SANTA FE, N.M. — When it formed more than 20 years ago as the result of a labor strike, Ozomatli never anticipated still performing and making music together for so long.
“I don’t think we had a plan,” Raul Pacheco, lead vocalist and guitarist, said with a laugh.
He described the L.A. based band, known to cross danceable genres from Latin to hip-hop to jazz funk, as the vehicle for he and his five bandmates to continue doing what they love.
“We just wanted to play music, and the idea of what Ozomatli became (came) soon after we started playing; it was actually bigger than us,” Pacheco said in a recent phone interview. “It was just this idea of different kinds of people … being able to make something together, which became a metaphor for something bigger than ourselves.”
With a show that Pacheco says will tap into its classic and new tracks, Ozomatli will be headlining Santa Fe’s first InterPlanetary Festival on Thursday, June 7.
Though group members have come and gone, the members in the band’s current six-man lineup have all been around since 1995, when bassist and singer Willy Abers recruited local musicians to perform together in support of an employee strike at a local youth center.
Since then, Ozomatli has racked up two Grammy awards – a Best Latin Rock, Urban or Alternative Album award in 2001 for “Embrace the Chaos” and the same in 2004 for “Street Signs.”
As it always has been, Pacheco said the goal of its live performances is to get the crowd moving. To do that, he says they supply a mix of older hits – including a crowd favorite, 1998’s “Cumbia De Los Muertos” – as well as tracks they’ve laid down more recently.
The group’s most recent album, 2017’s “Non-Stop: Mexico to Jamaica,” is made up of covers, mostly Mexican songs and other Latin tunes that Pacheco said the band members knew would resonate with their own roots and their audience – but performed with some twists. They incorporated Jamaican and reggae sounds and styles to remake familiar songs like “La Bamba,” “Bésame Mucho” and “Land of 1,000 Dances” (a song whose various versions include a hit by East L.A.’s Cannibal and the Headhunters).
“(It) seemed just unnatural enough to be kind of interesting,” Pacheco said of the album. “Like this isn’t normally how people make records.”
What sealed the deal, according to Pacheco, was the chance to have the record produced by reggae “elder statesmen” Sly and Robbie, the famous bass-and-drums duo known for making its own records, as well as playing rhythm for artists across the spectrum, from Bob Marley to Bob Dylan. “How can we say no to that?” he said.
Ozomatli’s shows also incorporate dialogue on social issues, said Pacheco, something he said is in the band’s “DNA.” The group has long been vocal on topics like immigration reform and Latino civil rights. Last week, the group also used Instagram to call for gun control and mental health awareness, following the deadly school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas.
That political passion naturally seeps into their sets. Pacheco said band members reflect on “more important things that are happening in the world” between songs. There is never a set script of what they want to talk about. But Pacheco said he and the others might draw inspiration from the InterPlanetary festival’s mission and the existential questions it wants to pose about survivability, on Earth or somewhere else.
“How are we a part of the cosmos and the universe?” asked Pacheco. “What do we bring from that part of the world from our experience? And how is it that we’re (all) related? Is it just because we’re human? I think it’s probably because there’s perceived barriers we’re interested in not seeing, and I think there’s ways we want to feel close to people who are strangers. These are the things I’m interested in.”