Ozomatli Reimagine Classic Mexican Songs as Reggae Jams
The members of Ozomatli know firsthand that eradicating racism and creating social change for the world’s underdogs is not something that happens overnight. It’s also not something that can be done by marches and protests alone.
Over the last 22 years, L.A.’s most famous hip-hop–loving activist Latin funk band — whose members first convened while advocating for workers rights — have used a forward-thinking fusion of music to spread their message of universal love and positivity around the world, performing their upbeat tunes everywhere from Boise to Inglewood and Burma to Israel.
“Cultural shifts and perception shifts take a lifetime, which is hard to think about when we want that kind of change right now,” says Raul Pacheco, the band’s vocalist and guitarist. “I understand the push and necessity right now, but those long-term internal shifts where it becomes normal to think a different way — that takes lifetimes.”
Ozomatli have emerged as the elder statesmen of L.A.’s Latin alternative music scene, a community that’s rising onto the national radar this year thanks to a growing network of young Chicano artists (some of whom played Coachella’s new Sonora Stage) and a cadre of second generation–owned booking and management companies.
Even among the new generation of Latin alt, though, Ozomatli stands out. With members ranging from Mexican to Jewish to Japanese, the band have become a walking statement about the sonic possibilities when talented musicians open themselves to the musical traditions of cultures beyond their own.
The septet’s reputation as this socially conscious, genre-bending ode to L.A.’s multiculturalism began with their acclaimed 1998 self-titled debut (which featured original Spanish-language songs and rapping from Jurassic 5’s Chali 2na) and only grew through the subsequent six studio albums, which include 2004’s Grammy-winning Street Signs and a 2012 children’s album called Ozokids.
“We’ve always been about sharing the joy and making people dance, making people forget and giving them that release,” Pacheco says. “We’ve played for all kinds of people: young, old, all kinds of different colors. I’ve always been excited about that.”
After years of constant performing — including multiple government-sponsored international tours as cultural ambassadors with the U.S. State Department — Ozomatli decided to pull back from the grueling schedule and lie low, emerging for special events and composing songs for video games and films.
But that doesn’t mean they're moving away from their message of cultural unity or their goal of making people dance. Ozomatli continue to remain as relevant as ever, releasing Non-Stop: Mexico to Jamaica earlier this month, their first album in three years.
Non-Stop is a departure from previous records in that it has a very narrow focus — popular songs with Mexican connections covered by Ozomatli, reggae-style. In addition to featuring production from Jamaican music legends Sly & Robbie, it’s also the first time a majority of the songs are sung in Spanish, a choice particularly suited to the current political moment.
“With everything with Trump, we felt like this is a time to be proud of the particular art of what we represent. We want to wave those flags very high,” Pacheco says.
Even if massive social change doesn’t happen overnight, Ozomatli still see progress through their music. As an example of how this latest crop of songs is continuing to defy cultural barriers, saxophonist Ulises Bella cites a recent show in New Haven, Connecticut, where the older, mostly white audience spent the evening swaying to songs originally performed by Mexican artists such as Mana, Juan Gabriel and Juanes.
Toward the end of the evening, while the band was midway through a dub-inspired cover of “Besame Mucho,” Bella says he spotted a woman in the front row with eyes closed, hands clutched to her chest, singing along to the famous namesake refrain.
“It was crazy because everyone knows that melody and that’s essentially a microcosm of what Ozo is about,” he says. “It’s like our moments we’ve had in the Palestinian camps or in Mongolia. It’s that moment where human beings realize that all the things that divide us are illusionary in a lot of ways.”
“These barriers that divide us are fake,” Pacheco adds emphatically. “The idea of borders, the idea of a wall — they’re myths that are easily destroyed with some personal experience. Music is a great way to start to create that conversation.”
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