Monday, July 5, 2010

Grupo Fantasma's José Galeano, Man of Many Talents

Interview with José Galeano by Pablo E. Yglesias
Photos © 2010 by Mark Mantegna

© 2010 Bongohead Productions – Text and images used by permission.

A few months ago I got in touch with José Galeano - timbalero, composer, vocalist - and we chatted a bit about the new Fantasma album and got into a bit of history and philosophy. If you are interested in this great band, you will most definitely want to find out about Mr. Galeano. Having contributed writing credits to four tracks on El Existential, as well as several memorable cuts on albums past, and playing percussion and singing on many more, it's pretty clear that José is an integral member of the band and contributes to it's sound in a meaningful way. On stage, José is often the guy you see front and center in the 'Tito Rodríguez role' as it were - being both a timbalero and vocalist - though it's his uncle, José "Chepito" Areas - famed member of the original Santana band - whose spirit seems to hold sway when things get cooking and Galeano lets fly with some mad drumming. But without further ado, let's have José share a little about himself, his roots, and his creative process.

Where did you grow up, and how did that influence you as far as music is concerned?

I was born in the capitol city of Managua, Nicaragua but lived in León, one hour and a half north of there. Growing up, I was lucky to hear and be exposed to all kinds of music. Mainly Afro-Caribbean sounds, but also lots of American music, Rock ‘n’ Roll, R&B, Blues, Big Band, Pop, and the rest of Latin America's different styles, from Folkloric to Brazilian. The mixture of all these types of music made a giant impression on me because now I apply the different ideas from all those influences, and I try to draw from all of them to create a special hybrid kind of music. I think I'm doing that with Fantasma.

Yes, I think you are, and very successfully José. So do you like rock influences in tropical music then?

I think that today as musicians/composers, we have to reach out to anything that is going to make our music hip and appealing to our audience, and since I do like Rock ‘n’ Roll, I’ve applied that element to my music with Fantasma. It certainly works. You'll hear that element in some of the songs from our past albums as well as some of the compositions on our brand new album.

How did you meet the members of Fantasma and how did you get involved with them?

I was introduced to Grupo by an ex-member of the band. At that time I knew him from playing around town with different salsa bands and Fantasma needed a conga player. He invited to play with them, and I did check it out, and I thought I could bring my ideas to the band. I was lucky that the everyone was receptive to them and the rest, as they say, is history.

What are your biggest influences, musically speaking?

My biggest musical influences have been bands like: Santana, Led Zeppelin, Earth, Wind and Fire, plus Fania Records and their individual stars, as well as lots of R&B artists, and anything that has been well written, really.

What is your favorite instrument?

I’m a percussionist, and that means I’ve embarked on playing lots of different instruments in my career that I enjoy. But I would have to say my favorite one would be the timbales. My uncle, José “Chepito” Areas, percussionist for Santana [in the early years], I would say, is responsible for my choice.

(L to R) Carlos Santana, Jose "Chepito" Areas, and Michael Carabello at Woodstock

Yes, you mentioned he gave you lessons in addition to inspiration; you share a first name as well as an instrument in common with Chepito! He is an amazing musician, and I'm told that like Tito Puente, he is a great arranger and was responsible for a lot of those early Santana arrangements. I can see him there on the back of the first Santana album, playing trumpet and wearing a hair net! On the second album he contributed "Se Acabó" and the tune "El Nicoya' which means "The Nicaraguan" - a referenece to your home country. The main difference between you and him perhaps is that Chepito is not known as a vocalist, though he did some singing on his solo album from back in the day (reissue that one please, Colombia Records!). And speaking of vocals, talk about how you share the mic with Kino - do you do backing vocals (called "coros" in Spanish) for each other only? Or do you share leads on any songs? Who decides which vocalist will sing lead on a song?

We do a lot of background vocals for one another and we do split the lead singing, although I think Kino is singing more lead vocals now, especially in the new album, after all, he is the singer/percussion player. I'm the timbalero and percussionist-singer, so if I bring a tune to the band, I usually sing it, but sometimes if I think a song is more appropriate for Kino's voice, then he sings it. For the most part, he's the lead vocalist.

I see you share credits for the lyrics in "Montañozo" so you must collaborate some. How do you work on the vocals when you record - do you make it up on the spot in the studio or do you practice it and work it out with the musicians first?

It goes both ways, sometimes lyrics are done beforehand and sometimes lyrics are done on the spot. A lot of times the music is created first, then we go home and think about the topic and we write lyrics accordingly.

Do you write music or lyrics?

I do both. When I bring a song to the band, I have everything done, lyrics and music. I like to have all of it finished. It's a challenge for me and I've been doing it for a while now.

Yes I see that from the credits on the new album. So what are your themes?

My themes revolve around two things: Women and Food (usually but not always).

Do you consider yourself political or socially committed?

I would say I'm on the social side of my lyrics, yes. Once in a while I'll write something semi-political. Honestly, politics is not my thing (or theme). There are plenty of writers doing that in the world. Maybe, as I get older, I might venture into that arena.

Is romance (emotions, relationships, sex, obsessions, love) a big part of your lyrical theme?

Some of my lyrics are romantically “charged”. Like I said, I've been known to write about women I like or love. It's inevitable....

Where does your inspiration come from?

I believe my inspiration comes from all of the experiences and different styles of music that I've been exposed to in the past: my family, my relationships, all of the amazing musicians that have made an impact in my life. I'm so thankful for all of it. Thank you, God!

Do you think the new album is dark? Please explain...

I would not necessarily call it “dark”. If you listened to the lyrics, a lot of it is “positive, deep, personally meaningful, encouraging” themes. For me, it's a “bright” album/CD.

What was it like to work on the album in a rented house?

It was a great idea to record in a “studio/house”. It gave us the opportunity to be more creative individually and as a band. We did not have to worry about time too much. We also did not depend on “outside” help, we did it all ourselves.

What does your family think of Fantasma?

My Family is very supportive and happy for me. They think it is wonderful that I'm doing what I love doing. They enjoy the “Fantasma sound”....

Is music an obsession, or is it just for fun?

I believe that because is so personal for me, I have an obsession w/my music. I try to better myself and the music I create, constantly. What can you do as an artist to make an improved product? That's my challenge... And If you do that, the music should be super fun to play.

Well it's super fun to listen to, and the fans thank you for your contributions, José. We'll be looking forward to seeing you and the rest of the guys soon in concert!

Thanks, Pablo!