Grupo Fantasma: Beyond Borders

By: Sarah Hagerman

Grupo Fantasma by Crawford Morgan
"The interesting thing about being from the border is the music that filters down there. If it hits it stays forever," recalls Grupo Fantasma bassist Greg Gonzalez, thinking back on his childhood in Laredo, Texas. "A lot of people are into oldies and classic rock - Santana, Black Sabbath, that's in there along with all of the cumbia influence, all of the traditional Latin music we heard growing up."

There is indeed a deep sense of tradition to Austin-based Grupo Fantasma's sound. Although clearly influenced by the rock, hip-hop and funk the band members grew up with, to varying degrees, there is a resounding classic Latin orchestra timbre. Grupo stays grounded in the cumbias and Tejano traditions that stretch across the Rio Grande and filter up through the myriad of Spanish speaking cultural pockets dotted throughout this country, and keep those traditions alive through their open-arms approach to their live performance. Their shows have a decidedly laidback atmosphere, where you don't have to be schooled in spot dancing footwork to get down – and if you are you may end up in the back because the front few rows will be wild with waving limbs and shaking butts. The vibe is more house party than salsa club, although that flavor is certainly strong.

As Adrian Quesada (guitar) explains, "In the Latin music scene, I always thought we were a little bit different. There are a million bands here [in Austin] and I wouldn't say we are the only ones doing what we do, but we accept all kinds of people. We are one of the only Latin bands in the city that can play Latin music festivals and rock clubs." Quesada also grew up in Laredo, "listening to that music on the radio at my grandmother's house. But for myself, and same for most of the guys, I got into rock and hip-hop like most teenagers. It wasn't until I was a little bit older that I revisited the music I grew up with, cumbias and Tejano music."

Grupo Fantasma
"That music was always there in the background - when you went to a restaurant or you went to somebody's wedding or any kind of social event that music was always present," Gonzalez continues, "but it went into the background until we [Gonzalez's former band The Blimp] moved up here and then I started to miss it and wanted to incorporate it into what we had been working on down in Laredo. With Grupo, we try to focus on making our music sound timeless, [in a way] that represents genres well enough that people from older generations can represent and understand where we are coming from as well as people from younger generations."

"We try to make everybody comfortable immediately," Gilbert Elorreaga (trumpet) stresses. "That's why everyone can cast a groove and enjoy themselves from the get go."

Quesada furthers that thought, "[The audience] from the beginning was really diverse; it wasn't at all like an exclusively Latin music audience. Back in the day, there were clubs here in Austin that had a Latin scene, a salsa scene, but we never played those places. It took years before we actually played there. Our audience was just immediately looking for a fun spot to come rock out and dance. It took awhile for the Latin music scene to start paying attention to what we were doing."

But after eight years of piling into vans and putting on parties across the country, folks are starting to take notice. From a packed set at Bonnaroo to the blessings of Prince, Grupo are gaining recognition as one of the country's premier Latin music collectives. But when the band formed in 2000 from the merging of two Austin groups - The Blimp (who came by way of Laredo and whose ranks included Gonzalez, guitarist Beto Martinez and drummer Johnny Lopez) and the Blue Noise Band (headed by Quesada, featuring former Grupo saxophonist and current manager David Lobel and drummer Jeremy Bruch, now of What Made Milwaukee Famous) - that was hardly a stated policy.

Grupo Fantasma with Prince
"It happened organically," says Gonzalez. "It wasn't like we intentionally set out with rules or some sort of manifesto, we just played and naturally what we had already been doing together forever just filtered through. Adrian's band was more experimental and improvisational. Our band was coming from Laredo trying to play funk music and nobody there played funk. We were just playing what we felt, and that's continued into this. We never approached it like, 'Let's play Latin music and make it big.' It's always been like, 'We're feeling this right now, let's explore this.'"

A small scene had formed at the Manor Road Coffee House, which has since become a restaurant, as The Blimp and Blue Noise played gigs together. Out of the deepened friendships and the musical stew that occurred at the casual jam sessions and post-gig house parties rose Grupo Fantasma. Starting off as a seven-piece with a heavily funk influenced sound, the cumbias that had traveled northward from Nuevo Laredo to Laredo to Austin, the sounds of home, gradually began to make their way into the band's music. But the laidback revelry was present from the beginning, even as the band began booking Austin clubs.

"That's what our early gigs were like, a place where all our friends could come and just have a blast. Friday night, everyone's had too much drink and we would just dance," Quesada says. "We try to hold onto that same vibe now. We want to make everyone feel better than they would have before the show. It's the least we can do for a cover charge. Those first few shows were at small clubs and were mostly our friends, but we know how to throw a party, so the word got out quickly and by the third or fourth show there was already a line around the block."

"[We] took the long road," Quesada continues. "We did it the old fashioned way, we said, 'Let's jump in the van and start touring,' and every time we went back out [on the road] the crowds doubled, sometimes tripled. We are starting to see if you don't build something from the ground up, then you have no foundation. And if they pull the rug out from under you, you're screwed."

Continue reading for more on Grupo Fantasma...

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