Show Me the Money
Members of Grupo Fantasma have added yet another new sound to their ever-evolving Latin repertoire.
In April members of Grupo Fantasma, the Grammy winning, nine-piece Latin rock band from Austin, were in Pakistan, playing shows on behalf of the U.S. State Department. One night, around 2 a.m., their phones started blowing up. People were spreading the word about the death of one of the group’s musical idols. Greg Gonzalez—the bass player and one of the group’s co-founders along with guitarists and fellow Laredo natives Adrian Quesada and Beto Martinez—remembered bawling after he’d heard the news. Not only had Gonzalez met this musician and shaken his hand, Gonzalez had had a conversation with him and they’d even jammed together.
It was sometime around January 2008 and Grupo Fantasma was about half a dozen gigs into a weekly Thursday night residency as the house band at Club 3121, in Las Vegas’s Rio Hotel. The group had earned the spot—traveling from Austin—because this particular musician happened to have really dug their 2006 album Grupo Fantasma Comes Alive, recorded live at Antone’s and testimony of the band’s love of big-band cumbia music, a genre defined by the music put out on Discos Fuentes, the record label founded in 1934, in Columbia. But instead of the golden era’s typical combination of pianos, congas, timbales, clarinets, and trombones, Grupo Fantasma brought in guitars, drum sets, saxes, and trumpets.
This musician had sized up their shows at 3121, and word began percolating that he wanted to sit in with them. But for a couple of weeks, those promises rang hollow. And then one night, when Grupo Fantasma was playing the song “Naci De La Rumba Y Guaguanco,” the musician magically appeared.
“At the point where there’s supposed to be a guitar solo, I just hear, like, the loudest guitar solo ever,” Gonzalez recalled. “And I looked at Beto, because that’s where he normally solos, and I was, like, He’s out of his mind. Why is he so loud? And then I turned and standing next to me is Prince, wearing all white, with his purple guitar—the sign, the glyph, what have you—just shredding an amazing guitar solo. And then he finished and walked off stage.”
Grupo Fantasma and Prince would reunite for a few more shows over roughly the next year, as Prince tried to lock in a Latin sound. This included a Golden Globes after-party that Prince hosted at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where Grupo Fantasma performed with special guests including Marc Anthony, Mary J. Blige, Talib Kweli, and Will.i.am. But just as quickly as Grupo Fantasma and Prince were a thing, they were over. Prince had decided he wanted to shake things up again and thus relieved Grupo Fantasma of its duties as he went in search of another new sound.
But there were no hard feelings. They all knew what it was like to not be content musically. Since forming Grupo Fantasma in 2000, Gonzalez, Quesada, and Martinez have helped hatch two subsequent bands in their relentless pursuit of an authentic Mexican-American spin on Latin music. The first, Brownout, which started around 2008, set out to play the funky break-beat songs that hip-hop acts like Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan, and the Beastie Boys were cutting and pasting into their music. Since then, Brownout has evolved into something completely different: a Black Sabbath cover band.
The second one, Money Chicha, formed around 2010 expressly to play chicha music. The style is derived mainly from Peru, but also Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, and Columbia, when musicians there in the sixties and seventies—such as Los Destellos, Los Ilusionistas, and Los Mirlos—were incorporating Americanized surf-rock guitars and psychedelia into their native sounds. The result was cumbia music, or dance music, built on hypnotic, trippy grooves. The discovery of chicha music was a great influence on Grupo Fantasma.
“We had kind of hit a wall at one point,” Gonzalez said. “We were trying to find a good way to keep true to the Latin roots that influenced us—salsa and cumbia and merengue—but we also wanted to incorporate our rock and roll sound and our love of funk music and soul music and even hip-hop and dub reggae. So when we came across the sound of chicha music, it kind of was like one of the keys that helped us see how we could incorporate our sound into the Latin sound and create our own mix.”
Grupo Fantasma started getting hip to chicha music around the time of their 2008 album Sonidos Gold. Chicha was enjoying a resurgence in New York, where Olivier Conan was playing the music, as part of his band Chicha Libre, and also disseminating it through the 2007 compilation The Roots of Chicha, on his label Barbès Records. The movement spawned modern chicha bands like XIXA, from Tucson, and Viento Callejero, from Los Angeles.
The Spanish word “chicha” has two meanings: it’s a blanket marketing term for chicha music, sort of like salsa encompasses the musical styles of Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Caribbean, and it’s also slang for an alcoholic beverage in the Andean region that traditionally was made when villagers chewed up corn, spit it into a bucket, and let it ferment in their saliva. Gonzalez and crew jokingly paired “chicha” with the English word “money” because it was the one time that they had a smaller band, meaning they would have less expenses and a higher chance of actually making a living.
