- Associated Press - Friday, February 11, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - The Latin funk orchestra Grupo Fantasma might just be one of the least-known acts up for a Grammy this weekend, although it’s a second-time nominee.

But their famous collaborators, from Prince to indie rockers Spoon to pioneering salsa pianist Larry Harlow, know their work well.

After 10 years of steady touring and recording, the fiercely independent, Austin, Texas-based band has won a following among discerning Latin music fans for their funky take on older music styles such as cumbia, salsa and norteno.

Grupo Fantasma’s 2008 album, “Sonidos Gold,” featured guest spots by Harlow and saxophonist Maceo Parker, best known as James Brown’s favorite horn player. The album created a buzz and garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Latin Rock, Alternative or Urban Album.

For last year’s follow-up, “El Existential,” the band rented a tiny house, transformed it into a ramshackle recording studio and spent a few months experimenting with new sounds and homemade instruments. Harlow again plays on a song, as does the Meat Puppets’ Kurt Kirkwood.

When “El Existential” garnered the band a second Grammy nomination for the same category, it came as a surprise, said guitarist and producer Adrian Quesada, 33, who spoke while on a tour of the Southwest that led up to Sunday’s Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles.

The 11-piece band, which has sold about three-quarters of its records at its shows, takes nothing for granted, he said.

“We’ve never been trendy,” said Quesada, a University of Texas at Austin graduate who began his professional life as a graphic designer. “When we first started we had not planned it out beyond playing gigs, getting drunk and making a little money, and then doing it again next weekend. But what we ended up creating was something new and special, and we could not really imagine that 10 years down the road we’d have this success.”

Cathy Ragland, an ethnomusicologist at University of Texas Pan American and an expert on border music, said she hears various influences in the band’s pan-Latin sound, from cumbia mixed with deep funk to salsa with a reggae bass drop. She includes Grupo Fantasma in a wave of border bands with U.S. born players, including non-Latinos, who have been influenced by Mexican cumbia DJs in clubs frequented by immigrants.

Quesada didn’t imagine as a kid growing up in Laredo, Texas, that he would make a career out of playing Latin music set to mostly Spanish lyrics, though like most of the band members he grew up near the border, had family in Mexico and was surrounded by Mexican music. Traditional Latin music was for his grandparents, he thought, but things changed when he got to college.

That’s when he began listening to Colombian cumbia big bands on the Discos Fuentes label, Fania Records salsa stars like Harlow and Willie Colon, and Latin rocker Carlos Santana, as well as ‘70s funk.

Grupo Fantasma formed out of two college bands and, with a base in the musical hotbed of Austin, began playing the city’s massive South by Southwest festival and public television’s Austin City Limits.

With a sound that defied category and a growing number of members who needed to make a living, the band knew it was taking a risk by ignoring interest from major labels and industry types who tried to steer them in a more commercial direction.

“Everyone said what we’re doing was wrong, we needed to do this or that, to make ourselves more contemporary, to add hip-hop or whatever, but we stuck to what we were doing and in the long run it paid off, though there were times we thought it might not,” Quesada said.

A fellow Austin band, Spoon, helped by putting the band’s horn section on its 2007 album “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.”

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