Ozomatli’s core members, from left: Asfru Sierra, Wil-Dog Abers, Raúl Pacheco, Ulises Bella, Jiro Yamaguchi and Justin “Nino” Porée
Ozomatli's bold and energetic music possesses elements of rock español, hip hop, Latin, alternative, jazz, funk and various world genres. Sometimes, myriad styles can be in one song; other times, they are singularly featured — really, there's no telling what this nine-piece ensemble will do. They constantly surprise their fans with an adventurous, creative spirit. In concert, they're a colossal force, consistently winning over a variety of audiences, from the aggressive, moshing Warped Tour attendees to wine-drinking, cheese-nibbling jazz festival types. One of their most successful opening slots was on a Carlos Santana tour: “Some people might even be intimidated to play with a group like Ozomatli,” Santana said of the group, “because they've got all that youthful energy and the crowd loves them. I like that energy. I thrive on it. They're a great band. They just need a couple of songs to get to the radio airwaves so they can get to the next level.”
Indeed, until recently, Ozomatli's studio albums have suffered in comparison to their live shows, which are full of passion and exuberance. For Ozomatli's self-titled 1998 debut CD, produced and engineered by T-Ray, they tried to record as much as possible without overdubs and layers of tracks. Eventually (and reluctantly), they succumbed to the advantages of multitracking, perhaps losing some spontaneity in the process. For the band's second effort, Embrace the Chaos (released on 9/11/2001, of all days), the studio process was less intimidating but still not very comfortable for them. The group employed multiple producers on that one effort, with Los Lobos' Steve Berlin, Mario Caldato Jr., Bob Power and the band all producing, while Robert Carranza, Dave McNair and Power shared engineering and mixing duties.
A six-song EP that came out in September 2003 was an attempt to rekindle some of the fire of their very first recording and doubled as a way to keep their fans happy during what turned out to be a three-year gap between full-length CDs. Their latest album, Street Signs, was released in late June. “That [EP] was the closest we've come to capturing that ‘live’ kind of feel,” stresses percussionist Jiro Yamaguchi. He, along with bassist/vocalist Wil-Dog Abers, percussionist/vocalist/MC Justin “Nino” Porée and engineer Carranza, were at Concord Records' Beverly Hills offices to talk with Mix. “I don't know if that necessarily was our goal, but some of the songs capture that and we were able to transfer it to CD.” Porée adds, “It is a struggle and as long we're a group, we'll be dealing with that. In a lot of ways, you just can't capture that [live sound]. It's a different energy at a concert: People are there and you're feeding off of different things. But the EP does that justice.”
Carranza, who also mixed the project, notes, “These guys are into the more organic part of the sound. But as the process has been going on, they're now starting to understand how distortion and compression factor into things and how to really make it work for them.” And so, when it came time to record Street Signs, they were more comfortable with what they were hearing in the studio and more open to experimentation. Rather than recording the album in one studio, Carranza — who has worked with Jack Johnson, Molotov and, most recently, Los Lobos — tried to capture the band “anywhere there was power.” That meant working in homes, hotels, studios on the road and several studios around L.A., including Glenwood Place and Concord's “G” studio. Everything was recorded on Pro Tools systems, including M-Box, Mix Plus and HD models owned by various members and engineers. Passing files and CDs was just part of the process in making the record, as was extensive experimentation with all sorts of plug-ins. Additionally, Carranza used API and Neve preamps to inject some analog warmth.
“You never know what you might be able to use on a record,” bassist Abers notes. “You might be in the nicest studio, but then you might record something in the bathroom while you're on the road. And that ends up on the record because of a certain quality — the tone or vibe of whatever you captured at that particular moment.” Carranza encouraged Ozomatli to ignore possible technical issues and go with their artistic urges above all. “I've always told these guys that the tools we use to make records are very important to the process, but, ultimately, good songs come through any format.”
“The biggest challenge from our standpoint was just getting it done,” Abers says. “But [technically], it was getting stuff off of our rigs onto one drive and weeding through what we were going to keep and what we were going to re-record.”
As it turned out, the eclectic tunes on Street Signs differed more creatively than technically. Ozomatli criss-crossed the globe genre-wise to concoct an exhilarating mixture of Middle Eastern, Latin, hip hop and North African grooves. Collectively, they were interested in expanding horizons and saw it as way to reach a more worldwide audience. The lead track, “Believe,” is an exotic fusion of Qawwali and post-alternative styles, accentuated by Moroccan sintir master Hassan Hakmoun and the French-Jewish gypsy violinists from Les Yeux Noirs. One of the group's heroes, Latin piano wizard Eddie Palmieri, plays on “Nadie Te Tira,” a scintillating progressive salsa number. Other guests include Los Lobos singer/guitarist David Hidalgo, who contributes to “Santiago”; original group DJ Cut Chemist, who is on “Déjame en Paz”; and another original MC, Chali 2na (of Jurassic 5), returns for “Who's to Blame.” On several tracks, too, the Prague Symphony recorded through a T-1 line, with strings and brass divided into 12 tracks miked for a possible surround mix. Mario Calire, formerly a member of The Wallflowers, is the band's new drummer, and MC duties are now handled by Jabu, who is featured on the title track.
Premier mixer Serben Ghenea, who has worked with the likes of Justin Timberlake, Michael Jackson and Jewel, was selected to meld Ozomatli's mish-mash of location and studio work into a cohesive recording; fortunately, they had all been transferred and rough-mixed on a single Pro Tools format. Then, typical of how Ghenea works with artists, he modified the band's mixes and put the results on his FTP site for them to check out and approve in their own environment. “I don't prefer it that way,” Ghenea comments from his Virginia Beach, Va., facility, “but it saves time and is more convenient for everyone.”
Bandmembers Yamaguchi, Porée, Abers and multi-instrumentalist Ulises Bella traveled cross-country to supervise the final mixes for several days in February 2004. “I was looking forward to seeing what he would do with the tracks,” Yamaguchi says. “It was interesting to see how he took the different forms of music and strung them all together.” Ghenea wouldn't go as far as to say it was a cakewalk putting all of these disparate elements together, but he notes that he's had a lot of experience with that type of thing.
“These kind of projects are a little more complicated and you have to make sure everything is represented,” he says. “Also, the focus of each song has to be present, kind of like the first N.E.R.D. record. The way you put that all together is tricky and you have to walk a thin line, basically.”
Pro Tools|HD was used throughout the final mixing of Street Signs, along with a slew of plug-ins, including Ghenea favorites such as Channel Strip, IBFP, Filter Bank, Compressor Bank and Waves applications. He has no formula for implementing them, saying that every song is different. Due to his high volume of work, he wasn't positive about what plug-ins were used for each song. “We worked a couple of hours on each track,” the mixer remembers, “and were just tweaking — nothing had to be done over. One of the guys would have an idea and might want to try something. When that happens, I call it a ‘tweak 'n' freak’ session: You tweak the song to make everyone happy and then experiment with stuff. That's a lot easier to do when everyone is in the room.”
Overall, he was very impressed by the band and the tremendous variety of styles on the album. “The band is cool and is one of the best-kept secrets in the music industry,” he says. “They're ready to become a major mainstream group. The CD isn't that different from their amazing live shows because they play everything.”