The founding members of Ozomatli met at a Los Angeles rally for workers’ rights in 1995; appropriate since the band seems to be almost as well-known for their politics as for their music. They were one of many bands to boycott the state of Arizona when SB1070 reared its ugly head in 2010 (a controversial decision the band still attributes to the legislation itself) and have been regulars on the protest and charity scene from the beginning.
Back then, while Ozo’s core lineup was just playing shows to raise money for an L.A. community collective dubbed the “Peace and Justice Center”, none involved had any idea that the genre-bending band that eventually took shape would grow to become the cultural force that it is today. Almost two decades and eight full-length albums later (the most recent of which, Place in the Sun, was released by Vanguard Records on March 11) the group’s unique mix of Latin, hip-hop, rock, reggae, and world music continues to make fans worldwide jump and scream and move their bodies ‘til they hurt. And the party comes to Tucson’s own Fox Theatre tonight as Ozomatli kicks off their 2014 tour with us here in the desert.
Says Ozo guitarist, vocalist, and composer Raul Pacheco about the new album and upcoming show at the Fox, “We’ve always been a dance-oriented band, and on this record there are a lot of songs that you can really move to. That’s the basic celebration that we all love to participate in and love to share with people, and our shows are an extension of that.” And a celebration it is, indeed
Going to an Ozomatli show is a bit like visiting another dimension. Their sound transcends a generic description, and that sound—which was intended to showcase the many facets of their hometown music scene—has developed into one of the most fittingly representative voices of an increasingly diverse America.
In their tenure as East L.A.’S rock liaisons, Ozomatli has won two Grammys and a Latin Grammy. They performed with the Boston and New York Pops orchestras. They were the first American musicians to visit Myanmar (formerly Burma). They played for the current president at the 2009 Congressional Hispanic Caucus Gala in Washington, D.C., had a day named for them by the Mayor of L.A., and even served as Cultural Ambassadors for the U.S. State Department—a title somewhat ironically bestowed upon them during the administration of Bush II. When we asked about which of these accomplishments meant the most to him personally, Pacheco had a quick answer. “That we’ve stayed together for almost twenty years—I think that’s a huge accomplishment,” he says, adding that he’s hoping to keep it going even longer.
It’s true that Ozomatli’s lineup, save a few core members, has had a bit of a “revolving-door” policy, but there does not seem to be the same ex-member bitterness faced by other bands—a number of Ozo’s former band members still make the occasional guest appearance on tour. “I think having music, having causes, having a purpose together is what has kept us together, and I think continuing that will keep us together,” says Pacheco. Here’s hoping.
That’s not to say that the guys haven’t faced their rough patches together (the death of former founding member Jose “Crunchy” Espinosa in 2011; the murder conviction of former drummer William Jesus Maruffo in 2005), but through it all the band members that remain have grown together, both as a unit and as individuals. Many of them are family men now, meaning that they don’t stay out on the road quite as much as they used to. That fact also explains the Ozomatli Presents OzoKids album as well as their work on the soundtrack to Happy Feet Two: the Videogame, both of which likely caused eyebrows to raise amongst Ozo’s younger fans. But still, the optimistic and energetic spirit of their music remains unchanged.
Pacheco says their greatest challenge as a band has been “just learning how to deal with the reality of growing up and all that it entails.” He says this has meant “finding a space where (we) can still do good work together—make good music together, put on good shows—still care about what (we) do together. That’s the most important thing.”
The new album does not disappoint, except in that it may leave you wanting more. The toned-down rock and reggae grooves that define the title track and the album’s first single in “Brighter” (featuring legendary Eurythmic guitarist Dave Stewart) are pleasant diversions from the up-tempo dance tracks on which Ozomatli has built its reputation, but the band is still at its strongest while firing on all multicultural cylinders. It is more-or-less that old school Ozomatli feel that dominates the final eight tracks of Place in the Sun, with songs like the bouncy Norteño-inspired Paleta and the Latin hip-hop party anthem Echale Grito poised to become live show favorites.
Fans of the band are sure to be satisfied with Ozo’s seventh full-length studio effort, though newcomers looking for more material like “Brighter” may find themselves experiencing a bit of a culture shock after track two. And as for tonight's show at the Fox—let’s just hope nobody is actually hoping to use those assigned seats. Just try and sit through an entire Ozomatli show without standing to shake your derrierre—it simply can’t be done.