NORTENO EXPOSURE

Soaking up the Latino-music sounds at La Onda

Grupo Fantasia has evolved into a sextet: drums, percussion, electric bass, electric guitar and two keyboards, which blare, blat and whir synthetic chords and right-hand flourishes. If rock critics have a common nemesis, it's that sound: big, paddy -- think new-wavy -- shamelessly digitized, a polyester whine. That's the defining sound of much contemporary Mexican music, and Grupo Fantasia lays it on with a double attack. "That's pretty common now," Rivera says. "The banda bands, they have so many players, a lot of middles, and so having two keyboards lets a small band fill the middle parts. You can do the saxophones and trumpets like the banda groups." Lovers of North American soul music won't cotton to it -- at least not at first. We've been raised on the Hammond B-3, with its extended notes and modulating tone, its eerie reflection of the human voice. When Rivera and fellow keyboardist Benjamin Garcia bounce riffs off each other, their volume and tone are aggressive enough to keep the melodies riding over the double percussion and rowdy crowds, their accents simultaneously feeding on and urging the boxy dance rhythms. No one would mistake their keyboard sound, subtle as a semi's air horn, for a sax and trumpet section, but you wouldn't call it cheesy, either.

Matthew Mulcahy, owner of La Onda: "¨La onda' is Mexican slang. It literally means ¨radio wave,' but when people say ¨la onda,' it means the ambiance of something. If you say, ¨This is la onda,' it's like saying, ¨This is where things are happening.'"
Mark Gilliland
Matthew Mulcahy, owner of La Onda: "¨La onda' is Mexican slang. It literally means ¨radio wave,' but when people say ¨la onda,' it means the ambiance of something. If you say, ¨This is la onda,' it's like saying, ¨This is where things are happening.'"

Grupo Fantasia has seen members come and go, casualties of drinking, military call-ups -- during the Gulf War, Juan Rivera was sent to the desert; the band carried on using a drum machine -- and the law. They've played blood- letting dives in Alton -- in the '80s, the Mexican-music scene (such as it was) took root across the river -- weddings and parties. They're a great bar band with their psychedelic lights, speaker towers, fog machine and between-song banter, like the rap of all-night DJs spinning the latest Latin craze. Their sets include both originals and hits from hot Mexican bands like Los Tucanes de Tijuana, Grupo Primavera and Grupo Brindis; lots of ebullient cumbias, boleros, baladas; lots of requests for Selena. When they settle into a traditional ranchera, their three- and sometimes four-part harmony is as lonesome as bluegrass. On a popular romantica like "Necesito Decirte," bass player Juan Estrada wails on the swelling chorus, misses half the notes and finds an honest agony. Then percussionist and drummer swap places, guitarist Luis Miranda flings off a Chuck Berry lick and the band tears into a Spanish version of "Jailhouse Rock." Grupo Fantasia suddenly shifts into East LA garage mode, like the Blazers with organ lines; in a thrilling bit of reverse assimilation, a north of the border roots classic finds a south of the border frenzy. St. Louis isn't exactly known for Mexican music this effortless and dynamic, but Grupo Fantasia has been working on it for 16 years. "We play all different styles," Miranda says. "We try to draw people into the music."

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