The CD cover of Charanga Cakewalk’s Chicano Zen (Triloka Records) features a tortilla-fied yin-yang symbol adorned by iconic flaming Mexican Sacred Hearts. In Austin, Texas, you will likely hear “flour or corn?” as often as “paper or plastic?” That simple request starts out many a restaurant order there. “Tortillas are such a part of the food and culture that you’re asked right off which one you want with your meal,” explains Charanga Cakewalk’s Michael Ramos. “Everyone knows you’re going to have tortillas, it’s just which kind you want.”
This album—following in the footsteps of last year’s Loteria de la Cumbia Lounge —puts forth Ramos’ unique multicultural
vision of feel-good grooves, this time including special collaborations with the kindred musical souls of Lila Downs, Rubén Ramos, Patty Griffin, Martha González, and David Garza.
For the making of Chicano Zen, Ramos thought about what was important to him. “I had
achieved all of the goals I had set for myself as a young kid: becoming a successful session musician, recording my own CD, owning my own home, performing on TV and radio, but at the core I realized that what was central growing up as a young Latino was the same as anyone going after the American dream. A home, loved ones, kids. It all boils down to what everyone wants… happiness.”
Ramos has also found happiness acknowledging the variety of cultural influences with which he grew up. Musical styles have been blended and reformed as often as the food in the American Southwest. A patchwork of the countless forms of music that influence Ramos’ Cumbia Lounge-style sound are stitched together in the track “La Mimosa” where the singer Davíd Garza intones the styles Michael pulls together: Tejano, Flamenco, Merengue, Garage, Ska, and Reggaetón. Charanga Cakewalk is an amalgamation of sounds from all the years of rock and session music seasoned with fresh tortillas and rice, listening to the radio with his mother in the kitchen. “We sat down to record this and Davíd started reciting what Charanga Cakewalk is to him… and it became the lyrics of the song.”
Ramos has toured with the folk-rock singer Patty Griffin and has produced songs for her albums. “I had been imagining Rubén Ramos, the epitome of a Latin singer, singing ‘No Soy Feliz,’ but when Patty asked me if there was a song on my new album that she could sing on, I immediately had an image of her and Ruben performing this song as a duet,” says Michael. Ruben Ramos, known as “El Gato Negro,” is a member of the Tejano Hall of Fame and part of the group Los Super Seven. Brought together on the José Feliciano track, the pair soars with the past and present combined.
When Lila Downs left Ramos a message about working on her next album, he was ecstatic. “Her record was my favorite of last year so I was walking six inches off the ground at the thought of working with her!” says Michael.
The album’s first two tracks feature Lila and her band’s harp player, Celso Duarte, who came to Austin to work with Ramos in his home studio, La Cumbia Lounge. Chicano Zen lists iconic figures and stories that everyone relates to: mothers, fathers, friends, and El Coqui, the Mexican boogeyman, every Mexican grandmother’s best friend when it comes to unruly children. “La Miga Hormiga,” is a workingman’s song that Michael co-wrote with Lila, about an ant that goes in and out of his hole all day, doing what he knows he has to do, never tiring of his duties and being content with that. “Migas is a popular dish in Austin, a rich concoction of sautéed tortilla bits, eggs, cheese and peppers. It’s a working man’s food, but very satisfying, kind of like the ant with his rich but simple life.”
“Ballad de Jose Campos Torres” is a somber requiem to the family of a 26 year-old who died in 1976 after an encounter with the police left him dead, handcuffed, and drowned in the bayou. The public outcry was immediate and resulted in riots, debates on police brutality, and the injustice of the punishment the officers received, which initially was little more than a slap on the wrist. Eventually the men responsible served jail time, but the family’s grief at losing a young man in his prime had been forgotten. “Going back to a ’70’s sound for this song seemed appropriate, and it’s heard throughout the album with the synthesizer influences. I wanted to write a song for his family’s pain, that acknowledges while the nation went through turmoil, they had lost their son.”
The instrumental “Gloria” is homage to his mother. Ramos recalls sitting on a stool in the kitchen with the smells of his mother’s cooking listening to the radio. “Doesn’t it make you happy? Doesn’t it make you want to dance?” Gloria would ask her son. This wasn’t the hip, happening sounds his buddies were listening to and Michael had no desire to admit that the cumbia, ranchera, and conjunto in his home was infiltrating his consciousness. But here it is, filtered and reassembled through his musical journey.
Martha Gonzalez, a singer and songwriter with the Los Angeles-based group Quetzal, sings “Vida Mágica,” a song about the magical things we observe daily whether we soak them in or not, in the midst of life’s difficulties and curve balls. On “La Corriente” she sings about going with the flow, dealing with where the current takes you, putting your faith in your guardian angel.
Even though he has shared the stage with the likes of Griffin and John Mellencamp, Ramos finds that performing as Charanga Cakewalk requires a different sort of vulnerability. “Being in front of 40,000 people with another musician is actually easier than doing my own stuff for 2,500 people,” says Ramos. “It’s my baby… every song is one of my children. The audience is basically reading my journal. I’ve learned from touring and performing my own songs that you have to sell it every single night! You can’t take for granted that people have heard it and know it; you have to present it, and you have one shot. They have to believe that what you’re doing is what you’re supposed to be doing. It’s a baring of the soul.”
Ramos feels it’s fitting that Chicano Zen brings in the voices and experiences of other musicians. “The collaborations on the album weren’t really on purpose, but it’s symbolic that it fell into place, given the album’s theme,” says Ramos. “We are all one people, no matter what you believe in… Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and when you examine each faith at its core, we all want the same thing.”