the time it came out. Instead, he’s on tour opening for Patty Griffin, and apparently stealing the show every night. Get on board now, because the next moves from Charanga Cakewalk will be a lot more important.