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If recent fusions like Brazilian electronica, Mexican corridos and Tango Nuevo are the ur-sounds of cool, city-bound Latin Americans, cumbia is the cheesy, cheery bop of the semi-rural peasant class. Repetitive, tinny, unashamedly danceable, it harks from steamy Colombia and in various, often badly bastardised forms is possibly the most popular music in the sub-continent. All you have to do is sway a little and learn three basic steps, and then find a partner.
Charanga Cakewalk, aka Mexican American multi-instrumentalist Michael Ramos, has given this pop genre a loungey, filmic twist. Forget the chaos, bells, whistles and trumpets of the fiesta; this cumbia comes with the melancholy drag of tango, the indolent twang of steel guitar, and the dying heartbeat of the heavy tropical siesta.
Amazingly, it works. There is plenty of wit and irony here and, on the best tracks ("El Indio", "La Cumbia Lounge", "Charanga Cakewalk") something of the grit and gleeful messing and mixing of styles that characterises Manu Chao's 'faux latino' music. Accordion, quatro and bass are combined with clubby dubs and synths, and behind it all is the moronic beat of cumbia, which becomes almost trance like.
Argentina's shanty town cumbia ('cumbia villera' in Spanish) has more street, more front, more cojones, but this adaptation of the form has style and a more cosmoplitan feel - opening track "Belleza", for instance, reminds me of Axel Krygier and Barry Adamson, and there may even be a tribute to Morricone in here.
Occassionally the formula slips into pure atmosphere and unsubstantial blur, but on the bulk of the tracks this is a slow-swinging, quietly edgy experiment from a multi-talented fusioneer. Ramos, a seasoned session man (he has played with The BoDeans, The Rembrandts and Patty Griffin), is a whizz on the keyboards and in the studio, and when he doesn't play an instrument, he gets experts like Russell Scanlon (cavaquinho) and Brian Standefer (cello) to fill in.
Cumbia is too shallow - emotionally and texturally - to compete with the likes of tango or Cuban son, but Ramos is definitely onto something. Hard to pigeonhole, but easy to listen to, this is a lounge to step into if you need to chill after too much Latin passion or a demanding session at your weekly salsa class.