For nearly a quarter-century, Los Angeles Latin fusion group Ozomatli has been reinventing the jam band for a global audience.
The band’s older silver ponytail fans flock to their shows to hear genre-bending counterculture psychedelia in the tradition of Santana and The Grateful Dead. At the same time, Ozomatli has cultivated a younger audience by successfully infusing their grooves with hip-hop, Jamaican dancehall, cumbia, funk, and Middle Eastern sounds.
“We have never made a record that sticks to one genre,” says Raúl Pacheco, vocalist and guitarist for Ozomatli. “What we have relied on since day one is wanting to rock a crowd no matter what. And I think we still have that attitude.”
The band plays in Santa Fe at Meow Wolf on Wednesday, Nov. 13.
Key to Ozomatli’s longevity are their rollicking live shows, which can often feature the band, percussion section and all, marching through the audience while singing, chanting, and not losing a beat.
“Having that aura, that element of us being a live band has allowed us to go through technological shifts in the music industry,” Pacheco says. “We started in the ’90s, back when there were actually big budgets for major records.”
In the streaming era, bands now make their money largely from touring, instead of album sales — a plus for a group that has spent much of the past two decades touring six continents. Grammy winners with roots in L.A. street protests and farmworkers’ rights activism, they have the unique distinction of having performed at major protests while also touring the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia in the late 2000s as cultural ambassadors of the U.S. State Department.
Much of Ozomatli’s appeal is the ease with which the band rearranges the global array of sounds played on the streets of L.A. immigrant neighborhoods into a cohesive fusion that seems neither forced nor flimsy. Their best-known record remains 2001’s Embrace the Chaos, which won a Grammy for Best Latin Rock/Alternative Album.
But they have never stop hybridizing their music.
Their most recent release, Non-Stop: Mexico to Jamaica (2017) leans heavily on reggae and dub production by Sly and Robbie, the legendary, 11-time Grammy-nominated Jamaican record-making duo who have produced songs for Peter Tosh, Grace Jones, Black Uhuru, Bob Dylan, and Herbie Hancock and played an outsize role in shaping the sound of modern Caribbean music.
“Our manager called Sly and Robbie. We had developed a relationship over the years,” Pacheco says. “We were really lucky. They’re getting older, to the point where they’re not going to do this much longer. We all kind of played on it together, recording the album in L.A. and Miami.”
If the record’s sonic palette is Jamaican, the melody and chorus are resolutely Mexican. Sung largely in Spanish, most of the record’s 14 ska, dub, and reggae-inflected tracks are sing-by-heart folk and pop classics of the 20th-century Mexican songbook. Classics like “La Bamba,” “Bésame Mucho,” and “Volver Volver” sit alongside ’90s Latin rock hits like Selena’s “Como La Flor” and Café Tacvba’s “Eres.”
As a rough analogy, it would be akin to an Americana band putting out covers of the most well-known songs of Prince, Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson, and Etta James. The album also features covers of “Land of 1000 Dances” and “Come and Get Your Love,” but as anyone who has spent time in the Chicano enclaves of the Southwest can tell you, these R&B classics are soundtrack staples of any Mexican-American get-together.
Though Ozomatli has morphed over the years to include as many as a dozen players onstage, the current core group includes bassist Wil-Dog Abers, drummers Justin Porée and Jiro Yamaguchi, keyboardist Ulises Bella, and trumpetist Asdrubal Sierra.
“We’re known as a live band, but I also think we are artists built around our records.”
Although they’re in their early 50s with families and kids, Pacheco estimates the band still performs nearly 120 shows a year. In 2012, the band even released Ozomatli Presents Ozokidz, a family-friendly bilingual concept album aimed at their youngest listeners, who tend to be the children of their current fans.
“Some of our fans were starting to tell us, ‘I can’t see you tonight, I gotta get a babysitter,’” Pacheco says. “With that kids’ album, it was really cool to have that freedom of kind of not being ourselves. Our goal was to make a kids’ record that parents wouldn’t feel miserable if they end up listening to it a lot. That was our sweet spot.”
While those songs will not be played at their upcoming Santa Fe show, that album may be cultivating the newest crop of Ozomatli fans.
“We’ve been around for 25 years. We now have a multigenerational audience,” he says. “We get a lot of younger fans who tell us, ‘My mom loved you guys. We grew up on your music.’ ” ◀
▼ 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 13; doors for 21+ show open at 7 p.m.
▼ Meow Wolf, 1352 Rufina Circle
▼ Tickets are $40, $45 day of show, includes entrance to Meow Wolf exhibition till 9 p.m; 505-395-6369, meowwolf.com