Q&A with Latin America's rising blues star, Jose Ramirez - blend Blues with soulful genres such as Soul and R&B

"Blues started as a racial and socio-cultural protest but with time, it has evolved, and we all live the Blues in our lives one way or another. We all have struggle and we all experience pain, so I believe it’s safe to say the we all have the Blues whether we know it or not."

Jose Ramirez: Here I Come, Soulful Blues

At 31 years old, Jose Ramirez is Costa Rica’s premier blues artist and has played with some of the biggest names in the blues industry. These artists include Buddy Guy, Anson Funderburgh, Janiva Magness, Mark Hummel and Bryan Lee, to name a few. The Jose Ramirez Band recently won second place at The Blues Foundation 2020 International Blues Challenge in Memphis. The band performed in the finals at the Orpheum Theater in Memphis after advancing to the quarter and semi-finals against over 230 bands from around the world. In the past couple of years, Jose has traveled the world playing the blues. His two European tours included more than 45 concerts in England, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium.                                  (Jose Ramirez / Photo by Mike Landsman)

His U.S.A. tour included shows around the Midwest and the South. Highlights included shows at legendary clubs such as Buddy Guy’s Legends and The House of Blues in Chicago. Jose’s debut album “Here I Come“ (2020) was recently recorded in Austin, TX under the production of blues guitar legend Anson Funderburgh and mixed by Grammy Award Winner Stuart Sullivan. Album musicians: Jim Pugh on the Keyboards, Wes Starr on Drums, Nate Rowe on Bass, The Texas Horns on the Brass Section: Kaz Kazanoff, Al Gomez, John Mills. The nine original compositions showcase Ramirez’s songwriting ability as well as his personal style on two select covers. The genius of Robert Johnson songs is that they allow for limitless interpretations. Ramirez takes full advantage of this on his funky, slow, and soulful rendition of ‘Traveling Riverside Blues,’ giving new emphasis to several lyrical phrases, thus creating a new point of view for an 80-year old tune. Ramirez is a dynamic performer and “Here I Come” will solidify him as a recording artist with a future in the world of blues.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues music (and people of) influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Blues has been a part of my life since I was very young growing up in Costa Rica. It has influenced me greatly in the way that I’ve decided to make a living off playing the Blues and travel the world with my music. I feel very lucky I get to see the world meeting hundreds of people who love and appreciate my music and all of this, thanks to the Blues.

How do you describe your songbook and sound? What is the hardest part to be a Latin America’s Blues artist in the circuits?

I describe my sound as soulful Blues. Many artists out there today tend to blend their blues with rock and I definitely don’t do that. In my case, I love to blend Blues with more soulful genres such as Soul or R&B. Being a Latin American blues artist hasn’t affected me at all. If anything, it has helped me a lot because I’ve been able to differentiate myself from most blues musicians in the USA. Proof of that is having just won 2nd place at the Blues Foundation International Blues Challenge in Memphis.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

When I was still living in Costa Rica, I promoted a blues festival and I booked Debbie Davis to play our festival down there. When she was down there, she gave me the advice to move the US. She thought I had a good story and was talented enough to make a name for myself in the American Blues scene. Nowadays, Anson Funderburgh has become one of my best friends and he was also the producer of my upcoming album. It was a very nice experience working together and recording my original material and his advice has been very important and influential in my career. The new album released late April 2020 and the title is “Here I Come“.

"Life experiences and true stories. When I play live shows I travel to a parallel reality somewhat like the twilight zone... I think it’s important to elevate the audience to that level and not go there by yourself. Music is about making people feel what you’re feeling while performing." (Jose Ramirez / Photo by Mike Landsman)

How has your Latin Heritage, music and culture influenced your views of the world?

Coming from such a small country with a very limited musical and arts culture, it’s been a real pleasure to be able to travel and see the world playing my music. I get to meet hundreds of people who enjoy and appreciate what I do all over the world.

Where does your creative drive come from? What characterize your music philosophy?

Life experiences and true stories. When I play live shows I travel to a parallel reality somewhat like the twilight zone... I think it’s important to elevate the audience to that level and not go there by yourself. Music is about making people feel what you’re feeling while performing.

How do you describe "Here I Come" sound and songbook? Are there any memories from album's sessions which you’d like to share?

We spent 10 days in the studio and had an amazing time working on my original material for this debut album. I have tons of anecdotes, but I will always remember eating tacos every morning and every afternoon. They love their tacos in Texas and I was not complaining. It was very special to have my favorite Texas guitar player produce my album. Anson mentored me and gave advice every step of the way.

What touched (emotionally) you from Robert Johnson's "Traveling Riverside Blues"?

Robert Johnson’s songbook has always been mysterious and intriguing. His songs talk about dark forces. That’s always been captivating to me. Traveling riverside blues had something special that I wanted to take advantage of musically wise. I changed the standard major key to a minor key, and it gave the song a darker feeling.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

I’ve learned that no matter how big the story obstacles are, you gotta keep pushing... There’s always a reward in the end and you gotta work hard to discoverer what it is.

"I really miss soulful blues nowadays. More and more often artists are playing rock and roll and calling it blues and that’s going to hurt the blues a lot in the coming years. Thats the reason why I try to blend blues with soul and R&B because it keeps it cleaner and more soulful.(Jose Ramirez / Photo by Mike Landsman)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

To have less rock musicians call themselves blues musicians would be very helpful.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

We played Buddy Guy’s Legends Blues Club last year and Buddy Guy happened to be in the club that night. We played a few songs and he decided to get on the stage and sang 3 songs with us. It was unbelievable to have him on stage with my band. A dream comes true!!!

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I really miss soulful blues nowadays. More and more often artists are playing rock and roll and calling it blues and that’s going to hurt the blues a lot in the coming years. Thats the reason why I try to blend blues with soul and R&B because it keeps it cleaner and more soulful.

What would you say characterizes Costa Rican blues scene? What touched (emotionally) you from the local scene?

Unfortunately, Costa Rica doesn’t have a blues scene at all. Emotionally I can only say that I resent my country because it never supported me as an artist and that pushed me to leave my family behind so that I could pursue my dream to play the Blues in USA and Europe.  

Do you consider the Blues a specific music genre or it’s a state of mind? What do you learn about yourself from the Blues?

To me, Blues is the roots, everything else the fruits. Blues is the reason why other genres such as jazz, rock, soul, funk and pop exist.

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications?                                                                    (Jose Ramirez / Photo by Mike Landsman)

Blues started as a racial and socio-cultural protest but with time, it has evolved, and we all live the Blues in our lives one way or another. We all have struggle and we all experience pain, so I believe it’s safe to say the we all have the Blues whether we know it or not.

"Unfortunately, Costa Rica doesn’t have a blues scene at all. Emotionally I can only say that I resent my country because it never supported me as an artist and that pushed me to leave my family behind so that I could pursue my dream to play the Blues in USA and Europe."

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I would pick Memphis! We recently had an amazing experience at the IBC and we made so many new friends and fans there plus Memphis soulful cuisine is outstanding. I would also choose Europe somewhere in Spain or The Netherlands. They love Blues there and they support it a lot… Can’t wait to go back!

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