KGNU's Elena Klaver talks with Ozomatli in May 2018.
Elena: We're speaking with two of the founding members of Ozomatli, Raúl Pacheco and Ulises Bella, welcome!
Raúl & Ulises: Hello!
Elena: You have such genre bending music, but when you first got started was there an attempt to pigeon hole you into Chicano rock or alternative rock or different things?
Ulises: Yeah, the common thing was what box to put Ozomatli in, and I think it's been a positive and negative in many ways, right Raúl?
Raúl: I think there’s so many layers of how people relate to things outside of themselves - I think that people relate to us for different reasons, you know? Usually, it’s whatever aspect of us speaks to them, it could be the political side, could be the social justice side, it could be the rap music side, it could be the Latino music traditional side, it could be the party side - it really varies. I think that what we found is that all the things we do gives people an entry point to relate to us in ways that they want, and when it comes to the commercial aspects of selling music, it's partly added to why we haven't been more mainstream I guess, because a lot of the time we'd get: "Take out the English rap from the Spanish song," and in the beginning we just said “no.” I think that all of those things contribute, but it also kind of makes us special and who we are.
Elena: Well, it seems like after twenty years you can define yourselves and you don't have to worry about what some people might want to label you or not.
Raúl: I think you should always do that from the beginning, no matter what. That's how you can build a group of fans are true. You're being who you are.
Ulises: One positive I have to say of the times that are changing was exactly how Raul just mentioned. There was like radio programmers that were bumming out about the Spanish part, and this and that. That was like twenty years ago, and now all these artists on mainstream radio, you hear “Despacito” for the one millionth time and I'm like, "Oh wow, Spanish is on the radio."
Raúl: There's been those songs in rock and roll history like “La Bamba” and Santana, stuff like that but its few and far between.
Elena: It seems like it’s definitely growing along with the demographics changing.
Raúl: Yeah, the population changes and basically people will pay money to see these things in a way that people who may have been against it say "okay!”
Elena: Well, I have to say one of the things that I love is the social activism, the message, the content, and saying something. Personally, I can't stand listening to music that is just like "Hey baby, I miss you."
Ulises: Wow, you're one of the few.
Elena: Well, it seems like unfortunately, that's the case. Did you ever feel like the social message would hold you back? Or were you ever told that you should tone it down?
Ulises: There was plenty of times where we got asked to tone it down. I think we were in our twenties at the time and were pretty, for lack of a better word, militant about our sound and about who what we stood for.
Raúl: It's an interesting balance. I remember one of the first times we were on Conan and we wanted to put a free Mumia banner over the DJ and they wouldn't let us do it.
Ulises: There was all these little things like that and for what we felt was right, we just went with our hearts. Sure, there was big moments that I think was to our detriment, as far as like over all, because the music industry is like go along with whatever. You're trying to entertain people - let's do this.
Raúl: In the end, it's all about relationships. So, somebody is in power makes the decision and if they're not into it, then they're not into it. I've always felt that the thing that could ever overcome that was writing songs that were able to transcend that. For us, a good live show, I think that's why we're coming back to Boulder after so many years. We usually have a lot of fun.
Elena: Well, it's really great that you can mix the having fun part with transmitting a message because it's so needed.
Ulises: I think part of it is exactly that. If you're down for the message and you're down for everything, you gotta be down for the consequences of however it goes down. I think we were okay. I'm happy where I am in this band, and I'm happy with the music we've created. I can sleep well at night knowing we put in our work for the world and for ourselves, and we keep doing that work so I think that's fine.
Raúl: I think our message is, in my opinion, it's not really heavy. It's kinda’ bringing people together and kind of celebrating the differences that we all have, and reminding each other there’s a space for all of us here.
Ulises: I think the collective dogma of the band isn't that heavy or radical, but I think there's been moments where the issues we've supported might be. Maybe, for us, it's not a crazy thing to ask for the end to the perpetual war in the Middle East, but for some people it is, man. For some people providing resources for poor people and kids, there's gonna be someone out there who's like "What are ya- bla bla bla bla bla, you dirty commie."
Elena: Was that from the song "You Ain't Done Nothin' if You Ain't Been Called a Red?
Ulises: There’s that song, I think it's in Spanish, but I'll translate it. It's like something like: "When I gave food to the poor/I was a saint/When I asked why they didn’t/I was a communist." Something to that effect. Maybe I'm totally butchering it, but it's that kind of thing.
Elena: Well, maybe because of this or despite all of this, I think it’s fabulous that you guys are state department cultural ambassadors.
Ulises: Yeah, we were cultural ambassadors representing the US around the world and trying to do a good job about it.
Raúl: It was a thing we had to sit down and ask ourselves. There was half us like, "What is this really about?" And I think what we discovered was that any organization, there are different factions and different ways of thinking and a lot of these people were like old 60's Peace Corps workers and they were there for what we felt were the right reasons. So, then you have this infrastructure and part of it is political and pushing into this in ways. We weren't part of that. We would go play for young people. We would go play for everyday people, and those moments for us became something very special. We were connecting with kids and we were connecting with families and people all around the world who knew nothing about us, and it shocked them when we said we were an American band, which is great.
Elena: Yeah, that’s what's so amazing.