It was not until this past July that Money Chicha released its debut full-length album, Echo in Mexico. For the first three years of existence, it was more like a novelty act, with very infrequent shows and mostly cover songs. For the next three years band members had to find free time to write songs and record in between their duties with Grupo Fantasma and Brownout. Money Chicha will celebrate its long road to independence this weekend with three Texas shows, billed as a “Chicha Summit,” with Chicago chicha band Dos Santos: Anti-Beat Orquesta. On Thursday they will play at Swan Dive, in Austin; on Saturday, at the Squeezebox in San Antonio; and on Sunday, at the Continental Club in Houston. Money Chicha includes Gonzalez on electric bass and accordion; Martinez on electric guitar; Leo Gauna on organ, guiro, and trombone; Matthew “Sweet Lou” Holmes on congas and bongos; and John Speice on timbales and other percussion. (Quesada left the band before the album was completed, in order to focus on personal projects.)
Those familiar with Grupo Fantasma’s music might have noticed the mounting presence of chicha in the 2010 album El Existential and the 2016 album Problemas, for which the band received the Grammy for Best Latin Rock or Alternative Album. The guitars were a bit countrified and twangy in parts and the electric bass and drum set were utilized in expanded ways. Grupo Fantasma’s horns and vocalist tend to get a lot of the attention, but it had become apparent how critical the rhythm section was for compelling crowds of people to dance. Money Chicha would become a vessel for Grupo Fantasma to showcase this particular component of the band.
“We wanted to have the opportunity to express ourselves in a much more spontaneous and organic way,” Gonzalez said. “We just wanted to go and record an album where we could all sit in one room together, with no headphones—and we didn’t have to wait for the vocalist to write a song and we didn’t have to write charts for the horn players. We just wanted to be able to be like, okay, here’s a groove. Write a guitar part and let’s record it right now. No overdubs. No editing. Just warts and all. And that very much has been the M.O. of Money Chicha from the get-go.”
Swan Dive, in Austin, on October 20; Squeezebox, in San Antonio, on October 22; and Continental Club in Houston, on October 23, moneychicha.com
Other Events Across Texas
Do the Polka Dot
At the Buda Beer and Polka Fest there will be plenty of liquid courage to inspire dancing, although it shouldn’t be necessary with top accordionists on the bill, including Flaco Jiménez, playing with the Texas Tornados, and his brother, Santiago Jiménez Jr., a recent recipient of a National Medal of Arts and Humanities, performing solo.
Buda City Park, October 22, 11 a.m., roadwayevents.com/event/buda-beer-polka-fest/
For the Record
According to a Dallas Observer report, the Dallas area is one of the top suppliers of vinyl on Discogs, the huge online marketplace for music. At the Dallas Record Show, hosted by the same people who put on the successful San Antonio Record Show, collectors can actually flip through the stacks instead of being relegated to pointing and clicking with their mouses.
October 22, 10 a.m., dallasrecordshow.com
The Mansion of Lost Souls
Ashton Villa, the historic mid-1800s residence on Broadway Avenue, in Galveston, is regarded as a real-deal haunted house, where Bettie Brown, one of the daughters of the original owner, is among those past their expiration dates who are known to roam there. Regardless of whether she materializes at “Ghost Tours at the 1859 Aston Villa,” visitors can at least see the inside of the first mansion ever built on the island.
Ashton Villa, October 27–31, 7 & 8:15 p.m., galvestonhistory.org/events/youre-history-events-this-halloween-season-2
Pretty in Pink
There’s a chance Miranda Lambert will be too busy in the lead-up to her new double album, out November 18, to attend Pinktoberfest, the grand re-opening celebration of her boutique Pink Pistol, which she relocated from Oklahoma to her hometown. But in her place might just be the next best thing: the Miranda Lambert Rose, a hot-pink five-inch double-bloom hybrid rose, sales of which benefit Lambert’s Mutt Nation Foundation for dogs.
Pink Pistol, October 22, 10 a.m., thepinkpistol.com
The Sky’s the Limit
Just over fifteen years since the closing of the Brackenridge Skyride, in San Antonio, the practice of using gondolas as a way of solving public transportation issues (and offering killer views) is resurfacing. In “1000 Parks and a Line in the Sky,” a fifty-foot-long model will portray what Broadway Street could look like lined with newly installed pocket parks, supplemented with a skyride that would connect the existing Travis Park to the airport.
Institute of Texan Cultures, October 21 to April 16, texancultures.com/1000_parks_and_a_line_in_the_sky/