Melting Pot of Music : O.C. Festival: Albert Ramon y Su Tierra Chicana, a Tex-Mex band with German and blues influences, takes its sounds to Santa Ana streets at Marketplace Christmas Celebration.
Once a Texan, always a Texan, it seems. Though Albert Ramon moved to California with his family when he was 4, the music the 34-year-old plays is rooted in the soil of his native state.
Call it Tex-Mex, conjunto or norteno , the style of music that Albert Ramon y Su Tierra Chicana play is a distinctly Texan hybrid, a melding of Latino border music with the button accordion and polka styles that German immigrants introduced to the area. The music’s roots stretch back to the beginning of this century, but more recently it has incorporated strains of R & B and other electric styles. Its influence can be heard in the music of the Texas Tornados, whose accordionist, Flaco Jimenez, is one of norteno music’s most renown innovators, as well as that of Los Lobos.
Ramon’s group performs Sunday at the Fiesta Marketplace Christmas Celebration on Fourth Street in downtown Santa Ana. The ongoing celebration presents Latino music acts and other entertainments this weekend and next, including, on Dec. 22, Juan Chapa y Su Conjunto. That group, curiously, is made up of the same players as Ramon’s band, but minus the horn section and fronted by its accordion player, Chapa.
Ramon, who plays bass with both acts and sings lead with Tierra Chicana, came to love Tex-Mex music through hearing his dad’s records of Jimenez, Beto Villa, Tony de la Rosa, Little Joe & the Latinaires and Valerio Longoria. On a trip back to his hometown of Corpus Christi when he was 6, Ramon first heard the music live at a big Monday night dance in the town coliseum where 1,000 people were dancing to Tony de la Rosa’s band. That hooked him.
“I used to buy Beatles albums and stuff . . . but if you played a Tex-Mex record, I’d be right there. It was those records of my dad’s that I really liked.” Ramon said.
As Ramon grew up in Azusa and Santa Ana, it was some time before he found other kids his age with similar musical interests. Not that he needed them: By the age of 9 he was playing drums in his uncle’s norteno group at fiestas and weddings.
Ramon agrees with Texas accordionist Steve Jordan, who has said that on the range, the accordion was to Latinos what the harmonica was to Anglo cowboys: a cheap form of relaxation and release at the end of a hard day’s work.
“That’s how my grandfather said it was,” Ramon said, “He used to play accordion back in the old times on the ranches, back when there was no (concrete) around. When I was growing up, he would still always be playing at parties, making the sound of a band all by himself.”
Ramon formed his own band 15 years ago, though he had no long-range plans for it at the time.
“Actually, we needed a band for my wedding, so I got one together with cousins and people I’d known in high school. We played the wedding and worked so well it’s taken off from there.”
While building a following for his seven-piece band’s accordion-based conjunto music and horn-driven rancheras , Ramon also played Top 40 tunes and oldies. These days, though, he’s usually able to win an audience just with the Tex-Mex music.
“It seems like Lobos and the Texas Tornados have opened things up a lot for accordion music,” Ramon said, “Before that you never used to hear accordions. Now you hear them on Buck Owens records.”
His band works nearly every week, with gigs varying from community fiestas and weddings to concerts at such halls as the Anaheim Convention Center, frequently sharing the bill with Texas legends Little Joe y la Familia. (Once a political firebrand and one of the mainsprings of modern Tex-Mex music, Little Joe Hernandez may rank only behind Willie Nelson as the Lone Star State’s most beloved musician.)
Ramon anticipates that most of his Santa Ana show will be sung in Spanish, but he doesn’t feel language is a barrier to everyone enjoying the music.
“What stands out about Tex-Mex music is the way you put your feelings and your heart into it,” he said, “You’re really playing with all you’ve got doing this material. You feel really good playing this. . . . People really enjoy it because they know you’re singing with all your guts.”
* Albert Ramon y Su Tierra Chicana perform Sunday at 5 p.m. at the Fiesta Marketplace, Fourth Street (between Bush and French streets), Santa Ana. Admission: free. Information: (714) 558-6869.