Raúl: We got a half Spanish Mexican dude, we got a Chicano dude, we got all kinds. For us, maybe you don’t get to see that or get that image, but really that's what it really is a lot. That's why we’re playing music and why we're very proud and call ourselves an American band. And I think at that moment there were some cool things that happened, and for us, too, it was a great reminder that with all the chaos that’s projected on the news and the differences that are hardened into the imagery, but most of it is nothing like that, and we get to kinda’ remind ourselves like, "Hey, we're just normal people trying to get by like everybody else."
Elena: Well, I think any good organizer is gonna know that if it's not fun, it's not gonna go anywhere. You bring the message, but you also gotta’ do something that's gonna involve people and it can't just be drudgery.
Ulises: Yeah, and most of the time in that work, there was a group of people that were obviously semi-subversive in the state department to say end of Bush era, to pick a ban that was one the first bans to speak up against the war and all these things that we did and the attitude was like, "Do you even know who we are? Like, why are you asking us this?" And the flip of it was creating our own story and creating our own - kinda’ of like knowing we're going to places that no bands go to, and setting up a narrative and connection with people that would transcend all the things that keep us apart from each other.
Raúl: Part of the division is sometimes we get caught up in our own righteousness too, about the "other." We're complaining about why we don't get recognized and some real work gets done when you're with people or in settings where it's not normal, and you're challenging everybody to rethink what this is. So, I have an opportunity to represent myself, a person from LA, a self-described Chicano in a band and let them make a choice and have an experience with me that they might have to check themselves on some of their ideas. We experience that hand-in-hand. We went to a temporary Palestinian camp that has been around for 30 years that people have grown up in. They find out we're from America and they start talking a lot.
Ulises: Yeah, first there was some tension.
Raúl: It was the soccer game that brought us together on TV.
Ulises: There was that moment - remember at the pyramids where this guy was like, "I like Americans, but I don't like what's going on." And I was like, "Hey buddy, I agree with you!" How about them apples? Then, all of a sudden, it was something different.
Raúl: Those are the things that are important.
Ulises: Yeah, and also just the simplicity and the complexities of everything as far as in the world of all these different cultures and countries and how people feel about us, being from Los Angeles and the States. It was interesting, because the way people reacted to us from Myanmar, Burma, to how we were in Vietnam. If you would've asked me, I would've been like no way! I remember in Ho Chi Minh City, I had this whole thing on my conscience about like, "We really wrecked things here. They're gonna hate us." And it was quite the opposite. We filled up a mini stadium out there!
Raúl: Part of it is that we're a group of guys that are down to earth, pretty authentic, and just chill about whoever we're with.
Elena: Well, and people who have lived under tyrannical government know that the government isn't the people, and the people are not the government, and that people can be very, very different.
Ulises: Yeah, that's a truth that resonates with all travelers. It's one of the things I think would be great for this country.
Raúl: I think Americans need to get out and have a year and travel and check out the scene, man. Check out what's better and check out what's worse!
Elena: In the past, you've worked with headcount to get voter registration done at your concert. Are you continuing to do that?
Raúl: Yeah, we do it in different cities when we have a relationship with them and other organizations. We try to do something everywhere we go. It doesn't always work out, but we work with kids a lot. We got kids on stage with us from different organizations, art organizations. Just for us, we really respond to young people, because we remember the kind of difference it made for an adult to say, "No, you actually can be a musician if you want, but you don't just end up on a magazine cover or on TV. You actually have to practice and work, but you can do it." And sometimes I think they don't always get that message, and I think that's something that we like to encourage young people to do.
Elena: You've been given a lot of rewards for the work in the arts and the community and things like that. It's such an important thing to do. How do you bring together all of the different musical genres? Maybe it can only happen with a band from LA, I don't know.
Ulises: I think we're part of a tradition in a certain way, because there's a lot of bands in the past that were kind of genre blending or world music-y. I think the thing with Ozo is that we're a very unique blend, and it’s very representative of Los Angeles obviously, but also of our travels through the world and the individuals and things that people brought into the flavor. The first rehearsal, we had turntables, horns, guitar, and a bunch of other things we didn't even really know anything about. I think from the environment and the individuals we created a very unique blend that's very LA and very Ozomatli, but I think a band can start like us in London, or in Montreal, New York - anywhere where there’s a lot of different flavors, you know?
Elena: It seems to me that your mix of so many different kinds of genres and the message of unity and working people, immigration reform, all that, is so needed more than ever now, probably way more now than under the last administration. Do you find yourselves just as busy or as much in demand?
Raúl: We used to work like non-stop for the first 15 years. We've been together for 22 years and I think we made a choice to shift our lifestyle a little bit. But we still get out, we still pretty much work every weekend. We're still kind of in there connecting with people. We're coming up with some new music now, so I think that’s the next thing. If we still have it in us, I think we're gonna keep doing it.
Elena: So, we can look forward to some more Ozomatli?
Raúl: For sure.
Ulises: Oh yeah, there’s new music in the works already and we're in the 20th Anniversary of our self-titled record, which we are re-releasing and remastering and all that, and doing some new music with Charlie because our chemistry is undeniable.
Find out more about Ozomatli at www.ozomatli.com.