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Grupo Fantasma: Problemas (Blue Corn, 2015)

A year in the making, the highly anticipated new album from the veteran Austin, Texas based band Grupo Fantasma transcends easy classification, blending international flavors from both far and wide. The sound is contemporary and edgy while also drawing on Latin roots music at its core. Interestingly, Problemas (Problems) manages to sound both familiar (integrating elements of heavy metal, indie rock, funk, hip-hop, jazz) and foreign (African, Eastern European, gypsy, South American, Cuban, Tex-Mex) at the same time, bearing repeated listens that slowly reveal nuances and deeper levels the more you hear it.

The best news is this is their most powerful record in their 15-year history to date, proving to be timeless and timely, as well as diverse and cohesive. It bristles with confidence, featuring a huge yet precise sound. Grupo Fantasma somehow manages to come off as heavy but sensitive, raw and accomplished, deep and fun all at once. This special hybrid quality is the essence and the identity of the band, reflecting their backgrounds and the environment in which they create their art, and as such, it makes them a constantly entertaining group that never disappoints.

For the first time ever, Grupo Fantasma decided not to self-produce. As bassist Greg González puts it, “We thought a new process would help us to find a unique voice and create a story. It would’ve been easier and cheaper to record everything ourselves and reuse the same techniques which successfully garnered us a Grammy and two nominations for successive albums (Sonidos Gold and El Existential) but the desire was to push ourselves in new directions.” While most rock bands rarely go beyond a quintet, maintaining equilibrium and staying creative with a big organization like Fantasma (9 official members and many guests) can be a daunting task when it comes to the studio. González elaborates: “Having a band this large with this many diverse approaches, opinions, and styles meant that having a producer on hand would be necessary to streamline the process.” After coming up with a list of people they admired, they settled on Steve Berlin (Los Lobos, The Blasters, et al), someone they knew would be a well-seasoned, sympathetic producer (as a horn and keyboard player with wide-ranging musical taste) who genuinely enjoyed the band’s oveur and was eager to work with them.

Berlin’s intent was to streamline the music as much as possible, to strip out the superfluous or busy elements so that the core of the band’s songwriting and unique approach would stand out, be accessible and clear. As González notes, “For our part, we felt that one of the challenges we frequently faced was the density of our sound and avoiding the urge to over complicate things, which can be easy to do with so many talented and inspired persons involved in the process.” The band also felt that it was important to keep the proceedings as raw and honest as possible so that the emotional intensity and the basic intent of the music wouldn’t get lost beneath untold layers of horn and percussion overdubs or weighed down by obtuse, overly academic arrangements. According to González, Berlin wanted Fantasma to make music that was uniquely theirs, to give voice to their experiences and influences, yet also not fall into being a merely Latin, Texas, or ‘World Music’ album that could easily be pigeonholed or written off as a calculated attempt at crossover.

The marvelous thing is this goal has been achieved, many times over. Grupo Fantasma walk a fine line: creating a unified, original sound that manages to be hip and current and yet in firm, proud control of their Latin and rock/funk roots. Problemas serves the listener a potent concoction that honors tradition with a contemporary twist, with music that is great to listen to but even better to dance to.

Song-by-song analysis:

Nada:

A cumbia with big band swing/mambo brass, sung by Kino Esparza. Esparza’s lyrics are a bluesy lament at start where the protagonist is suffering from poverty, his lady is leaving him because of it – life is bad; but that is not enough to stop him – it was just a chapter, now over, that prepares him for the next stage. He has to continue on with life, be tough and survive.

Solo Un Sueño:

This is an Afro-Cuban-inspired jam in 6/8-time with elements of Eastern European gypsy/Middle Eastern accents, plus a little goth/heavy metal flavor on the side, sung (and rapped) by José Galeano. It also features Skerik (Eric Walton of Critters Buggin) on saxophone. Galeano’s lyrics are somewhat ironic in that they question the ideal of achieving “The American Dream” (and the sometimes false promise it entails). The song also suggests that civil involvement and participation are necessary to improve this situation. If you come to this country as an immigrant, be positive, and work hard, get an education and get involved in your community; if you’re not going to participate, don’t complain.

Porque:

The Beatles reimagined as a stately bolero with elements of sadness as in the lamento, mariachi, and balada romántica genres. Creolized into a Spanish lyric, this rendition, beautifully sung in a Beach Boys choral style by Kino, shows that Lennon/McCartney are universal and cosmic in their poetry.

Esa Negra:

A rolling cumbia infused with New Orleans funk and heavy metal guitar riffs sure to get the dance floor bumping. Features the Tex-Mex accordion hero Joel Guzmán of Los Super Seven fame. José Galeano’s lyrics celebrate the beauty of a black woman enjoying herself on the dance floor (‘la gozadera’), moving sexily to the band’s grooves. When Galeano sings of ‘frothing the chocolate’ (‘que bate ese chocolate’) he is referring to the making the lady dance (and by extension, making love to her through the music).

