The 'Matli Crew

Cultural diversity flavors Ozomatli's world-punk stew.

Ozomatli: Punk enough to not give a fuck.
Ozomatli: Punk enough to not give a fuck.
East Los Angeles is an amalgam of Latinos, African Americans, and a plethora of other nationalities who struggle to survive in the shadows of the cosmopolitan skyscrapers of downtown L.A. Ridden with gang fights, drug deals, and abject poverty, the city also boasts a growing number of people who, despite their cultural differences, are coming together to make their community a better place to live. The multicultural troupe Ozomatli (the Aztec word for "God of the dance") has emerged out of this environment. With members of Japanese, Jewish, African American, and Latino heritage, this 10-piece group from the barrio melds Afro-Cuban, Asian, Caribbean, Latin, and American folk influences to produce a mixture of styles -- cumbia, ranchera, meringue, hip-hop, jazz, and samba. Like the city of Los Angeles, Ozomatli, which started five years ago when the group played at a protest rally, is a melting pot representative of American society in the new millennium.

"In this city, you see a lot of things, and you experience a lot of things, because there are so many cultures," says singer-guitarist Raul Pacheco. "You can get any kind of food or any kind of different cultural experiences very easy, but you also recognize the separation, the distance between them. So, it's a real strange dichotomy, being in this huge city, with people trying to survive. It was funny, because I remember growing up and reading the newspaper and only reading things about where I grew up, about like a gang member or how a family got shot, and I had hardly ever experienced that growing up. And I grew up in a very rough neighborhood in East L.A. It's very strange that this outside perception of who I am is so different from my daily experiences and what I normally see."

Upon first listen, Ozomatli's 1998 self-titled debut, which features a salsa beat running through all the songs, doesn't sound too far removed from what you might expect to hear playing at a Mexican restaurant. But by including rapping and hip-hop beats, the band combines traditional melodies with synthetic ones in innovative ways.

"It's a real mix," says Pacheco in reference to the group's unique sound. "We're very open to all of the things that we hear. Everyone is completely into different kinds of music, so our sound evolved by being very open to everyone. The reason our record sounds so eclectic is that everyone contributed. [Percussionist] Jiro [Yamaguchi] has a degree in Indian classical music -- how many people have that? A lot of the horn players were into jazz, but also into salsa music. I was into a lot of folk music from Mexico and South America, and we all had a love for hip-hop. I think our best songs are the ones where everyone has a big piece. Sometimes we say it's "people music.'"

Ozomatli's music is only upbeat and peaceful on the surface; the band shares its political beliefs with harder-edged groups, such as Rage Against the Machine. In fact, founding member Pacheco left Sacramento State University a few credits short of a degree after interning as a political consultant. Original aspirations of a career in politics were dashed once he became disillusioned with the judicial system, a common theme in Ozomatli's songs.

"I was really interested in the formal side of politics," Pacheco explains. "It was just something I realized that I could not be a part of. To me, the whole way it's set up is kind of perverse in a lot of ways. The way things are presented to people who vote . . . it's more presented like the information you receive about candidates or just about issues; they're just so skewed in terms of what they really mean. And these people know what they really mean and what they're really trying to get out of it. They present it in a way that is very unfair to people. I just felt like I couldn't be a part of that. I realized that playing music was the thing that always made me happy, so I just committed myself to making it as a musician. I felt like I could still be active and be some kind of positive force in peoples' lives without having to do it in a way that I felt uncomfortable with."

A perfect example of Ozomatli's politics comes through in the track "Aqui No Sera (It Will Not Happen Here)," an El Salvadorian folk song about the Central American civil war in the mid-'80s. Traditionally uptempo, Ozomatli reworked it into a moody, funky number, making the original barely recognizable.

What makes Ozomatli's success so extraordinary is that only a few years ago its debut could be found in the world music section of your favorite record store. Today, it's classified as alternative rock, which, given the group's young fan base, is a more fitting category. Ozomatli has toured with a variety of groups, with backgrounds that include punk (the Offspring), Latin (Santana), rock (Lenny Kravitz), and swing (the Cherry Poppin' Daddies), and even the Los Angeles alternative station KROQ added the single "Como Ves" to its influential playlist.

Pacheco says work on a follow-up to the 1998 release has begun -- slowly. The first album was written out of live jams that emerged from Ozomatli's early club shows, and the band is going through a difficult metamorphosis of learning how to write in the studio. There's also some question as to which members will remain in the band for its second album. Most notably, DJ Cut Chemist and rapper Charli 2NA (both of whom play in the hip-hop group Jurassic 5) won't be touring this summer and may or may not appear on the second album.

"I think we're a live band, and we're learning how to become recording artists," Pacheco says. "We're learning all the facets of what it takes to represent and express yourself in this business. It's a struggle."

One struggle has been winning over fans not used to hearing world music mixed with hip-hop and alternative rock. When Ozomatli played with the Offspring in Cleveland in the winter of 1998, it didn't go over well with the punk/hard rock fans who filled the Cleveland Convention Center. Like a train wreck in reverse, their salsa style and laid-back approach fell on deaf ears.

"That was the roughest show, just because of the nature of the Offspring; they were so different from us," says Pacheco. "I think it was a real challenge to a lot of people. These kids coming out and seeing salsa music and rap together with reggae in Spanish. But that's what we're about.

"Now, we have a lot of fans who are like "You know, you really got me into a lot of things,'" he continues. "For us, that's kind of what it's about. There's a lot of things to learn from everybody. And I feel like the fear and the disinterest may be totally even unconscious at times -- [people think] "Just because it sounds so different, I'm not suppose to explore it.' We just do our thing, and that tour was a trip, because a lot of times we got booed and got shit thrown at us. But we're also punk rock enough that we didn't give a fuck."