The vibe that audiences get from listening to Austin-based Grupo Fantasma is quite different from what you expect from a Latin dance band. To begin with, Grupo Fantasma incorporate strong funk and rock influences in ways that recall the original early-'70s Santana. In addition to percussion and trumpets, they include full drum sets, electric guitars and Hammond B-3s, giving their sound a rock edge.
"This gives us the flexibility to play rock or funk with that kind of [Latin] vibe to it, but basically we don't try to force anything," says bassist Greg Gonzalez. "I think the mistake a lot of bands [make] when they are trying to play a fusion of styles is the forcing. It's like, 'I want to put this style with that style.' In case they don't happen to mesh naturally, it feels contrived. So we just let it flow smoothly. We don't intentionally try to impose ourselves on a song."
Listening to their latest abum, Sonidos Gold, it's easy to know what Gonzalez is talking about. The uptempo "Bacalao Con Pan" begins with a wah-wah guitar riff that sets the tone for the tune, which ends with a surprising samba groove. And "Naci de La (Rumba y Guaguanco)" includes elements of Tex-Mex music and psychedelia. It's an unlikely mix that somehow seems to work.
Grupo Fantasma began almost a decade ago, when members of two different bands came together for improvised jam sessions. "We were friends, we played shows together and we also performed parties before we could get bigger shows," says Gonzalez. "We had our two separate bands, and we also had a side project that played funk. It was a house-party kind of band that we named the Young Silly Bitches."
One night, the band was hanging out with some guys from Colombia and were really taken with their style. They had heard cumbia music, but more in the context of a Tejano/Mexican style than the classic Colombian style. So they wanted to take that repertoire and interpret it as a funky jam.
"We booked the gig with the name Grupo Fantasma," says Gonzalez. "We weren't sure how many people would be there, but we pulled everyone we knew that we'd met throughout the parties, and it turned out to be a huge success. Eventually, we realized that it was more popular than our own separate projects were individually, so we decided to commit some time to it and record an album. Since then, it's just gone and gone and gone."
One of the factors that differentiates Grupo Fantasma from other Latin bands is that they don't relegate themselves to the so-called Latin circuit that caters to Hispanic communities. They are willing to go places that other similar bands don't. During their concerts, Grupo Fantasma talk to their audiences in English, refraining from what Gonzalez calls "the ritual of salsa dancing."
"We don't wear matching clothes or do special dances," he says. "We just do our thing. We play the music, and we communicate in a way that [non-Hispanic] fans are familiar with. The fact that we have a drum set, a rocking guitar solo, really makes people more accepting [of us] than they would otherwise be."