Ask the 11 members of Austin’s Grupo Fantasma for their biggest influences, and the answers will range across the spectrum of recorded music: Timbaland, Charles Mingus, Pete Rock, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Eddie Palmieri, for starters.
While much pan-rhythmic, globally oriented music smacks of cosmic calculation, Grupo Fantasma comes by its eclecticism honestly. With members from the Rio Grande Valley, San Antonio, El Paso, New York, and Nicaragua, they’re a bit like the Organization of American States with cowbells.
After creating a splash with a self-titled 2001 release, Grupo Fantasma landed a place on the soundtrack to director John Sayles’ film, Casa de los Babys. The band returned in 2004 with the acclaimed Movimiento Popular, by which point they’d rightfully come to be regarded as one of the tightest, most scintillating live bands on the circuit. Remarkably, they’ve managed to sell 15,000 CDs with little but word-of-mouth to support them.
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While they’re too restless to get lumped in with the reggaeton phenomenon, you can hear hints of Jamaican dub on “Utility Rock.” “Ritmo del Tambio” has a frantic, horn-driven groove that recalls the Twin Tone-era ska revival, at least until it shifts into a South Texas cumbia.
In a sense, their broad, virtuosic command of Latino idioms recalls Los Lobos, but where Los Lobos came from a base of electric blues and acoustic conjunto music, Grupo Fantasma works from a love of cumbia and big-band Afro-Cuban jazz. One of their most appealing traits is their sonic curiosity, which comes from a steadfast refusal to be purists about anything other than the need to get people dancing. •