Mireya Ramos with Slim Hanson and the Poor Choices at The Ship (photo by Steve Paul)
Music stretches our souls. From lullabies to catharsis, we succumb to its magic. And beyond our own bodily embrace of music, it connects us to others. From the dance floor to communities, we find ways to sing and dance together, even to cross borders that might otherwise have kept us apart.
This is something like the way that the powerful and poignant singer Mireya Ramos makes her way through the world. Or multiple worlds. Crossing borders and creating community are the driving forces of her recent projects, including a record and other gigs that find her spending much quality time in Kansas City.
Ramos, who currently lives in New York, is best known in the music world as the founder and vocal co-anchor of Flor de Toloache, the Latin Grammy-winning, all-female mariachi band. The band delivered a vibrant house concert in Kansas City this summer, which served as a dress rehearsal for a recording session a few days later for the PBS music showcase “Austin City Limits.”
Ramos is the daughter of two singers and identifies as Afro-Latina, with roots roving through California, Mexico and Puerto Rico. She also made a recent return appearance as singer and fiddler with Slim Hanson and the Poor Choices, a Kansas City honky-tonk band that holds court regularly at The Ship.
If you think there might be a disconnect between roadhouse honky-tonk and Mexican mariachi, perhaps the difference is only a matter of lyrical language. In essence, all of it belongs to the big-tent realm of folk and country music. Or as the jazz pianist Thelonious Monk once put it to the young, emerging performer Bob Dylan, “We all play folk music.”
You can hear the bonds coming together on “Sin Fronteras,” the new recording Ramos and the Poor Choices made in Kansas City. It’s a bilingual blast, a fusion of border-spanning musical handshakes, harmonies and fireworks.
It’s no small thing that “Sin Fronteras” comes at a time of cultural polarity in U.S.-Mexico relations. “It feels like this album is necessary at this moment,” Ramos told an interviewer earlier this year.
From a kittenish “Blue Bayou” to the mournful and majestic expressions of ranchera heartbreak, Ramos’ effervescence and versatility are on full display. The way she holds a note is simultaneously operatic and cosmic.
Over the last decade Ramos has forged a Kansas City musical partnership with Beau Bledsoe, the super-talented multi-instrumentalist, producer and entrepreneur. Bledsoe has expanded Kansas City’s musical consciousness over more than a quarter century. Tango, flamenco, Portuguese fado, Turkish folk and classical music — all of that and more became braided into Bledsoe’s Ensemble Ibérica, a band and an institution that presents concerts and cultural travel opportunities. Ramos has been featured several times with Bledsoe, Flor de Toloache, and in other band configurations at the Folk Alliance conferences held in Kansas City, and Bledsoe has been responsible for lining up house concerts and other Kansas City gigs for her over the years.
Ramos is grateful for their friendship and mutual learning experience. “It’s really special to be able to bond as musicians and to see our own growth together,” she told me. “We both approach music similarly — with no boundaries and a lot of freedom. There’s a global approach to it as well, and I’ve learned so much from him.”
For one thing, Ramos was surprised to discover how deep Bledsoe’s experience with Mexico and Mexican music has been.
After he took up a rocking guitar role alongside vocalist Slim Hanson in the Poor Choices, he brought Ramos into the mix. The result includes Nashville, Tex and Mex mashups like “King Nothin,’” a Bledsoe original that, on the record, has Ramos offering background yips, a vocal expression known as grito that conveys smiles and tears at the same time.
Along with the Poor Choices, “Sin Fronteras” features a large lineup of guests including fiddler Betse Ellis, harpist Calvin Arsenia and trombonist Trevor Tula of Kansas City; the rambunctious Los Texmaniacs; and Shae Fiol, Ramos’ dynamic vocal partner in Flor de Toloache.
Coming soon in the vibrant life of this project is a tour currently in the planning stages of the borderland country in Texas and Mexico. The idea is that Ramos, the Poor Choices and Los Texmaniacs will create a kind of caravan, gigging in roadhouses and historical concert halls throughout the region sometime early in 2024. A film crew, led by Kansas City photographer Dan White, is expected to document the proceedings and conduct interviews with musicians and others along the way.
Music, I once heard Bobby Watson say, is supposed to wash the dust off our lives. The musical efforts of Mireya Ramos rise from the border desert and return like a cleansing rain.
Kelly Hunt’s “Ozark Symphony” is the proverbial long-awaited project, given that she recorded it three years ago in New Orleans. But now that it has arrived, we find the banjo-slinging folk artist, with Kansas City and Memphis roots, flourishing amid whole new dimensions. Top-notch arrangements and players give Hunt’s original, mostly plaintive, soul-touching songs due respect. Find it in all the ways you consume new music. For more information, www.kellyhuntmusic.com.
Alexa Tarantino is yet another young female sax player making notable strides in the jazz world. Her sound is solid and effervescent at the same time. Also a composer, she’ll make her Kansas City debut, fronting a quartet, for the Folly Jazz Series, 8 p.m. Nov. 11.
I missed the opening of photographer Julie Blackmon’s exhibit, “A Life in Frame,” at Kemper Museum, but it runs through Jan. 7 and its mystical, magical moments demand your attention. Blackmon draws on a kind of theatrical approach to the life around her, staging the title’s framed lives while drawing from art history as much as she does from meaningful quotidian details. An added experience is the accompanying soundscape created by the musician Kevin Morby. For more information, www.kemperart.org.