I first saw Los Angeles band, Ozomatli, 12 years ago in 2004. I danced my ass off and went home with the most elated, happy feeling; thinking about it still brings a smile to my face over a decade later. I’ve been lucky enough to see them many times since, they’re always a fun, great time. Ozo guitarist, Raúl Pacheco, and I spoke recently about their super exciting new record produced by Sly & Robbie! And, about the wonderful work the band does in the community. I LOVE Ozomatli!
Ozomatli have been in the studio recording “NONSTOP: LA → MEXICO → JAMAICA” an album of classic Mexican hits reimagined with a reggae feel; what inspired you guys to do this record?
RAÚL PACHECO: We needed to make a record, we didn’t have any new material ready, Justin [‘El Niño’ Porée] the percussionist, came up with the idea. One of the things that we wanted to do was make music that is one genre this time; usually we always go to so many different places on one record. We wanted to do something different that we’ve never done before. We picked Mexican songs that were old and new, we’ve never done a covers record. We thought it would be interesting, so we went for it. We would reference Jamaican songs that we liked with Mexican songs that we liked and come up with a hybrid. We’re all very happy with it. It’s fun, it feels good to play and people dance to it, it’s cool.
I’ve been hearing little sneak peeks of the record that you guys have been posting recently, it IS very cool. With this record you’re personalizing some songs that defined your youth; tell me a little about your youth.
RP: There’s a certain style, depending on your cultural experience of Los Angeles, you’re very familiar with… this city, there used to be natives here, then there were Spanish people, then it became Mexico and then it became part of the U.S. so there’s these cultural overlaps. There’s still a long-rooted Mexican heritage and history in this city. I grew up in a part of town where people were mostly of Mexican descent. There’s Mariachi songs that we all grew up with that we know, a song like ‘Volver, Volver’ they’re staples. There’s another style called Norteño which is from the northern border, that uses accordions, there’s a very famous song that everybody sings called ‘Tragos Amargos’—all the songs, we just grew up with them. They are all things that we are so familiar with, if you’re at a party or a wedding, a celebration, these songs get played no matter what. Our whole idea was, that they are so integrated into our experience, why don’t we just put a new twist on it and see what people think. It might make it interesting for someone that has never heard it, or definitely make it interesting for someone who has heard it and knows what it is.
I’m familiar with a lot of the songs that you do on the record ‘cause I grew up with them also, my grandfather being from Mexico. I love that Mexican songs and music embody, love, country, passion, history and legends, and that it talks about things like oppression as well, it’s incredibly beautiful.
RP: Yes, exactly.
How do you make someone else’s song your own?
RP: There’s definitely a little trick, you have to not be afraid. There’s a boundary, there’s a sweet spot between making it so different that it’s unrecognisable, ‘cause that’s not the point; you want it to be recognised but then you want to take some liberties with it, ‘cause you don’t want to regurgitate what’s happened already. We did a version of ‘La Bamba’ which so many people know that song in different ways; it’s traditionally from the eastern seaboard of Mexico, a style called, Jarocho, it was turned into a rock hit in the U.S. by Ritchie Valens in the ‘50s. Los Lobos had a hit with it when they were playing the music about him in the movie. Because so many people know that song in so many different forms, we thought, how do we take that and stay away from making it corny or similar. It ended up becoming this surfer-reggae kind of dance party jam! A guy from the band, Slightly Stoopid, sings on it. It feels really good in a way that totally surprised me. I think you need to be aware and keep the recognizable parts of these songs so they’re there, and then add something different for it to become a different thing.
That’s exciting. I love that song and Slightly Stoopid are great!
RP: I was very wary of the song because I thought it could turn out really corny but, I really think it’s great. It’s actually my favourite track.
You guys also do a Selena song! ‘Como La Flor’?
RP: Yeah. Her place in the south-west of the U.S. and even other parts of the world is so huge. She’s a prominent figure that represented a commonality that a lot of people resonate with, especially young women… even though she was a great singer and a superstar, she was very down-to-earth; she’s from a small town in Texas, a working-class girl. She’s such a huge figure we wanted to do the song that people in our community know. People outside of that know her too, because there was a movie about her.
That’s one of my favourites!
RP: Cool, you know it. We thought it’d be cool for us to take a chance on it and have a man sing it and play it in a one-drop style, slow, it keeps it romantic. It definitely has a groovier, slower vibe.
I grew up with all those kinds of movies you’ve mentioned, Selena, La Bamba, and others like Boulevard Nights…
RP: [Laughs] wow, that’s cool!
