Middle East Downstairs, January 8, 2009
PERCUSSION DISCUSSION For Grupo Fantasma, dancing is imperative.
"When you come to our show, you gotta dance. You dance however you want to dance." These were the instructions offered by José Galeano, percussionist, vocalist, and de facto spokesman for the Austin-based indie Latin music collective Grupo Fantasma, to a third-full Middle East downstairs a week ago Thursday.
Not that the minimal-yet-enthusiastic crowd needed coercing; the band had barely played their opening notes before the area in front of the stage erupted into a sea of gyrating bodies. People paired off, shook their hips, attempted dips; a few even took the opportunity to make out in a public place. Those who needed more space to get down migrated to the back of the room.
Like their dancing audience, Fantasma's personnel is fluid. Various articles about the band (whose fourth full-length, Sonidos Gold, on High Wire Music, has received a Grammy nomination for Best Latin Rock or Alternative Album) place the number of members at 10 or 11. I counted nine crammed on the normally spacious MidEastDown stage, with guitar, bass, horns, and nearly half of them playing percussion.
The numbers don't matter, however, since the band operate so precisely as a unit, even as they freely fuse Latin with jazz and funk — genres that rely on vamp and improvisation. In a few rare instances, their nine-voice harmonies were isolated enough to highlight their overwhelming synchronicity — the hook-laden "Arroz Con Frijoles," for example. For the most part, though, Fantasma's layers upon layers of floor-rumbling percussion — which included timbales, cowbells galore, and congas — ruled the night, rattling those few non-dancing onlookers into eventual submission. But now and then Galeano still reminded us to shake it.
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