Throughout its existence, Ozomatli has been as committed to activism and culturally diverse communities as it has been to its stew of hip-hop, funk, rock, soul, reggae, New Orleans second line and various Latin and Middle Eastern grooves. Although based in Los Angeles, Ozomatli has maintained an ongoing relationship with Tucson and the music fans here.
"It was the first place we ever played in Arizona. We've played there almost every year. We've made a lot of friends there, and obviously, it's a cool city," said singer, multi-instrumentalist and frontman Raúl Pacheco during a recent phone interview.
So the Los Angeles-based band faced a conundrum when it voiced its support in 2010 for Sound Strike, the coalition of musicians opposed to Arizona's controversial immigration law SB 1070. How could Ozomatli support causes it cares about in Tucson while other Sound Strike musicians were boycotting the state?
The members of Ozomatli—which formed to play a benefit for a Los Angeles community center 17 years ago—decided they would play in Arizona, but only when they could align themselves with worthy causes, and allow those causes and the organizations behind them to benefit.
"Like a lot of artists, we were really trying to support what we felt was valid opposition to an unreasonable law," Pacheco said. "We support other artists' right to boycott the state, or protest through whatever method they choose. We respect the views and methods of those artists, but we also want to pursue proactive ways to support causes we care about."
One of those causes is the Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding, formed as a response to the mass shootings in Tucson on Jan. 8, 2011. Ozomatli played an exciting set of Latin hip hop at an all-star fundraising concert for the organization on March 10 of last year at the Tucson Convention Center Arena. The band also contributed a song to Luz de Vida: A Compilation to Benefit the Victims of the Tucson Tragedy, released in October. Proceeds from the compilation benefit the Tucson Together Fund, established to assist victims, families and witnesses affected by the shootings.
Pacheco said the band feels strongly about many issues and its responsibility to speak out. "We would never come to Tucson or Arizona without mentioning our feelings on these issues. For me, it's more of a statement of respect. To play in Arizona and not talk about this or just ignore it, that would be cheap."
Another issue about which Ozomatli feels strongly is ethnic studies, and the efforts by Arizona's superintendent of schools to end the Mexican-American studies program in the Tucson Unified School District. The TUSD board voted in January to immediately suspend much of the program rather than lose up to $15 million in state funding.
So the band is visiting Tucson for a concert—this Saturday night at the Rialto Theatre—to help raise money and support the Acosta plaintiffs, a group of TUSD teachers suing the state to oppose the closure of Mexican-American studies.
"Part of what we have always been about is helping and encouraging things we believe in. We're making sure our costs are covered, and beyond that, we're hoping to give this money to the plaintiffs to ensure they have fair and adequate legal counsel."
In addition to its activism, Ozomatli has many projects in the works—including a musical, the writing of which recently began.
"It's loosely based on our personal experiences," Pacheco said. "It's a really challenging process in the beginning, to be honest and try to find some songs that make a storyline. ... We've gone through a lot of musicians and friends and members as a group. We hope that will translate into a successful piece."
Pacheco said he and the other band members are committed to the intense work necessary to create a bona fide musical, but he can't say when its curtain will rise. "It's a long process. At minimum, it'll take years for it to make it to the stage. We'll see what turns out. It's a first for all of us."
He also said a new album, the follow-up to the band's last record, 2010's Fire Away, is nearly finished, and may be out by the summer. They've also contributed a song to a forthcoming tribute album to Woody Guthrie that will be released soon.
Before that, though, Ozomatli will release a kids' album, another first for the band. Recorded under the project name Ozokidz, the album grew out the band's interest in making music for children. Its work initially manifested in a soundtrack for Happy Feet Two: The Videogame and four delightful songs on last year's PBS Kids Rocks! album: "Opposable Thumbs," "Five Senses," "Practice" and "Pronouns."
Pacheco said the members of Ozomatli started playing the occasional concert for kids and families—and writing material appropriate to such a performance—when they began regularly hearing protests from fans such as, "I would have come to your guys' gig, but I couldn't find a baby sitter."
"So we thought, 'How can we adapt as our audience changes?' And it became this regular thing. At first, we just worked hard to not have it be too corny or patronizing, but pretty soon, it became something completely and purely joyful for us. Our first gig was at the Fillmore in San Francisco, if you can believe that, and it was sold out. It just felt like another way to create something cool and give something to the community."
But Ozomatli has never considered giving up making music for sophisticated tastes and about serious topics, he said.
"The trick we were aware of is: You need to keep those identities really separate. We don't want to become known as a kids' band, because there are issues we want to address. The whole thing, though, has turned out fine, and has really been a way to reach out more."