By Chase Kamp
Ozomatli guitarist and singer Raul Pacheco, asked over the phone about how his band manages to couch serious messages inside dance-ready songs, nicely sums up the band’s musical and political philosophy.
“We think our differences make the world richer,” he said.
The group approaches this quite literally: there isn’t a single body-rocking style that the L.A. sonic chameleons haven’t scoped in their 22 years and eight albums of exploration.
Their joyful live show, which arrived at Marquee Theater on March 29, can turn on a dime from sunny funk-pop to simmering cumbia to West Coast raprock, all in an inexhaustible spirit of celebration and empowerment.
But rather than their usual kaleidoscopic genrebending, Ozomalti’s newest studio album tries a more region-specific experiment, though it is no less impressive. Non-Stop: Mexico to Jamaica is a covers record of Spanish-language traditionals and hits, reframing Selena ballads and Chicano chart toppers in dub, ska and reggae riddims.
Percussionist and emcee Justin ‘El Niño’ Porée the came up with the concept and urged the band to cover their favorite songs, eventually forging a huge stack of demo recordings.
“Always the issue with us, because there’s so many of us and we like so many different things, is how we wrap it all together,” Pacheco said.
As a large band full of ideas, the process can be daunting. At first, Pacheco was hesitant to cover an omnipresent hit like Richie Valens’ “La Bamba”. “I just thought, ‘this song is kind of played out, there’s so many other versions of it,’” he said. “But that ended up becoming one of my favorites.”
Key in bringing the project to fruition was securing Jamaican recording legends and unassailable production duo Sly & Robbie to take the helm. Both men were session players in the Kingston recording studios where reggae and dub were born, and have since recorded giants like Madonna and Bob Dylan.
“It was like going to school,” Pacheco said. “They’ve been making different types of Jamaican music since the ‘60s.”
The album’s guest list also pulls from every conceivable corner of Ozomatli’s appeal. Fans who know Kyle McDonald from reggae rockers Slightly Stoopid (who contributes to the album’s aforementioned beachy take on “La Bamba”) might not be familiar with Regulo Caro, a popular Mexican banda and norteño singer who steps in on “Andar Conmigo.”
The result is a splendid homage to both the Mexican songbook and the champion sounds of Jamaica.
Ozomatli have both figuratively and literally served as ambassadors of the Latin-American experience, touring Vietnam, Thailand and Burma in 2009 as cultural emissaries for the U.S. State Department. But more significantly, they have been outspoken on political issues like immigration and labor on behalf of their communities, using their globe-trotting style toward a message of unity.
The new album features a cover of “De Paisano a Paisano” by Los Tigres Del Norte, a song about the struggles of migrants who endanger themselves to find work and ensure their families’ survival.
The Ozomatli iteration is light and fun, yet it hardly dampens the message. “We want people to feel affirmed,” Pacheco said.
“We know it’s a serious time, the climate is disturbing,” he added, “but it’s always been that way.”
“For us, we’ve always felt that we have to acknowledge and draw on each other’s goodness,” he added.