Ozomatli's 20th year together is still a celebration. Founding member Raúl Pacheco says the six original guys who today make up the Los Angeles-based band get along and can relate to one another better than ever. It's all in the maturing process and a willingness to accept the change that is inevitable over time.
"The guys, we're in a good place together," Pacheco said in a phone interview from his home studio in L.A. "In any relationship you have your ups and downs. It feels really good to be in that place with one another. ... We were just telling stories about the last 20 years and how we've been through so much. It was really emotional, just all these memories. We've had members who have passed away, we've had children, we've turned into middle-aged men, we had to learn a lot together. The reason these particular guys are together is because we love to play music. We were open enough to allow each other to be ourselves and to allow each of us our own self-expression. That became the much bigger kind of thing we are today."
The band's rise in Southern California came fast and furious. They started out as house band for charity benefits in 1995, then began selling out local club Hollywood Opium Den every Thursday night. Word spread of their stage antics, including the samba line that would snake from the stage to outside, creating a spontaneous block party.
Much of the multi-cultural, Latin rock, funk, reggae, hip-hop jam that Ozomatli is famous for came from the guys' individual neighborhoods around L.A. The band formed spontaneously, and their first time playing a benefit at the Peace and Justice Center ignited a spark that compelled them to have a social conscience at the same time as becoming a party band.
"I think we're always involved," Pacheco said in regards to continued activism for the band. "People know us for that. So we're always approached to support. We used to play benefits for people. It wasn't so much about us, as it was supporting these different things. I think that initial benefit resonated with us and we responded to that."
It's not hard to understand that the issues on the front burner these days have to do with the Latino experience in this country.
"We're involved in supporting immigration reform, supporting immigrants who have been here. We support the Dreamers — that's very important to us," he said. "So things come and go over time. We find things that resonate with us and we speak out about them and support them."
"Place in the Sun" is the band's eighth album and was released last March. You can still feel the party in the music; the rhythmic vitality and ebullient vocals are a call to the dance floor. While the Latin funk groove of "Embrace the Chaos," the group's second full-length recording, first drew my attention, it was the band's live performances at The Catalyst in Santa Cruz that made me a fan.
"Embrace the Chaos," released in 2001, won a Grammy Award for Best Latin Rock/Alternative Album. Their 2004 release on Concord Records, "Street Signs," also won a Grammy and a Latin Grammy. That was followed up with a "Live at the Fillmore" record in 2005. Ozomatli was on a roll. The band toured worldwide at this point, and was asked by the U.S. State Department in 2006 to serve as official Cultural Ambassadors on a series of government-sponsored international tours.
The group has morphed over the years, having as many as 10 members. But today the six guys — Pacheco, Willy "Wil Dog" Abers, Ulises Bella, Justin Porée, Asdru Sierra and Jiro Yamaguchi — are steadily keeping the flame alive. They don't tour as much as they used to — by design; most of them have families to consider — but they're making more money now than they ever did with the grind of the road.
"The shift came when we changed our whole business model," Pacheco said. "We just didn't want to do that any more. We had to get creative and make more music for other media, like for movies. We've scored for television. So we do other things where we can make a living as musicians and not have to tour so much."
But Pacheco makes it clear they still love to play and travel around the world.
"We just got back from Hong Kong," he said. "I don't want to make it sound like we don't like playing or touring. We're just really picky about what we do. We used to play whatever and whenever. We still care about our live show — it's our bread and butter. We still have fun playing live. I think we're still an exciting band. I think people get a lot of joy. That's probably why we get hired to play a lot of gigs."
Currently at work on a new album, a documentary and a variety of other projects as they are presented through their talent agents at Paradigm (an office based in Monterey), Ozomatli still has the fire to deliver a dynamic show.
Ozomatli comes to Monterey's Golden State Theater at 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 19. Irene Diaz, a modern-day Latin torch singer with a great voice, opens the 21 and over show. Tickets are $28-$38, available at 649-1070 or www.goldenstatetheatre.com.
Beth Peerless can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.