There’s another song on the record that you mentioned before called ‘Tragos Amargos’ by Ramón Ayala a legend of Norteño music…
RP: Ramón Ayala, I consider him to be one of the best songwriters out of that style of music. The history of Norteño music is very special. The way the music has evolved is so unique. There’s a whole German element to Mexican music, there were a lot of Germans that came to Mexico after World War II, World War I and even prior to that. Someone like Frida Kahlo, her father was German, there’s a German cultural connection to Mexico, there’s this style in Norteño where they almost use an oompa beat. They use an accordion, the guitars used are special to that region of Mexico. Ramón’s song writing is so great, the song is a lament about the love that he has, it’s just like sour barrels of liquor that used to be so tasty and made him dreamy but now, they’re just sour and wasted [laughs]. It’s highly dramatic, like a lot of these songs are. We made it into this whole kind of dubbed out version. A lot of these tracks… are you familiar with Sly & Robbie?
Absolutely! I love Sly & Robbie, one of the greatest Jamaican rhythm sections and production duos!
RP: They’re playing on it! They’re older guys and they were kind of like, this may be the last recording that we ever do. We were very happy and excited for them to be a part of this in any way.
What appealed to you about working with Sly & Robbie?
RP: For us, they are just legendary people, legendary musicians. I think that they add some kind of authenticity for us delving into this music. We love high level musicians, Sly & Robbie are responsible for so much Jamaican music that has been super influential. Just being in the circle and being on tracks with them meant so much to us.
How did you come to the decision to do these songs in a reggae style?
RP: Like we were talking about before, we wanted to make a record that was at least one style. We’re delving into different styles of reggae on this, like ‘50s ska to Lover’s Rock to electronic reggae, dancehall reggae, we put in all these things because that in itself, has its own revolution. We wanted to have one reference, is something we’re looking to doing more in the future. Instead of going from style to style so hard, at least just having some kind of centre that creates a unified sound. We still feel that we are committed to being a dance band and to making songs and music that get people moving. We like to do covers, but not in a normal way [laughs].
There’s some guest vocalists on the album like Charlie 2na from Jurassic 5!
RP: We do an American RnB hit ‘Land of 1000 Dances, but it was the first hit for this Chicano band, this Mexican-American band out of L.A. called, Cannibal and the Headhunters. The biggest version of it was done by Wilson Pickett. It’s famous for its chorus [sings] na na na na na, na na na na na, na na na na… so, there was this connection to Mexican-American culture that we thought was cool. We did want a few English songs on the record and we felt that was the way to do it, like having these, almost like the diaspora of Mexican culture. I sing on it, Justin raps on it, Charlie raps on it and G. Love is on that song also.
That’s cool. There’s the song ‘Come and Get Your Love’ by the band, Redbone, sung in English too, right?
RP: Yes, I sing that one. That was the same kind of thing, Redbone, was this Mexican and Native American band out of Central California. We paired it with a style that is known as Jawaiian. Have you ever been to Hawaii?
Yes. It’s wonderful, lots of great music.
RP: Then you know that they love reggae music.
RP: They kind of made their own style of it, its Jawaiian music. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard traditional Hawaiian music? It’s kind of slacky, low-key, very high, sweet singing, that kind of goes into some of the things that they’ve developed and that’s gone into more modern music—their love of Jamaican music has turned into Jawaiian. There’s whole radio stations devoted to Jawaiian music in Hawaii. It slower, it’s almost a little RnB, very sweet and gentle. We took the diaspora of these sources that we’re referencing in Jamaica and Mexico, we were like, what have they influenced? Why don’t we get those two ideas and meld them together. That’s how that song came about.
The more you tell me about the songs on the record the more excited I get for its release.
RP: Thank you. There was a deeper thinking about the songs, of what they mean to us and people within who recognise them and to the people that don’t recognise them. They’re all popular in their own way; a song like ‘Besame Mucho’ everybody knows. You don’t have to be Mexican to know it. We just try to twist them in little ways that give them a little spin to make them exciting. Often times, we’d get these songs and then we’d look for Jamaican classics and pair them up. We’d see if these melodies would fit over this vibe, which is what we do generally when we’re writing any way. We look at things in their own world, things that we like, beats, styles. It wasn’t so farfetched for us to be at least a little bit more focused in our cultural reference.
Looking into Jamaican music and working with Sly & Robbie was there anything you found to be super interesting about the music?
