Story by: Monica Solis with THREADS – The Stories That Bind Us
This is Grupo Fantasma performing at camping and music festival Utopiafest in Utopia, Texas. Following their set, I catch up with bassist Greg Gonzales.
“Obviously, being part Latino myself and growing up on the border as well as playing in so many Latin music bands, I’ve come to appreciate that and embrace that,” Gonzales says. “But even within that, generally Latin groups stick to their style of music.”
Meet Gonzales. He is the bassist to Grupo Fantasma as well as fellow Utopia performers Brownout.
“Our whole thing since the very beginning has been to blur the lines. There’s no reason you can’t sing a Spanish song over an American sounding beat or incorporate an American beat with like a Latin rhythm and find new ways to explore that.”
– Greg Gonzales
While they are typically described as a “Latin fusion” band, Grupo Fantasma stands as one of the only largely Latino groups in the US that test the borders of that category and transform it into something fresh.
This is week two of Hispanic Heritage month, and on this episode of THREADS, we’re talking music – what I have experienced in my lifetime to be the emotional glue of Hispanic heritage – not easily confined to the genres of Tejano or traditional Conjuntos and Cumbias.
“For me, our music is all an exploration of identity,” Gonzales says. “I try and explain it like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. They started playing blues music but they’re as far from the blues as you get. They weren’t black dudes in Mississippi. They were white dudes in England. They heard blues and were just moved by it, by the emotional intensity of the music. They tried to express it their own way and as a result they came up with a completely new form of music that hadn’t been heard before. So for me it’s a similar thing. We’re exploring our own identity through the cultures of other people, through the music of other people. By getting to know that, it helps you to understand yourself a little bit.”
A blending of cultures leading to an understanding of one’s self is an interesting concept. But it’s also a concept that once you start thinking about it, it becomes pretty obvious; being an open book allows for more stories to be written.
It’s evident in Grupo Fantasma’s performance, which includes their original scores as well as their adaptations of popular songs in history. Take for instance their performance at Utopiafest.
Yup, that’s “Burning Down the House,” a hit song by New Wave group Talking Heads.
“Sometimes it’s hard to do stuff like that because people don’t take it seriously,” Gonzales says. “In our case, it’s always been sincere because it’s our expression; It’s like actors in a movie; if you’re an actor you may not have been from the 1800 Victorian era England; but you’re going to channel your life experiences through that character who’s in that genre. “
Gonzales says the musical influences of Grupo Fantasma lead to their collaborations, which he refers to as “very American music,” in the sense that it is a melting pot of genres.
“It’s informed by Slayer and it’s informed by Mozart and it’s informed by Bueno Vista Social Club, and Funkadelic,” Gonzales says.
Indeed the term “Hispanic” itself is a melting pot of meaning. It encompasses more than just one ethnicity: it’s Puerto Rican, its Mexican, it’s Chilean, Argentinian, Spanish, Columbiano, Cubano, Costa Riqueno… and it’s American and it’s evidenced in the fusion of music in this country.
Reflect back on Richie Valens in the late 1950’s. He was an American songwriter who pioneered the Chicano Rock movement by drawing on old Mexican roots to revamp the Mexican folk song “La Bamba” into a rock’n’roll classic.
“We can’t just say that we’re straight Latinos who speak Spanish only and only listen to Salsa and Cumbia,”
– Greg Gonzales
“One day I want to listen to Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog and the next day I want to hear Slayer. The next day I want to hear some old blues; the next day I want to hear some Salsa. It’s just a part of the melting pot,” Gonzales says.
Gonzales continues to play with Grammy-award winning Grupo Fantasma, along with Brownout, both of whom perform consistently in Austin. Both groups are scheduled for a few more Texas shows for the remainder of the year.