The eclectic band Ozomatli have traveled from Los Angeles around the world, winning 3 Grammys for their deverse sound. With a mix from rock to reggae to salsa this group doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. They are currently working on oZoKidZ for children, followed by a book, DVD, and tour. Gozamos went backstage before their recent show at the Congress to get the real story from Raul Pacheco.
Gozamos: Hi, Raul. That was a loud sound check. Welcome to the Congress Theatre!
Raul Pacheco: Thank you. It isn’t really built for live audio, maybe built for acoustic, we will be fine. It is a beautiful place.
Where are you from?
RP: Los Angeles. I was born there and my parents were also. My grandfather was from northern Mexico. My grandmother was born in Tucson and my other grandparents were born in the States. I consider myself Mexican but I have been in LA with my family for quite some time. There are lot of Mexicanos that didn’t grow up in Mexico but people tend to forget that somehow (laughs) but whatever.
How did the band all come together?
RP: We all knew each other as musicians in LA and there was the bass player who is still in the band, Wil, and our original drummer, Anton, were working for a group that went on strike. It started a whole young movement of activists at the time. They asked us to come play for it and we did so we supported it that way. That is how it all started. We kept playing at events. I think that was a part of our personal characteristic to support movements that we agreed with. Many musicians don’t think you can do that but music can really bring people together. There was a reason to charge money for these fundraisers. We would donate our services and I think the eclecticism came out of us all getting together and asking what the other one knew. We all knew something different. Each person would adjust and learn it the best we could to perform it.
How many members in the band currently?
RP: There are seven. This is the smallest it has ever been.
Do you like a bigger band or smaller?
RP: It’s all good. I like big bands just because I like playing with people so it becomes a monster when there are fifteen people onstage but it is fun. Either way we jump around a lot so we need the room. It all works out.
The name Ozomatli is from an Aztec sign?
RP: Yes, it is a symbol on the Aztec calendar. It is a little monkey. It represents movement and passion. That monkey is supposedly the orchestrator of the jungle so it all seemed appropriate at the time. I don’t think any of us thought it would go this far so maybe we should have picked a name that was easier for people to say.
You , sing and play guitar but what is a tres?
RP: Tres is a Cuban instrument. I play it very nontraditionally, primarily because I am not from Cuba or Cuban descent. I do as best as I can on it. I think it is a really beautiful and unique instrument. It is not played that often anymore outside of Cuba. In Cuba piano is probably still played more than tres. It was from Spain and not sure how it was played before. It came to Cuba from Spanish people. I think the slaves got a hold of it and applied it to music called Changui, which is native African music. Most of those people are situated in the mountains of Cuba called Oriente. Once the popular culture in Cuba started happening in the 1800s tres became a harmonic instrument. It is mixture of African, European and Cuban elements in the city of Santiago the tres has been developed as an instrument. There are not a lot of people who play it. I had a Chicano make it for me so I am a Chicano playing a Chicano tres. I don’t know how to play Cuban tres very well. I am making it work however I can (laughs). That is kind of what we do.
Then there is this jarana instrument that I read you play also.
RP: That is a guitar from Veracruz, which is a unique instrument too. I am not playing it tonight. It is small and has eight strings. It is a small instrument and it is punchy. It has a broad tonal spectrum. Traditionally it is played with many people at once. You don’t have to, you can play by yourself but it is based on an African tradition and because it was based on the eastern seaboard of Mexico where people get together have call and response songs. You can go to parties where there are twenty people playing that way.
That sounds fun.
RP: It is overwhelmingly beautiful.
In Madagascar you were almost electrocuted recently. What happened?
RP: It is common because there are so many powering in a stage setup that there is electricity everywhere. Microphones are open-ended electrical items. They are not usually pumping that much wattage. In downtown Madagascar I think the whole system was plugged directly into the power line. What happens is when there is too much juice in those open ends start to project out. There must be some threshold where they project it and are looking to close it. I became the ground at the moment. It was serious. I flailed around stage.
Oh no! Plus you are in a foreign country so maybe hard to get to a hospital. How was the medical assistance over there?
RP: I said, “Take me to the rich person hospital!” It was like a1950’s France country hospital. But I was okay and survived.
I am glad you are okay. This all inspired a song.
