Dancing monkey gods
Ozomatli, a pan-cultural collision from L.A., is all about embracing chaos
For Raúl Pacheco, a trip to Sacramento represents more than just another tour stop. You see, in 1991-95, Pacheco, guitarist for the East Los Angeles-based band Ozomatli, went to college at CSUS, where Ozomatli will perform this Thursday night.
When Pacheco resided in Sacramento, he was more focused on his major, political science—at one point working for the mayoral campaign of the late Joe Serna—than he was on playing the guitar.
“I tried out for Cake, I think,” he recalls somewhat tentatively, laughing. “And I played a few gigs with some other bands.”
School and grassroots political organizing, at the time, were more important, Pacheco says. But that soon changed when he moved back to his native Southern California. “It helped me to learn that [politics] wasn’t what I wanted to do,” he admits. “And the minute that I decided that music was the thing that made me happy, I came back to Los Angeles, and that’s the day I met everyone in this band.”
What resulted from that chance meeting was Ozomatli, a seven-man agglomeration that takes its name from, in Aztec astronomy, a constellation represented by a monkey head—ruled, appropriately, by Xochipilli-Macuilxochit, the Aztec god of passion and dance. The band’s evolving musical style sounds as if it’s been fashioned from a surprising, ever-changing collision of cultural textures, pulling in elements from rock, funk, hip-hop, salsa, Cuban jazz, Mexican jarocho and a number of other seemingly incongruous musical forms. It comes at you from every direction like a drunken pagan street carnival that cannot be avoided. You must dance. You probably will dance.
Which is why the title of Ozomatli’s second album, Embrace the Chaos, is quite appropriate. According to Pacheco, Los Lobos saxophonist Steve Berlin, who produced four of the Almo/Interscope disc’s 11 tracks, told the band: “I want to hear bodies colliding.” It was Berlin’s mantra to the band, and from the evidence provided by the album’s many unstoppable grooves, the band took his advice to heart.
Beginning life as more of a jam band than a group with one-pointed focus, Ozomatli nevertheless coalesced into a formidable exponent of modern-day rock en Español—think the romantic Latinisms of Santana or Los Lobos mated to the low-riding funk swagger of War, then grafted to the harder, more contemporary urban edge provided by hip-hop culture.
“When we got started, there was a whole bunch of us, and we all had different ideas and skills and things we liked,” Pacheco says. “And we always have been really open to—instead of, ‘let’s just concentrate on one kind of music,’ it’s, ‘let’s play what everyone wants to play.’ Cats in the band were totally into hip-hop and funk music, and other guys were into salsa and Afro-Cuban music, and Mexican folk music.
“And all that had to do with how we grew up in the city of L.A.—the different influences, and being open,” he adds. “We’ve always been committed to not being afraid—to learn, and to try new things.”
For Pacheco, that wanderlust led him to the tres, a Cuban guitar-like instrument with three strings, each with a companion an octave higher, tuned to an idiosyncratic A, D and F#. The instrument’s characteristic rococo plink turns up all over Cuban recordings, and it’s worked its way into Ozomatli’s music, too. “Lately, I’ve had some breakthroughs with it,” Pacheco explains. “The recording process helped bring that about.”
“Breakthrough” seems an appropriate moniker for what Ozomatli does, too. Carlos Santana, who should know about such things, has been quoted as saying that Ozomatli represents the future of music. While there are a lot of musical futures, good and bad, let’s just say that this band’s assimilation of sounds and its appetite for novelty make for one best-case scenario.
A bright future, indeed.