By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Crafting one of the more original and eclectic sounds to emerge from Los Angeles in recent decades, global groove juggernaut Ozomatli has been igniting dance floors with its mix of Latin, hip hop, rock and funk for over two decades. Founded in 1995 after the members met while trying to establish a workers union, Ozomatli aimed to draw on multiple aspects of the diverse culture of its hometown in creating its unique genre-busting style. While there has been significant turnover in the group’s membership over the years, six core players — guitarist Raúl Pacheco, bassist Wil-Dog Abers, percussionists Justin Porée and Jiro Yamaguchi, trumpet player Asdrubal Sierra and saxophonist/keyboard player Ulises Bella — have been constants throughout Ozomatli’s history.
After honing it’s material and celebratory live performance that frequently featured the band marching through audiences while chanting and playing percussion instruments in California clubs, the group released it’s self-titled debut album on Almo Sounds in 1998. It was that line-up of the group with two members of rising LA hip-hop act Jurassic 5 (rapper Chali 2na and turntable wizard Cut Chemist) that helped establish Ozomatli as a powerhouse stage group.
Songs like “Cut Chemist Suite” and “Super Bowl Sundae” became fan favorites and garnered some radio and video airplay, while dates supporting iconic Latin-rock band introduced the group to a more mainstream audience. By the time Ozomatli had issued its sophomore effort Embrace the Chaos on the unfortunate release date of September 11, 2001, the rapper and DJ had moved on to focus their attention on Jurassic 5 (though Chali 2na and Cut Chemist have reunited with the band onstage and in the studio since then).
Ozomatli would continue its tradition of progressive politics with it’s outspoken opposition to the subsequent war in Iraq. The band’s line-up expanded to ten members for a time with the addition of trombonist Sheffer Bruton, drummer Mario Calire, new MC Jabu Smith-Freeman and replacement turntablist DJ Spinobi. Their follow-up album Street Signs in 2004 earned the group it’s first Grammy Award for best Latin Rock/Alternative Album as well as the band’s first Latin Grammy as they introduced more global elements to their sound. Two years later, Ozomatli became official cultural ambassadors for the U.S. State Department, further expanding the members’ collective horizon with a series of sponsored international tours that spanned the globe.
By 2010, Ozomatli had introduced a more stripped-down line-up and started exploring other avenues including a children’s album Ozomatli Presents Ozokidz (an effort that mirrored the group’s regular family matinee shows offering discounted admission for children), soundtrack work for film, video games and television (they served as the house band for comedian Gabriel Iglesias on his show Standup Revolution) and giving the first ever TED Talk involving a musical group in San Francisco.
For the band’s latest effort Nonstop: Mexico to Jamaica, Ozomatli has teamed with legendary reggae producers Sly and Robbie to dramatically recast a wide array of songs from Mexico with a distinctly Jamaican flavor. Material ranges from traditional standards (“Besame Mucho,” “Volver Volver”) to more modern tunes (Cafe Tacvba’s “Eres” and Selena’s “Como La Flor”) to a trio of songs that will be more familiar to non-Spanish speakers (Santana-via-Willie Bobo hit “Evil Ways,” Redbone’s smash “Come and Get Your Love” and the ’60s garage-soul favorite “Land of 1,000 Dances”). Guests on the album include American jazz/pop trumpet legend Heb Alpert, Mexican rockers Juanes, funky modern bluesman G. Love and returning rapper Chali 2na.
CBS SF recently spoke with guitarist and founding member Raúl Pacheco about how the band came up with the songs covered on the new recording ahead of Ozomatli’s upcoming performances this weekend at the New Parish in Oakland and the Mystic Theatre in Petaluma.
CBS SF: Did you know going into making the album that you were going to be drawing from such a broad range of Mexican songs from traditional to modern?
Raúl Pacheco: Yeah, I think that was the concept Justin [Poree, percussionist and rapper] had. He asked us what our favorites songs or most popular songs were, and between us all that was a large group. We kept brainstorming that, and from there we make like 20 something demos and then kind of whittled it down with the help of Sly and Robbie.
But we did figure over 100 years, we wanted to make a really broad range of music both in terms of the time period of the Mexican songs, but also in terms of Jamaican music in general. We’re referencing ska to one drop to reggae to more electronic styles of Jamaican music that are more modern. So we viewed it as this expansive history of both regions.
CBS SF: How hard was it to narrow down your choices?
Raúl Pacheco: It was hard. People just kept naming things. But it was between us and the help of Sly and Robbie that we figured out which ones were working as songs in terms of the way we decided to present them. So it was a combination of those things.
CBS SF: Did you plan from the outset to work with Sly and Robbie?
Raúl Pacheco: We had worked with them on a song on their last record [The Reggae Power 2 from 2015] that was called “Affinity” that was kind of the single for that. So we already had a relationship with them. When the idea came up, we went straight to them thinking, ‘Well, if they’re into this, that would really make it cool.’
