For most of their two-decade career, the nine-piece Grammy-winning Austin Latin-funk-rock ensemble Grupo Fantasma has avoided political topics. They've focused instead on creating some of the most passionate, irresistibly danceable music around, blending Tex-Mex, straight-ahead rock and a deep sense of groove to create feverishly intense live shows. They're also one of the few groups who can translate their energy perfectly from stage to studio; the typical Grupo Fantasma album is alive with miles-deep vocal harmonies, lively, sunburst horns and layers of percussion. With all of that going on, there simply wasn't room for politics.
But on their new album, American Music, Vol. 7, things changed. Their song "The Wall (featuring Ozomatli and Locos Por Juana)" takes dead aim at our country's current immigration policies.
The song's lyrics, sung in Spanish as all of their material is, translate thusly: "Crossing the border, I'm not a criminal/I'm not one of those that wants to kill you/I wanna give you life, feel the freedom/Share my culture, learn from the others."
Later in the horn-spiked, relentlessly funky tune, the band shouts, "I'm not a criminal!/Neither a rapist!/I come as your Brother!/In search of a better life!"
It's a stirring statement of both pride and anger, and interestingly enough, the song's inspiration came largely from where the band recorded it.
"We recorded the album at an amazing facility outside of El Paso in Tornillo, Texas called Sonic Ranch," says Grupo Fantasma's bassist and co-founder Greg Gonzalez, "which is located walking distance from a portion of the border wall and the Rio Grande. After we had finished recording the album, it came to our attention that Tornillo is also the location of one of the detestable immigrant detention facilities for children separated from their families."
Grupo Fantasma couldn't help but be moved by where they were, and what was happening to people just like many members of the band. "These factors, combined with our own immigrant/Mexican-border histories made it a very personal situation and we felt that we had to speak up in denouncing the false narrative that is being pushed about the border, immigration and our communities," Gonzalez says.
For the band, the current situation at the border is personal, which is often the best possible viewpoint from which to write a politically-charged song.
"We felt that is was important to push back against gross-generalizations and over-simplifications which dehumanize these people and to speak from our own stories," Gonzalez says. "To provide a counter-narrative based upon our personal experiences, and hopefully to help others to have a more empathic response to the tragedy unfolding on and south of our borders."
In fact, the album title American Music, Vol. 7 itself can be seen as a defiant statement, though not entirely a political one.
"The meaning of the title is two-fold," Gonzalez says. "It's our response to the political forces in America which are trying to define 'American-ness' by pushing diverse or outside experiences onto the realm of 'other-ness.' We wanted to make it a point to define ourselves and to state that all of these experiences are valid American experiences. And we wanted to dispel the label of 'Latin music' to describe what we do. We've always felt constrained by this label, and felt that it was a gross oversimplification of a variety of styles that cover a huge number of cultures and societies, from salsa and cumbia to reggaeton, rock, flamenco, boleros, and so on."
Gonzalez says the band has long been frustrated by the narrow genre their music has been placed in.
"It would be akin to lumping jazz, hip- hop, heavy metal, and bluegrass together and calling them 'USA music,'" he says. "We felt that our music encompassed our experiences as Americans with Latin American-Texas roots and represented the diversity of sound in America, not just Latin but rock 'n' roll, funk, jazz, and so on."
Of course, none of the messages would matter if the music wasn't good, and Grupo Fantasma sounds about as focused as they ever have on American Music, Vol. 7. The bursting-at-the-seams, live-in-the-studio sound that the band came up with this time around is largely thanks to their collaboration with producer/engineer/musician Carlos "El Loco" Bedoya (Beyonce, Weezer, Missy Elliott).
"We couldn't be happier with the results," Gonzalez says. "His enthusiasm and energy were infectious, and his skills and instincts as a producer, mixer and engineer were spot on. Not to mention, the chemistry between him and the group was great. Everyone hit it off right away."