Recently, the multi-instrumental Latino hip-hop rock troupe Ozomatli were appointed United States Cultural Ambassadors. They’ve been vocal proponents of a growing, musician-led boycott of Arizona, have written songs in support of gay awareness in the Latino community, and bear as much responsibility as anyone for dropping the barricades between American pop and traditional Spanish and Mexican music. This week, they’ve come to New York as part of the Latin Alternative Music Conference; tonight, they’ll play a Celebrate Brooklyn show in Prospect Park. We caught up with vocalist/guitarist Raul Pacheco last week via email–at the time, he and his Los Angeles-based band had just finished banging out a tour in Europe, and were somewhere roaming the Adriatic coast.
How did you guys get to be U.S. Cultural Ambassadors?
A woman named Sharon Hudson Dean heard us in an interview on NPR, and a light bulb went off in her head. She was working for the Foreign Service within the State Department and got in touch with our manager. About two years later we were in India and Nepal on our first trip as U.S. Cultural Ambassadors.
What does that role actually consist of?
The day-to-day activities usually involve concerts and youth outreach.The concerts range from public shows in parks and universities to semi-private events at schools and youth centers. The youth outreach events are usually geared toward a specific population. We have played for and interacted with earthquake victims in rural areas of China, disabled students in Ho Chi Minh City, orphanages in Old Delhi and Kathmandu, and a community music school in a neighborhood in Burma.
You band joined other artists to boycott the Arizona law. Can you explain why this was important to you?
The deepest reason for speaking against Arizona Law SB1070 is because it is immoral. Everywhere you look on the planet there are people trying to better their lives. I think most people do this with dignity and honor. I also think people take drastic measures, like crossing a large swath of dangerous land, for the simple impetus of survival. Ozomatli will always support the righteous underdog and in this case, it is people simply trying to have a better life.
What are you hoping to accomplish by getting involved in a debate in a state in which your band is not based?
Artists at all levels communicate to a varied and numerous amounts of people. Our involvement helps spread the word and presents people with the opportunity to have an opinion, make a choice, and express it. Speaking about it, and in our case also singing about it, continues the momentum of our point of view.
On your new album, the song “Malagasy Shock” recounts how you were electrocuted on stage during a performance. Can you describe what happened that night?
We were playing in Antananarivo, the capitol of Madagascar as artists participating in the Mada-Jazz-car festival. American bands rarely play there and bands like Ozomatli never play there. We already had played a few events in town and were closing the festival at an all day free concert in a downtown park. There was a lot of buzz about us and about 5,000 people were gathered by the time our set began. We played an intro and as I approached the microphone, BAM! I became the ground in a large PA system shooting 220 volts. It was not pretty… it was not nice… it was frightening, scary, and painful. It was the closest I ever came to death and every doctor I had to see confirmed it. Now I get to sing about it every time we play.
Another track on your record, “Gay Vatos In Love” is getting a bit of controversy because it depicts gay Latino gangsters. Do you think some of your male “macho” fans will take this song in stride, or will it turn them off?
Probably both… but that is not why we wrote and recorded the song. Issues surrounding same sex unions of any sort are all over the news, it is something being debated by many people from many different sectors of society. We chose to stand with the underdogs and support what we just call love.
Do you think you would have been able to release this song, say on your first record or second?
We were not discussing this issue when we wrote and recorded our first two records so I would say no. We tend to write and record what we are feeling at that particular moment. California’s recent Prop 8 was a fresh bummer so it was in our heads. “Gay Vatos in Love” is a genuine statement because it was created without some big planning session. The idea came up, we discussed it, wrote it, knew the song was good and it made the final cut for our CD. It is a reflection of our opinion about current issues that we all have been coming across. And it was another opportunity to take a stand for the underdog.
You received some criticism with your last album Don’t Mess with the Dragon because your sound shifted toward Reggaeton.
There are threads in our recorded output, but to me each recording is different enough so that we don’t get bored as musicians. There are sounds and styles on our new CD Fire Away that are a first for us. As artists we need that, I think, and the audience also needs it. Too much reggaeton? Maybe not enough. Who knows, who cares. If you like it, crank it! If you don’t, skip it. In the end we’ll all be OK.
You guys were pioneers when it came to mixing Spanish traditional beats with all sorts of other musical genres. What do you think of current Latino music right now?
“Spanish beats” is a misnomer. The music from cultures that speak Spanish have as much African and native rhythmic influences as anything else. I do think we were pioneers of our time on the west coast of the States. There were bands like Manu Chao’s first band Mano Negra, Argentina’s Los Fabulosos Cadillacs with their samba-reggae classic “Matador,” and even neighborhood contemporaries like Quetzal that fused east coast Mexican folk music called jarocho with an LA twist. Today I like Colombia’s Bomba Estereo and their electro-cumbia mix, always have loved Tijuana’s Nortec Collective and their live instrument and modern DJ’ing mix of Mexican regional styles like ranchera and banda.
What do you attribute your longevity to?
We’ve been able to stay together so we’ve been able to continue our story. We still are a kick ass band that turns up the heat anytime we play, and we’re allowing ourselves to try different things musically. We show up with energy because it is our job and we love it.
Ozomatli play with Fidel Nadal and Toy Selectah July 9 at 6, Prospect Park Bandshell, 9th Street & Prospect Park West, $3 suggested donation.