Spanglish for beginners

According to bassist (and Grupo Fantasma founding member) Greg Gonzalez, "We have so many influences, when you come to see us it's a gumbo of sound." An apt metaphor for this pepper pot of a Latin jazz-funk fusion outfit currently boasting 10 members. Gonzales adds that the group's collective experience —and most of a decade together — is "the spice."

Anything goes: Ten-member Grupo Fantasma advises, "You don't have to take a salsa lesson, you can just spaz out." Photo by Crawford Morgan.

Actually, its more than years logged that accounts for Austin, Texas-based Grupo Fantasma's picante flair. Songs like the slinky, horn-driven "Gimme Some" toe the line between The Funky Meters and Santana; "Arroz Con Frijoles" shimmies, grinds and sizzles with Spanish verse (anyone who's ever ordered a Mexican lunch will pick up at least a handful of the gastronomic mentions) and percussion perfect for tearing up the dance floor. Not that mono-lingual listeners and non-dancers should stay out of Grupo Fantasma's kitchen: "Our approach is to get people to interact," Gonzalez says. "You don't have to take a Salsa lesson, you can just spaz out if you want to."

In that vein, the band embraces its Latin heritage, but has no interest in solving tumultuous U.S./Mexico border disputes. On the band's well-maintained Web site, drummer Johnny Lopez III (a native of Laredo, Texas) reveals that life on the border "has definitely molded me as a person and a musician."

He adds, "The richness of food, art and music tends to be very concentrated along the border as the result of two nations' integrated cultures … I consider myself lucky to have absorbed it all in and then communicate some of that experience through our music."

But there's no politicizing. "Our cultural identity as Latinos in this country is not very simple," Gonzalez admits. "We have Latino heritage, but that's not what defines us. The intention is to break down barriers in people's [minds] that don't really exist." Grupo Fantasma made a major move in that direction last fall when they signed up with a USO-type booking company for a 10-day tour of military bases in Iraq. It was a package with comedian Joey Medina in celebration of Hispanic Heritage month. "There are a lot of Latinos in the military and the leaders are becoming sensitive to their needs," says Gonzalez. "Traditionally, the groups that go over there are rock 'n roll or country. It's good that they're diversifying." The response to Grupo Fantasma's performances was so positive, the band headed back to Iraq for Cinco de Mayo this past May.

Percussion perfect for tearing up the dance floor. Photo by Daniel Perlaky.

Though the collective is pretty specific in its Latin-flavored sound (don't plumb their songs for world-music inspirations), globe-trotting beyond Iraq is often on the tour roster. Gonzalez says that how fans show their appreciation varies by country: "In some places they don't dance, but they clap and buy everything. In others, they'll dance all night long and then leave at the end of the show without buying a thing or saying a word to you."

Grupo Fantasma has plenty of fans in the U.S. as well — some of them big name stars in their own right. Like Prince, who signed the band to a 10-week residency at his Las Vegas Club. "Through that we got other opportunities," Gonzales recalls. The band performed for and with Prince at his Golden Globes after-party and London shows.

Recently, Grupo Fantasma's horn section backed up indie-rockers Spoon, and other Austin-based acts have also tapped Grupo Fantasma players. But Gonzalez, who calls his outfit a "busybody kind of band," doesn't see the side projects as a detraction from the band's own progress. Its most recent album (last year's Sonidos Gold) was nominated for a Grammy which was celebrated, apparently, by recording another album (soon to be released) under alter-ego Latin-funk moniker Brownout.

"There are lots of us in the band and a super abundance of talent," Gonzalez says. "It's great when we have these other outlets to express ourselves."

At the end of the day, Grupo Fantasma comes first, however. Touring (and they do a lot of that) means 10 musicians, a road manager and a sound engineer packed into two vans. Expect a maximized stage at any show: "When you see our band you see the whole thing," Gonzalez says. "What you hear on the album is pretty much what you hear live."

who: Grupo Fantasma (Sol Driven Train opens)
what: Latin jazz and funk
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Thursday, July 30 (9 p.m. $10 advance, $15 day of show.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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