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The social and political climate has changed considerably in the time between Ozomatli’s 2001 long-player Embrace the Chaos and this year’s Street Signs, but to listen to guitarist/vocalist Raul "El Bully" Pacheco explain the band’s approach to music remains the same.

"This group’s existence is about freedom", Pacheco explained in a recent phone interview. "Musically and lyrically we have such a wide range of influences and styles that it’s important to find some common ground. We wanted this album- and every album we record- to represent us as a group. It’s also important that the music we lay down reflects us as a group, as well. We all really have to feel these songs in order to play them."

The songs Pacheco referred to are the baker’s dozen on Street Signs and their stewpot mixture of Latin jazz stylings, hip-hop, the barrio rock of East L.A., and the Nuyorican influences of Willie Bobo and special guest Eddie Palmieri. "Eddie and his ‘la clave’ style is a major influence on us and other Latin jazz players- just listen to how Gonzalo Rubicala hits those keys", Pacheco said. "We wanted to do something with him for a long time, but both he and his wife took ill during the last record. He was in San Francisco one day while we were recording and we asked if we could try something with him. He said yeah and we got the songs he played on ("Dona Isabelle" and "Nadie De Tira") to him as quick as he could. The stars got aligned for that one."

Other guest stars on Street Signs include the French gypsy violinists Les Yeux Noir, original Ozomatli members MC Chali 2na (now with Jurassic 5) and DJ Cut Chemist, the Moroccan sintir master Hassan Hakmoun, and the Forte City of Prague Studio Orchestra.

One of the more noticeable influences on Street Signs is the addition of Middle Eastern and North African rhythms. "We’d wanted to use these rhythms on (’Embrace the Chaos’)", Pacheco explained, "but the ideas weren’t fleshed out and didn’t make the cut. We began playing these rhythms almost by accident, and almost immediately we realized the similarities between sintir and, say, a cumbia rhythm. We use cumbia sometimes and play reggae to it. It was a nice way to mix and match."

Recording with a symphony should be a bit daunting, but according to Pacheco, Ozomatli had some help in bridging the gap between the structured Prague Symphony and the looser style of Ozomatli.

"We were working on a movie score with a guy named Chris Lennertz", Pacheco remembered, "but we weren’t sure how we could make it work. We sent the songs we wanted orchestral arrangements to them on computer files, then Chris wrote the orchestral arrangement for the Prague Symphony as one large piece.

"We used a T1 line to connect the two bands in the studio- we could both see and hear each other", Pacheco continued. "There was probably a one second difference between what we were hearing between each other, but what we recorded was amazing."

Ozomatli has been busy promoting Street Signs since its release this summer, with high-profile appearances on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and Last Call with Carson Daly. The song "(Who Discovered) America" is getting serious rotation on radio stations across the West Coast. Their concert tour takes them this week to Austin, Texas; Lawrence, Kansas; and Atlanta, Georgia- the heart of "red state" or "moral values" country. For a band that isn’t shy about its progressive politics, anti-war convictions, and commitment to social justice causes, Pacheco and the rest of Ozomatli isn’t fazed by the swing through these cities.

"The crowds are different wherever we play, since our fans run the gamut", Pacheco reflected. "Some of them want to hear the political message; some come to groove. I remember once we played in San Antonio in this line dancing bar opening for Kenny Wayne Shephard. The crowd didn’t move a muscle and stared at us the whole time. We just did our thing and rocked. After we left the stage some of the people in the crowd came up to us and said, ‘I didn’t know what to think, but you guys were good.’

"And that’s what matters. We love music and just want to go out there and rock."

Jazz Review would like to thank the fine folks at Concord Records and 60 Cycle Media for their assistance in arranging this interview.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Ozomatli
  • Interview Date: 11/1/2004
  • Subtitle: East L.A. style mashers broaden its already wide-ranging musical palate
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