RP: Yes, we are playing that song today. It is called “ Malagasy Shock.”
Are you telling the story about it?
RP: I don’t but maybe I should tonight. It is one of those songs about taking a stance, making choices and moving forward because you never know what is going to happen.
The experience probably changed you in some ways…
RP: In some ways, yeah.
DJ Cut Chemist was in the band before.
RP: Yes, he was with us from the very beginning. Him and Charlie who was our very first emcee made a band called Jurassic 5. The band was falling apart at the time and they had been in it for years and our band was taking off so they joined us and made a record together. Their EP blew up in England and gave them the momentum to reform and focus on that. I think that was their original love. So we all understood that was something they needed to do.
So no hard feelings?
RP: No, we are still friends. We still write and do dates when we can. Everyone is working.
That’s good. The newest album is called Fire Away and you have a song called “Gay Vatos in Love.” Where did that track come from?
RP: When Prop 8 was happening in California we didn’t agree with it and we were asking why we didn’t get to play at those rallies. We support gay and lesbian issues. For us it was an extension in general of what we believe, which is that people should be able to do what they want. We don’t agree that people should be able to shoot whomever they want but we feel people should be able to express themselves in the way they want. That was something that was going on. Asdru, the other singer, was writing a song for a movie that was derived from a play about cholo, a hardcore gangbanger, who was in jail and gay. It is a whole scenario that he has to deal with. There’s style of music in the 50s and 60s that is still very popular with certain sections of our community. It’s campy and referred to as oldies and that was the chorus. When we got together to make the record we just played each other our ideas. For us it started a real conversation about how we really felt about those issues. What it meant to us as a band of humans and how to tackle it in a way that was not heavy handed. It created a lot of debate and it was difficult to write lyrics that were smart, clever and creative, not campy or funny. When we played that song when it first came out there was an aspect that people weren’t totally understanding where we were coming from because we are a bunch of straight guys playing this gay song. We felt it was an extension of what our beliefs are. I think it actually came out really well.
You all just played at South by Southwest.
RP: Yes, we did. We played a bunch of shows. For a band that has been around sixteen years you have to have a reason to play in a place like that so we were promoting our new kids record that we are making. We were invited for a gig that wasn’t associated for the festival so we did a bunch of work there to stay in the loop. The nature of that whole festival has changed. It used to be for breakthrough bands and it still has that but now there are established artists that go there. The music business has changed so much. It is almost like branding it as a product. To survive as a musician I think you have to make those choices.
For the future you have a DVD coming out?
RP: Yes, we just finished the kids record and then were offered to do a video game for Happy Feet 2. The funny thing is that video games are still big business. The budget for us making the video game was more for us than our last two CDs combined. We thought, “How can we not do this?” It was actually a lot of fun. The song we were rehearsing with we came up with a video and liked it enough to play in our own sets. We were hired as composers and trying it. That was real good entryway and we were hired to another one. It is being open to all different kinds of media, not just playing live and not just your own music. We have to survive as musicians with a decent amount of dignity.
What is this children’s album going to be like?
RP: We don’t know yet. We started songs and we have played some shows. We will probably get back to it in a couple of months. It will hopefully come out the beginning of next year. Then we have to come up with our own stuff again.
You are on the soundtrack for a movie called A Better Life.
RP: Yes, we were approached by this great director name Chris Weitz. He did some really big pop films and this was his labor of love. It is about the immigrant experience. At first we were questionable because the main character, he is a brilliant actor named Demian Bichir who was in the movie Che, plays a gardener. It turns out to be much more complex than another story about a Mexican gardener. I think he wanted people to not see immigrants as one-dimensional. This father wants the best for his kid and the hardships he has to endure. We signed on and made a song that they really loved.
Where are you going next on this tour?
RP: We are driving tonight to Arkansas to play a hippie festival called Wakarusa. We will be there for a couple of days getting dirty!
So Ozomatli is always adapting to different crowds.
RP: It’s funny and cool that we can do that. We have played with legendary salsa bands Willie Colon and then reggae festivals and punk rock shows. We do it all. I don’t think there is another band that can actually do that. We make the music we want to make and have a lot of incredible experiences.
Follow more Ozo click on http://www.ozomatli.com.