To get Ozomatli, you need to get L.A. Los Angeles is a living, breathing, glimmering mess of smog and neon lights, a sun-drenched dichotomy of dirty rock ’n’ roll and hip-hop, a mixed-up melting pot of culture and tradition. It’s easy to get lost among the tangled web of freeways and wasteland—if you don’t have Ozo as your guide.
Born out of a mid-’90s protest against the L.A. Conservation Corps, the group makes music that sounds like an open love letter to their hometown (sometimes literally, thanks to tracks like 2007’s “City of Angels”). Now a decade-and-a-half and five studio albums later, the band has been around the world, toured, and worked as musical ambassadors for the U.S. Department of State. But for now they’re just happy to be back home, and with a new album coming out in April and a string of U.S. show dates lined up, their party’s showing no signs of slowing down.
You might find Ozomatli’s albums shelved under hip-hop, rock, or Latin, all of which would be perfectly accurate. “Our mission has always been to break down barriers. Put the CD in whatever bin you want, just make sure people can see [it] so that they can give it a chance,” said guitarist Raúl Pacheco in a recent email interview.
“I’d describe our sound as street music,” added percussionist and emcee Justin Porée. “It was born out of the street, fostered in the street, and still lives on because of the street. Our sound is definitely more refined because we have become better musicians over time, but it still has that raw street energy.”
“My father is a musician, and he definitely influenced me, along with a lot of old R&B, Motown, salsa, jazz, rap, ’80s funk and disco,” says Porée. All these musical influences shine through in Ozo’s colorful sound. At a live show, the boys change genre as often and as effortlessly as they change instruments and lead vocals duties. They also switch off between singing in Spanish and English throughout their set.
Since last playing Santa Barbara in 2007 [and again in 2010], Ozomatli has been living on the road, serving as cultural ambassadors for the State Department. Working for the Man is certainly a new direction for a group born out of protest. “We have gotten a chance to visit places most bands don’t get to tour,” explained Porée. “[And] the musical exchanges with kids [are great]. They do not judge, they genuinely seem happy to hear music, and when they take the stage to show us their skills, we melt.”
In fact, it’s those experiences that have helped influence and inspire their new album, Fire Away, currently slated for an April release. “Everywhere we travel has some sort of impact on the music we make,” explained Porée. And even though Ozo is already known for their musical genre-hopping, according to Porée, listeners should be ready for a couple of “curve balls.” The first single off the album is called “It’s Only Paper,” a song that Porée describes as a “very beach-vibe, soulful campfire kind of jam.” Ozo plans to debut some of their fresh music in Santa Barbara this week, and the group is excited to be back in town. “The S.B. crowd is always off the hook,” says Porée. “I mean, you guys have the #1 rated party school in the nation.”
Not sure if UCSB is still number-one, but Ozo definitely knows how to dip, dive, and socialize. At their recent Solana Beach show, the guys ended things by grabbing their instruments and heading into the crowd for an impromptu conga line jam session, complete with a brief cover of Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough.” Cover material aside, it’s the songs where genres intersect, overlap, and meld together to reflect L.A.’s energy and diversity that are the most fun, and the most uniquely Ozo.
New Noise presents Ozomatli and DJ Magneto at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.) this Friday, May 17, at 7:30 p.m. For info, call 962-7776 or visit sohosb.com.