The very title of Grupo Fantasma’s latest album, American Music: Volume VII, is a statement. American culture is more than just Anglophone assimilation. A nine-piece band from Austin, Grupo Fantasma is coming up on two decades of music as a group, including seven albums, two Grammy nominations, one Grammy win, and tracks featured on Weeds and Breaking Bad. It’s hard to dispute their superstardom in the vibrant Latin music scene of Texas and beyond, and they continue to expand the definition of Latin music on American Music, building on their foundation of Tex-Mex funk with moments of Turkish-inspired psych rock and political hip-hop. Guest artists add their considerable talents to the extant pool of considerable talent, with members of Ozomatli, Locos Por Juana, Red Baraat, and Los Texmaniacs featured, among others.
All of this background sets a high bar for American Music: Volume VII from the outset. The key to reaching it is a tool Grupo Fantasma has had in its possession from day one: variety. Fantasma embraces it, making the new release as broad in scope as its title implies. “El Fugitivo” features accordionist Josh Baca of Los Texmaniacs, who lends a distinctly classic Tejano sound to this track and, later on, lighthearted “La Cruda” (The Hangover), a song whose repetitive refrain of “me gusta tomar” translates simply to “I like to drink”. Baca’s accordion goes wild here, supported by the strength of Fantasma’s warm brass ensemble.
Explicitly political “The Wall” is the album’s keystone, a direct response to xenophobic anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies that features members of two other powerhouse USA-based Latin groups: Ozomatli and Locos por Juana. An ominous bassline leads into Locos Por Juana’s introduction (“Mente positiva, venimos a cambiar / Mente positiva, venimos a luchar,” they sing – “Positive mind, we come to change / Positive mind, we come to struggle”), and Ozomatli’s fearless rap break comes ready to organize at the front lines of this cross-ideological conflict (“Walls are bound to fall, expose treachery / My pot is melting, best switch your recipe”). Between the two guest groups’ spoken words are melodies from Grupo Fantasma: “Es un revolución / Es nuestra evolución,” they sing, taking on politically-motivated stereotypes: I am not a criminal, I am not a rapist, I am not illegal on this stolen land. All the while, the bass keeps moving forward, with percussion in syncopation with simmering brass.
Not every track is so heavy, at least musically. “L.T.” is a deliciously overt sexy groove complete with Red Baraat’s Sunny Jain on dhol, “Nosotros” has Caribbean rhythms and New Orleans spirit (and some truly stellar electric guitar work), “Ausencia” sounds like a fast-paced walk down busy summer streets, and breezy “Cuidado” is pure funk. Soul singer Tomar Williams adds a little gospel into “Let Me Be”, and the album ends with “Sombra Roja”, an electric cumbia fusion featuring Jaime Ospina of Austin-based Afro-Colombian group Superfónicos on vocals and Colombian folk accordionist Mr. Vallenato. Andean flutes complete the binding of northern and southern hemispheres.
The subtleties of Grupo Fantasma’s compositions mean that there are constantly new treasures and different influences to be found, and American Music: Vol. VII is well worth repeated listenings. American music should be as unlimited in its capacity for multicultural collaboration, and American Music is proof positive that coming together to speak truth to power and make new music is a fantastic remedy for narrow-mindedness.