“Latin and funk, they have the same origins, Africa… it’s just different trajectories, it only makes sense they can be compatible,” says Greg Gonzalez, bassist, composer and one of the founders of Brownout, speaking by telephone from his Austin home. Gonzalez is describing the origins of the eight musician-collective that developed in parallel as another project of most of the members of Grammy-awarded Grupo Fantasma.
Originally, the founding members of both Brownout and Grupo Fantasma played in two other different bands, The Blimps and The Blue Noise Band. Occasionally getting together as a super grupo to jam and play at college parties, they joined musical forces about ten years ago as Grupo Fantasma in the desire develop their more Latin side – this was also helped by the fact they incorporated a wonderful veteran timbalista, Nicaraguan José Galeano, who in fact is the nephew of one of the original members of Carlos Santana´s band.
Gonzalez continues to explain the two groups’ evolution: “Basically Brownout is all of Grupo Fantasma, with a different timbales player and no vocalists.” Both bands have a strong Texican base, as several of the members are from Laredo, Texas and four of the members are Texas State University grads. After about three years as Grupo Fantasma, some of the musicians felt a need to return to an exploration of funk and the Latin connection to funk, and that’s how Brownout was born. To get a sense of what this might mean, check the amazing video for the track “Slinky” which features flaming laser-throwing eyeballs, Sun Ra, El Santo (the masked Mexican lucha libre hero), and clips from Mexican action flicks from the 70´s!
I wonder if it´s difficult to compose songs for both groups, or how it is that the musicians split their musical personalities. Gonzalez says he and the other composers in the group let the tunes flow organically. If the sounds and textures begin to move in an instrumental direction, where the lyrics are minimal, or can be sung in a whole-group, chant style in English, that may indicate it´s music for Brownout. On the other hand, if lyrics, vocals and the Spanish-language start to move to the foreground, along with more pan-latino or Caribbean beats, it´s a tune that´s wanting to be played by Grupo Fantasma.
The most important thing, comments Gonzalez, is to keep it fresh: “You start writing a song, it takes on a life of its own. If music doesn’t grow, it starts to die… we want to push the envelope, try new things, stand upon what we know and try to infuse the traditions that we highly respect and admire with our own energy and the perception of modern times.” He affirms once again: “It really all comes from Africa! All these barriers and titles are simplifications, it’s all the same thing, just a different way of looking at it.”
We are fortunate here in the Chi to be able to see both groups this weekend! Friday, Brownout will play the Mayne Stage at 10PM, preceded by “Songcheck”, a Q&A pre-concert series of live interviews with musicians. Saturday, Grupo Fantasma will perform at Resurrection Project’s Unisono celebration.