Descarga Dura y Pura:

As far as genre, the title says it all, and showcases what Grupo does best: delivering a ‘hard and pure’ Cuban-style descarga (jam session) that can be danced salsa style (with breaks galore to make the ‘bailadores’ go crazy). The lyrics feature traditional boasting (in a good way) about how Grupo plays hot music that is in your face (‘en la cara’). But unlike most descargas, there is a nod to the band’s consciousness-raising mission because Kino Esparza says the music comes from a band that is about pride, unity, and roots, demonstrating their talent with intelligence and elegance. Let Fantasma be your guides to the future while teaching you about the past.

Mulato:

An intriguing mix of Afro-Puerto Rican bomba and funk rhythms, with big band swing brass on top featuring a hot ‘bone solo from Mark “Speedy” González. Galeano’s Spanglish opening line of “Hey you, mulato!” points to this fusion of Latin and U.S. flavors at play here. The song is about a Nicaraguan immigrant  of mixed race who works by day and goes out at night in search of women to dance with and then make love to. The call-and-response refrain establishes a somewhat moral tone with the vibe of “Tell me who you hang with and I will tell you who are,” and at the bridge, the point of view changes to the band speaking to a lady dancing in the club, advising her to keep dancing (to avoid becoming the mulato’s next sexual conquest).

Otoño:

A cumbia with a different disposition than the usual sunny, beach-themed spirit of the genre. This time it’s infused with a spooky psychedelic gothic flavor in the style of Peruvian chicha, courtesy of horror movie organ and spectral guitar lines. Yet behind this dark and pensive sound though there is also a section that is more upbeat, drawing inspiration from the happy tropical music of Climaco Sarmiento, Lucho Bermúdez, and Lito Barrientos from the Discos Fuentes era of the ‘golden age’ of Colombian cumbia. Fantasma has always had a fascination with this early jazz-meets-cumbia sound and emulates that with the inclusion of muted brass and bass clarinet (played by Brad Houser of Critters Buggin). José Galeano articulates the feeling of foreboding doom, nightmares, and dread, describing a person waiting by the phone, hearing the wind as it howls outside and eventually coming to the realization that they are alone, that the call isn’t coming and that they must move on. The autumn of a relationship just as the realization that a long cold winter is coming. The song foretells of impending heartbreak as hope fades for the time being.

Problemas:

The title track of the album is classic New York hard salsa with a Cuban son flavor in the guitar and melody. But as often is the case with Grupo, this simplicity can be deceptive because mid-way through, there is a brilliant break featuring intricate interplay between the guitar, brass, and percussion, with the inclusion of the Afro-Cuban Yoruba batá drums and massive bass vamp spicing things up nicely. Kino sings convincingly of the “other woman” who is tempting the narrator with her coquettish ways – but the issue is he’s married (and does not want to do ‘anything cruel’) so he swears to resist her because he does not want problems (‘Ay mamá, no quiero problemas’).

Cayuco:

A playful song in the 1960s style of Nuyorican boogaloo (aka Latin bugalú) with a funky Cuban cha-cha-chá rhythm. Here Kino and José sing in unison like in the charanga orchestras of old. Lyrically, this track is about dishonest people, hangers on and ‘mooches’ that break their promises, someone who always wants to be a part of the good times but never wants to contribute to the cause, enjoying the scene without contributing to it. Literally, a ‘cayuco’ in Spanish is a Native American dugout canoe, but is slang for a country bumpkin or a stupid guy, loser, dummy.

Roto El Corazón:

A deep cumbia with Perivian chicha-style guitar/organ, and featuring big mambo brass with the baritone sax out front and some electronic touches. Kino Esparza uses his expressive tenor voice to detail a romantic revenge story where the take-away is: a broken heart can go both ways. Now you will suffer as you have made me suffer!

That Night:

A killer boogaloo/cha-cha-chá with a great funky drum break and spunky guitars. Also features a descending vocal chorus that brings to mind Los Lobos/ or the Latin Playboys. An interesting mix of upbeat and edgy/dark sounds. Originally with English lyrics that didn’t sound “quite right” to the band, so it was decided to change them to Spanish, and sung in unison by José and Kino. The protagonist is an incredibly jealous macho type, who, every time he goes out with his girl, loses his cool and goes crazy because someone talks to her or makes a pass. He’s tired of trying to defend his honor. Finally comes a time when he loses it totally at a club and kills a guy after she starts responding to him. The narrator follows him outside and knifes him in the alley. He gets caught and sent to jail, where he concludes she was not worth it after all.

— Pablo “DJ Bongohead” Yglesias, 2015

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