Back in January 2018, the Austin-based band Grupo Fantasma headed toward El Paso to record an album in a studio near the Rio Grande. The group settled in a high-desert destination studio in a Texas town called Tornillo.
“It was a magical place,” said Beto Martinez, Fantasma’s guitarist and one of its founding members.
The group found the studio and its surroundings serene, far away from the mad happenings. But that magical place was destroyed when reality invaded Fantasma’s space.
They discovered that Tornillo was where the Department of Homeland Security and a private prison firm erected a large tent city to house unaccompanied Central American migrant children.
“To find out that they built this despicable camp, it angered us. We had to say something about that,” Martinez said in a recent telephone interview.
That statement became “The Wall,” a politically charged song from the group’s latest release, “American Music: Vol. 7” on Blue Corn Music. What started out as a funky instrumental evolved into a funk-rap collaboration with bilingual bands Locos por Juana from Miami and Ozomatli from Los Angeles. The track pushes back on the xenophobic narrative that migrants are murderers and rapists.
“We didn’t set out to do a political album. Music should be escapism. But we’re living in a complicated time, to put it in a gentle way,” said Martinez who, along with other original members of Fantasma, grew up in the Texas border town of Laredo.
Fantasma returns to Tucson for a gig at 191 Toole Friday, May 3, on the heels of the release of its seventh studio album — its first in five years. The new recording is full of the group’s swinging cumbias, salsa-tinged south-Texas funk and its rock roots. While one of the group’s founders, Adrian Quezada, is absent from the new album, Fantasma took on Colombian Carlos Bedoya from Miami as producer and sound engineer. He expanded the group’s sound and gave the cumbias a bit more authenticity, said Martinez.
Initially the idea of bringing Bedoya on board gave Martinez some pause.
“I was like nervous … this guy is big-time,” Martinez said. But the new producer and Fantasma clicked. “He knew where we were coming from. He brought his understanding of the cumbia colombiana.”