RP: Like any music, there is so much detail, there’s so much detail in different eras of music. In Jamaican music, ska is very different from Lover’s rock and very different from what became roots reggae which is very different from the early drum machine reggae music; English reggae music, bands like UB40 have a whole different take and interpretation on things too. It was eye-opening to sit in front of that and be like, whoa, there’s this whole history of this music from one place that. Like any music, because of technology, because of different things that they are influenced by, have developed and has changed over the years. That was really fascinating to understand and for each of us look at our instrument and be like, oh, it’s played like this in this style and played like that in that style. For us, we are always looking to learn things. It’s obvious when you think about it, that of course this music is going to develop over time, but when you really get in front of it and study it and you’re really looking for those specific cues, you’re looking for the depth that any particular music has; that in itself for us, as musicians, is very beautiful to sit and examine for a while.
When we show up to play music for you, you’re not supposed to think about how much work that we’ve put into it, of how many years we worked on our instruments, of how many shows we’ve played or how much we’ve practiced—you’re just supposed to go, be transformed and taken on this magic trip. That’s really what we are trying to do. I like the concept of building anything, any work that you do, and if you’re good at it in any way, you know that it takes time. You’ve studied, you’ve practiced and done an endless amount of things to get where you’re at with it. If you want to understand that, that’s cool but if you don’t, that’s cool too. When I walk into a gallery to look at a painting, I’m looking for that moment where they’re just really inspiring me or really moving me. When I want to get into the technical aspects of how the oils were used, the technique, there’s that, yes, but that’s not for everyone. I think that regardless of the work, the final product and that moment is magic! There’s a lot of work that goes into that magic, but in that moment that magic is a gift that just appears and then the song is over and it floats away.
I love that. I feel that way with my interview work.
RP: It’s great that you can bring a little more depth with what you do, more insight, more of the story behind things—that’s super cool.
Thank you. Ozomatli do a lot of work and good, positive things for the community, like self-defence seminars for women!
RP: Yeah! Ulises [Bella] the horn player is a Gracie jiu-jitsu black belt. He’s been studying it for 15 years. He came up with the idea, one of the instructors at the school said, ok man, I’ll be there! I think there is a deeper sense of giving and sharing in that community of just the basic skills. They’re not all about trying to take your money, there’s more of a humanitarian aspect to self-defence in general. When we brought the idea to his instructors they were totally for it. There’s this woman who is a highly respected jiu-jitsu instructor and fighter who used to be this big star in WWE in the States, like wrestling; she’s married to one of the Gracie’s who started that method of jiu-jitsu, organising the seminars—they’ve been highly successful. So many people show up and I hear nothing but beautiful things from it; there’s some people in class that just want to go and are like, whoa this is cool! Then there are some people that have real issues and been assaulted in some way, who this is a very healing and very powerful thing for them. All of these different women get to communicate – usually there is not any men involved, but only if it is ok with the women – to create a safe space for them and have them learn these basic techniques. It’s for different levels of learning, people that have been training and want to practice more, and the people who have never done it, get to be introduced to it and gain the physical aspects of what you need to do that. It’s a really cool thing!
That’s so awesome! It just makes me love you guys even more. What are some other things that are important to you?
RP: Right now, and over the past few years we’ve been super involved with immigration reform. With the kind of insane presidential elections that are happening now, I think for me personally, youth incarceration… there’s not a lot of opportunities for young people, especially if you don’t have any money, extra money to have extra things to do. Music for us, it’s all about music programs. There seems to be an intense propensity for certain communities to be subjected to imprisonment, incarceration. For young people to have limited choices is a travesty to us, it’s inhumane and it’s something we speak up about. It’s something that we are going to get more involved with, with policy work and people that are doing things, and try to bring more attention to that.
You did a project with Shawn King from band, Devotchka, which was spotlighting the kind of thing we’re talking about…
RP: Yes, that was actually specifically inspired by a group called, Los Dreamers, which were young people that were brought over the border when they were very young and came to this country and had to spend their whole life dealing with this situation, growing up feeling American, this whole cultural space that they grew up in but, not having the paperwork. They have to deal with that dichotomy within themselves as they grow up into young adulthood. There was a movement that they started here to try and find ways to pass U.S. citizenship, the record that we made, were really songs that highlighted some of those struggles; unique stories that we were very empathic towards, We’re really in support of these younger people finding ways to become citizens and to help them believe and overcome a lot of the daily issues and fears and limits that they may have in their daily lives.
For more OZOMATLI & info + order the new record.
Thu 27 October – The Metro Theatre, Sydney w/ The Kava Kings
Fri 28 October – Cambridge Hotel, Newcastle w/ Nick Saxon
Sat 29 October – Lost Lands Festival, Melbourne*
Sun 30 October – The Triffid, Brisbane
*Photos courtesy of Ozomatli’s IG; Ozo mixed media collage by me.