Ozomatli: Making music they can be proud of

This post has been corrected. See details below.

The quick, sharp blasts of a pocket trumpet can be heard out in the courtyard. Inside a small Echo Park home recording studio, Asdrubal Sierra is adding his horn parts to a new song by Ozomatli. It's a warm, danceable track destined to be offered for use at the next World Cup soccer tournament, and a fitting sound for a vibrantly multicultural event.

Just outside sit two of Sierra's bandmates, singer-guitarist Raul Pacheco and percussionist-singer Jiro Yamaguchi, relaxing in the shade to talk about a new season of activity for the distinctive Los Angeles band. Nearly two decades ago, Ozomatli began as a group of young political activists with a gift for music that reflected multiple layers of sound and culture. Today the band is sufficiently established that the City of Los Angeles has declared April 23 Ozomatli Day.

"I don't think any of this has been part of any master plan," said Pacheco with a laugh.

They're at the house of bassist Wil-Dog Abers on a recent summer afternoon mainly to continue working on the band's first new album since 2010's "Fire Away" and the 2012 children's CD "Ozokidz." The six-piece band is about two-thirds into the project, with 11 songs nearing completion for an early 2014 release on Vanguard Records.

On weekends, Ozomatli has also returned to live performing, including a concert Sunday at the Starlight Bowl in Burbank. Next year's touring plans will take the group again across the U.S., with trips to Australia, South America and elsewhere.

"There was a time when we toured so much we wanted a break, and now we're ready to come out hard," said Pacheco, who is bearded with a shaved head. It won't be the first time.

Ozomatli had a mission before its members even had a band. They began as young community activists at the Peace and Justice Center, located in the early '90s at 4th and S. Bixel streets in downtown Los Angeles, right around the corner from Prince's elegant but now-defunct Grand Slam club.

"Not having a lot of money, we wondered, how can we contribute to this and create something? OK, we'll be the band," remembers Pacheco, who once sang as part of the California Boys Choir and studied music at Pasadena City College with jazz trumpeter Bobby Bradford. "From the first gig, our mission was for people to really enjoy it when we played."

From the beginning, the sound of Ozomatli reflected a broader idea of the region and its culture than the Hollywood cliché might suggest. It was a vibrant mixture of rock, Latin rhythm, hip-hop and jazz. It mixed electric guitar with folk instruments, horns and turntable effects. "Como Ves," from the band's 1998 self-titled debut album, was an early anthem, and in 2004, Ozomatli's "Street Signs" won two Latin Grammys.

"It's a big world out there," says Yamaguchi, "and everybody in the group has different interests in particular kinds of music and different strengths … and it all comes together when we play."


Early on, Ozomatli was embraced by Carlos Santana and Los Lobos, and when the city invited the band to be honored with Ozomatli Day, members used the platform the first year to promote music education in local high schools. Another year was dedicated to calling for cleanup of the Los Angeles River.

As an ongoing reflection of its roots, Ozomatli continues to perform at benefits for various causes, both at home and on tour, usually the same day as a regular concert. "We encourage people to not be afraid to approach us," says Pacheco.

During one band meeting, Ozomatli's members began talking about making a children's record, reflecting the family-friendly atmosphere of their concerts. "People bring their kids to the shows a lot of the time, so our shows have always been open to people of all ages really," says Yamaguchi, then adds with a laugh, "Some of the people in my band have ADD, so it's perfect to play for kids."

The album, "Ozomatli Presents Ozokidz," included songs about balloons, movies and skateboarding. "We were trying to make songs that mom and dad could rock out to as well," explains Pacheco, though new fans meant new expectations. "I'd never before experienced 6-year-old kids crying after the show: 'You didn't play "Moose on the Loose"!'"

Pacheco adds, "The idea of this band became bigger than any one of us. We've been through personal changes and growing up in our personal lives. There is a lot of differences that we have with each other, but what is this band for? It's our vehicle to play music and to make something we can all be proud of. It's that notion that keeps us together."

What: Ozomatli

Where: Starlight Bowl, 1249 Lockheed View Drive, Burbank

When: Sunday, July 21; 6:30 p.m.

Cost: $12 online and $14 at the gate day of the concert

More info: (818) 238-5300, http://www.starlightbowl.com

[For the record, July 22, 2013: An earlier version of this story included incorrect ticket information.]


Follow Steve Appleford on Twitter: @TCNArts.

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