Because us doing a record like that, there were some questions about it. Not all of us were totally convinced it was something necessarily worth doing. But when they came on board, then everybody automatically said ‘Yes!” Because I think just the opportunity to have some kind of interaction with them was something that got people really excited.
CBS SF: Was the collaboration on “Affinity” a file-swapping scenario or were you were actually in the studio with them?
Raúl Pacheco: It was the same [as Nonstop Mexico to Jamaica]. It was a lot of computer work and being on the phone and talking to the engineer and talking to them and kind of letting them do their thing. We turned in all those demos and we just let them tweak them and play on them and do different things.
So then we just edited and made sure that everything was cool and that was it. It was pretty cool. Everyone was super straight forward. For us to have that kind of authenticity on this record was really important to us.
CBS SF: So this album was more of a remote situation? Was there any point where you got together in the studio with them in person?
Raúl Pacheco: No, we didn’t go into Miami, where they work out of. And they were in LA, they were working on other stuff. So it was actually easier for them to tell us, “Hey, make these tracks. We’re going to do this to them and we’re going to play on this. We want you to check this out.” So we had those kind of exchanges.
CBS SF: Given that you started with a larger number of songs that you narrowed down, do you feel like there were enough ideas you might do a second volume?
Raúl Pacheco: I don’t know. We’re already writing the music for our next record. It’s all original, funk-based music, and that means different things to us. The concept that we did like with this record that we feel could possibly carry on to the next record it that there is at least a general genre. We’ll go through all these different types of music on one recording, but what we’re finding is that we would like to probably explore a genre with a little more focus.
That was something we did on this record that we liked. So will the next record be an all funk record that references the ’70s and ’80s or will it be different? Who knows. But generally, that’s what we’re doing. I don’t know if we’ll make another volume of this music, but we’ll probably let those songs be heard at some point.
CBS SF: How much of this album will you be playing live on the tour that’s coming to the Bay Area?
Raúl Pacheco: We’ll do at least a medley that includes five or six songs from the new record where we play them all in a row and kind of give a sampling. And then we’ll also play one or two songs in complete form. So it’s probably about a third of the show that features the new stuff.
CBS SF: As a Latin band that has always had a substantial hip-hop element to your sound, did you consider including any Latin hip-hop covers, either songs by Mexican hip-hop groups like Molotov or more Latin-influenced hip hop like Mellow Man Ace or Cypress Hill?
Raúl Pacheco: There were some of those songs, but they just didn’t make the cut. When we had done it all, these were the songs that seemed like they fit and did what we wanted them to do the most.
CBS SF: I was going to ask why you included “Land of a Thousand Dances,” but remembered there being some sort of Latin connection. Once I looked it up, I saw that both the Cannibal and the Headhunters and Thee Midniters from East LA had big hits with it…
Raúl Pacheco: Yeah, it was more of the Chicano connection. For us, Mexican music, there’s a history to it with the different regions and different kinds of styles. In our upbringing as Mexican Americans, those songs have a meaning for us. They’re kind of included in that. So that’s what it was about. We kind of extended it to that. It felt like it fit in on a certain level, so we just decided to do it. That’s why those songs are on there.
CBS SF: One song that doesn’t have a Latin connection that I’m aware of is Native American band Redbone’s hit “Come and Get Your Love.” How did that song end up on the album?
Raúl Pacheco: Actually, those guys are Mexican American too.
CBS SF: Oh really? I didn’t know that. Ozomatli has never shied away from political messages, but this collection of covers seems to step away from that at a time when things have never been more political in America. Was there any thought to trying to inject more of a political element in the record?
Raúl Pacheco: We felt that this was a record where most of the songs were in Spanish. With all of the talk of cultural borders and compartmentalizing today, we felt we’re going to be very proud and play these Mexican songs in Spanish. For us, I think it was a cultural act. There is all this talk about immigration, but here is a slew of songs that generally are from Mexicans. And some of them are known the world over, like “Besame Mucho.” That’s one of the most translated songs.
So we made this statement, “Here is a country that has produced all of this music that we all can be proud of.” I think that’s kind of what it became. We saw the relevance in highlighting certain cultures that are not traditionally American. There are plenty of those cultures that have influenced this country with their communities. So it became an affirmation of all that.
CBS SF: Ozomatli has had a turnover of members, but you’ve always maintained the current core of six members. Is there any secret to getting along over 20 years after first coming together?
Raúl Pacheco: I think the thing that has kept us together is that the band has become a conduit for our own personal desires to play music. And I think that has always been bigger than any kind of conflict we’ve had with one and other.
We’re had plenty of conflicts. We’re grown men, but we kind of grew up together. We went from being young to being family men and you learn as you go along how to interact with each other. Musicians have egos, especially when they’re younger I think; how do you satisfy that dynamic so it’s enjoyable? You have to work on all these basic things that are important in any relationship. I think that we’ve gotten through some really difficult moments with one and other. We’re adults and we’re generally pretty happy and we generally like what we’re doing. So I think we found a way to survive.