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Layered Cakewalk 

Michael Ramos throws everything into his musical recipe

Listening to the music of Charanga Cakewalk feels a lot like strolling into your favorite lounge to find the world's hippest DJ spinning discs and mixing elements from a variety of music: cumbias, hip-hop, rock 'n' roll Eurotrash disco, smooth funk, cheesy organ cha-chas, ambient chill-out, Latin jazz and reggae.

Composer and musician Michael Ramos, who essentially is Charanga Cakewalk, combines ancient rhythms with modern technology, creating an intoxicating musical world of twitching hips, nodding heads and gliding feet.

On Charanga Cakewalk's brisk and cool debut CD, Loteria de la Cumbia Lounge, Ramos performs most of the parts: grand piano, Hammond B3 organ, electric piano, pump organ, synthesizers, acoustic and electronic percussion, trumpet, accordion, melodica and some vocals.

It's basically Ramos' show, although guest musicians chip in on cello, guitars, saxophones and vocals.

Ramos will have a live band in tow when he takes Charanga Cakewalk on the road for a tour that will stop in Tucson Monday, Oct. 24, for a gig at Solar Culture Gallery.

The Austin-based musician has been honing his skills for a couple of decades now, playing keyboards and accordion with such artists as the BoDeans, the Rembrandts, Patty Griffin, Paul Simon and John Mellencamp.

Ramos grew up in a small Texas town, digging pop and rock music but never far from the Latin dance tunes and Mexican folk songs to which his relatives were devoted and used to play--in the living room, on the car radio, wherever people gathered.

Says Ramos in an interview at his publicist's Web site: "I really feel bad for people who only experience one type of music. There's so much out there. And that has always been something I have thrived on. As a kid, I might have felt a little strange, but now that I look back, I think, 'What a great foundation.' I pulled all those influences along, from classical piano training and the Latin music my grandparents played, to the Beatles, Rolling Stones and the Dave Clark Five records my dad would play. It all came together as I got older."

On common ground shared by traditional Latin, pop and rock, the music of Charanga Cakewalk will remind some of material by Los Lobos (and their spin-off band, Latin Playboys), the classic Cuban rock band Los Zafiros and Ry Cooder's collaborations with Cuban and Mexican-American musicians. But you'll also discover some mid-20th-century-style exotica and lounge, European dance music à la The Thievery Corporation and Fila Brazilia.

But Ramos' project is also unique in that it blends tropical rhythms with electronic music in a disarmingly organic fashion.

He envisions an Ennio Morricone film soundtrack in the Caribbean with "Belleza," and "El Indio" is his interpretation of a supremely funky club groove for ancient Mayans and Aztecs. "Mexicanos" is a traditional Mexican cumbia cross-pollinated with a tribute to the reggae pioneer Jackie Mittoo. "La Negra Celina" is a classic cumbia, but Ramos includes a remix of the tune by Hex Hector that is, at the same time, skeletal and slammin'.

On "Romanticos Desesperádos," David Garza's Les Paul-style electric guitar and Russell Scanlon's new-classical acoustic guitar, the French-café accordion and plucked string section breathe with a retro-'50s vibe.

"Prohibido" is a humid, late-night salsa with a dark jazz-fusion keyboard motif, sultry trumpets and squiggles of electronic effects. "Chispas" is an insidiously catchy, mostly-computer-generated groove (Ramos wrote and recorded it in the back of a bus while on tour with Griffin). And in a perfect world, the booty-shaking "Tu y Yo," which fuses pre-Columbian percussion with a modern dance groove, would be a hit for everybody from Shakira to Ricky Martin.

Ramos readily cops to mixing samples with traditional instruments. He's no purist--he's just looking for the right sound.

"I like using real instruments, to make it as organic as I can. But sometimes you can't do that, so I try to alter all the keyboard sounds and make them my own instead of recording with whatever they give you. I try to make it where the people cannot recognize where the sounds are coming from. Sometimes you don't know whether it is a keyboard, a sample or the real deal."

Ramos also isn't afraid to admit that, considering global affairs, he wanted Loteria de la Cumbia Lounge to be an upbeat recording.

"The world has had a lot of bad news in the last four years. At one point I felt we were all sort of depressed and bummed out about the state of things with our planet, so I just wanted to make music that makes people feel good. I wanted to keep it on an airy, light note. Some of the songs are serious, some are born from pain, and they all come from the heart."

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