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Endless Rhythms 

Prince favorite Grupo Fantasma mixes Latin dance music with contemporary sounds

It's impossible to fully master the complex richness of Latin rhythms, according to Greg Gonzalez, bass player for the Texas-based Latin dance band Grupo Fantasma.

"Latin rhythms are endless, man," Gonzalez said recently via phone from his home in Austin. "You can just become more knowledgeable about Latin rhythms; you can just become more informed; and you can never master them."

Grupo Fantasma combines Latin dance music with rock, pop, blues, reggae and, especially, funk.

"We are more about interlacing the Latin sound with contemporary sounds, because that is where we are coming from in America," Gonzalez said. "At this point, we have an original sound, I think. The new album incorporates more salsa and cumbia than we have in the past, and they blend so seamlessly, it's hard to separate the elements, of course."

Gonzalez was referring to the explosive El Existential, which was recently released by Nat Geo Music. It's Grupo Fantasma's fourth studio album since its formation in 2000, and the band is on the road promoting the new release. The group will perform on Tuesday, June 22, at the Rialto Theatre.

The 10 members of Grupo Fantasma haven't given a whole lot of thought to the fact that they are celebrating their 10th anniversary this year, Gonzalez admitted.

"I don't know. It's been coming up a little more in conversations lately. We're getting ready to head out on the road, so who knows? Maybe some people will want to make a big thing of it on this tour."

Playing in Grupo Fantasma does feel different than it did a decade ago, he said.

"It feels so much more natural now. It's not like we're old veterans and we rest on our laurels or anything, but in this situation, we now know what we need to do, and it gets easier to get into the groove. Obviously, we still work hard when we get out on the road, but it's easier to have a great time."

Upon reflection, Gonzalez said that the world of music has changed dramatically since the turn of the century, largely because of computer technology and social networking.

"Back then, if you had a website, it was a novelty; now, you can't get by in this industry without one. And arranging for rehearsals or whatever is easier, because instead of making 10 phone calls, you can send everyone a text at the same time. And there's MySpace and Facebook and Twitter, which you might think keeps us from having real interaction with our fans, but those things help facilitate tours and meeting up with people."

The music business also has changed during Grupo Fantasma's career, he said.

"It's really much more grassroots now than back then. The industry has flamed out, and it's up to individual artists to run their own careers, which is the way it should be. It's always better when musicians can take control of their career and their passion rather than leave it in the hands of some executives."

Gonzalez also is heartened that the focus of music is now on touring and playing live.

"The best thing about this whole situation is that it has redirected the focus of bands on to live concerts. It's not like the 1980s and '90s, when it was all about the music videos, and it's no longer like the years from the 1960s to the '90s, when it was always about the recordings.

"We make albums now to support the touring, not the other way around. That's where most of the money is these days."

And it also happens to be what this band is best at. If Grupo Fantasma weren't such a smoking live act, Prince wouldn't have hired it to play a weekly Latin night at his 3121 nightclub in Las Vegas for 10 weeks.

"Every week, we were told, 'Prince is listening to the band; he's going to sit in with you guys.' During one of those shows, in the middle of one song, we heard an amazing shredding guitar player. I thought, 'Oh my God, (GF guitarist) Beto (Martinez) just lost his mind.' I turned around, and standing right next to me, there he was—ripping it up on guitar.

"As soon as he was done, he turned around and walked off the stage. As mysteriously as he appeared, he disappeared. But from that point on, he offered us a lot of exclusive party events. He was very gracious about supporting our band."

Prince even took Grupo Fantasma's horn section to Coachella and on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. They also played with him at the O2 Arena in London. "That was in front of 20,000 people. That pretty much sealed the deal for us to tour Europe, which we have been doing pretty regularly since."

The band also earned a great friend and collaborator in Larry Harlow, a pianist, house producer and bandleader for the influential Fania Records in the 1960s and '70s. He has played with Grupo Fantasma on many occasions and was a guest on the group's 2008 breakthrough album, Sonidos Gold, as well as on the new record.

Fans of Arizona music and indie rock will be interested to learn that Curt Kirkwood, of the Phoenix-area band Meat Puppets, plays on a tune on El Existential. "He came in and did a guitar solo on the song 'Telaraña,' and he tore it up," Gonzalez said.

Grupo Fantasma will play Tucson as planned, despite a growing movement in some music-industry circles to boycott Arizona in light of the recent immigration legislation. Bands such as Cypress Hill, Los Lobos, and Hall and Oates have canceled gigs as a result.

Gonzalez said Grupo Fantasma understands the frustration over the issue; this is a band that also comes from a state bordering Mexico. But Grupo never considered boycotting Arizona, because "we are not an overly political band. We're not trying to make any statements other than musical ones," he said.

However, he noted that Grupo Fantasma, by its very membership, supports diversity. "We have in the band musicians who are Latinos, blacks, whites, Jewish people and musicians who moved here from other countries. And we come from Texas. If that isn't multicultural, I don't know what is."

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