The frisson between Anglo and Latino cultures has created some of the most interesting American music of the past half-century or so, a tradition established by Freddy Fender as El Bebop Kid, Richie Valens' version of "La Bamba", the Champs doing "Tequila" and Marty Robbins' gunslinger corridos, all the way to Selena's posthumous crossover and the commercial viability of the Texas Tornados and Los Super Seven.
So it is with Michael Ramos, the man behind Charanga Cakewalk. He began receiving acclaim as an Austin session keyboardist (a town without many sessions) and matured as a member of the BoDeans, the Rembrandts, and John Mellencamp's band, eventually doing studio work with Paul Simon and collaborating with Patty Griffin.
Somewhere along the way, Ramos' curiosity about his own familial roots turned into a musical odyssey that led this album. The result is the freshest musical take on the Latin/Americano dynamic in some years. Think Santana's first two albums or, better, Malo's fluke single "Suavecito" from the early '70s, only updated to the here and now and gone cumbia.
But don't think precious or traditional. Electronics, modern technology, and tips of the hat to dub and ska are as much part of the mix as the accordion, the melodica, the Spanish lyrics, and the salutes to Perez Prado (the original Mambo King) and Fito Olivares (the modern Mambo King).
The finest example is "Mexicanos", a shimmering piece of rhythm and groove that should be the Summer Song of '05, if only Anglo radio programmers could get overcome their language bias.
Some parts are overproduced or veer into cafeteria-organ schmaltz, as is the case of the overly lush "Chispas". Other parts risk overplaying the experimental hand, as on the Esquivel chorus of "Romanticos Desperados". But those are worth enduring to get to stone gems such as "La Negra Celina", a traditional Cuban cumbia that challenges the listener to keep from booty-shaking. It affirms once and for all you don't need no stinking knowledge of Spanish for this kind of music to move you.