By Matt Philips
It’s not like Los Angeles-based band Ozomatli formed 18 years ago because they wanted to make some superfluous statement about the importance of diversity or cross-cultural ties. It’s not like they wanted to point out that borders are, believe it or not, simply solid lines drawn onto a map.
Ozomatli just reflects those truths, that’s all.
“From the beginning of time, people have moved from point A to point B to survive,” said Raul Pacheco, longtime guitarist and vocalist in the band. “That tradition, we think, is a natural part of being human.”
Ozomatli, whose tunes range from salsa and hip-hop to funk and reggae — think zealous jam band with conscious lyrics — are multiracial and multilingual. They, and their music, are sonorous diamonds risen from the urban rough, forged in the cultural mishmash of Los Angeles.
That pedigree makes Ozomatli an obvious choice to headline an event like Left Hand Brewing Co.’s Culture Jam on Saturday night in Longmont. The concert is a benefit for the Longmont YMCA and Intercambio Uniting Communities, a Boulder County nonprofit that offers volunteer-taught English language and cultural integration courses.
Since its founding 12 years ago, Intercambio’s volunteers have taught 9,000 people. Now, the nonprofit has a fluctuating, 200-person waiting list.
“We’re seeing a really huge demand for our services now,” said Lee Shainis, Intercambio’s executive director and co-founder.
Intercambio was founded on the premise that communication is a core foundation of a strong, vibrant community — and clear communication is derived from language.
Those values intersect with Ozomatli’s, both in spirit and action.
“They’re all about uniting communities as well,” Shainis said. “Our missions are very similar but obviously different avenues.”
As a band, Ozomatli centers its music and performances in the context of social struggle. To them, the simple truth that people sometimes must cross borders to pursue safety or happiness isn’t a political talking point. Instead, it’s a human necessity, a steady rhythm that rises from oppression’s percussive beats.
“There is a huge amount of history before us that has led to what we’re experiencing now, and we’re just a part of that,” Pacheco said. “Most people walking the Earth are pretty positive people, and they’re doing things that are very positive for themselves and for their families.”
The boundaries that separate cultures and people are forever shifting, merging and brushing against each other — much like a concert crowd.
Ozomatli, though they’ve won multiple Grammy awards, have made a name for themselves through their live performances. Pacheco is quick to point out that the band has never had a national hit, but they’ve played concerts in places like Nepal and the Middle East.
“I think for people who have seen us, they can rely on a certain amount of energy. And people who have never seen us, I think there’s a good chance they’ll see something they’ve never seen before,” he said.
A band is a lot like a small community; a hodgepodge of personalities thrown together, all with varying needs, desires and perspectives. Those differences are hard to reconcile at times, both in a band and a community. Sometimes they make for conflict.
But when those differences are transcended, whether through a song or a simple language lesson, those lines on a map begin to mean less and less.
“The push and pull of wanting to recognize parts of yourself in a large group takes a lot of patience,” Pacheco said. “It takes a lot of consistency and effort.”
Matt Phillips is the Denver Post’s Features intern.