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Getting funky with the Pops

Hip-hop group Ozomatli brings its controlled chaos to Boston’s Symphony Hall

The members of the globetrotting cultural mashup project Ozomatli will join the Boston Pops in what may be the most unusual -- and most interesting -- collaboration the orchestra has tried yet. The members of the globetrotting cultural mashup project Ozomatli will join the Boston Pops in what may be the most unusual -- and most interesting -- collaboration the orchestra has tried yet. (Christian Lantry)
By James Sullivan
Globe Correspondent / May 7, 2010

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The Boston Pops’ recent collaborations with alternative rock bands have proven to be a little like speed-dating, jokes Pops conductor Keith Lockhart.

“Sometimes you have a connection,’’ as he feels the orchestra did with My Morning Jacket, Guster, and Amanda Palmer, to name a few. “We haven’t had one where anybody stood up and threw water in the other person’s face. But sometimes afterwards you say, ’Hey, I’ll call you,’ and you never do.’’

On paper, the Pops’ one-night stand with Ozomatli, the pancultural street-party band coming from Los Angeles for tonight’s celebration of the symphony’s 125th anniversary, may be the most unusual matchmaking effort yet for the Pops. Ozomatli is often classified as a Latino hip-hop band, and Lockhart admits hip-hop isn’t his thing.

“It’s the triumph of rhythm over everything else,’’ he said. “What do you do with an 80-piece orchestra in a hip-hop chart?’’

But Ozomatli, which featured a rapper and a renowned turntablist in its early years, has evolved into a globetrotting cultural mashup project, effortlessly segueing from Mexican banda and New Orleans funk to South African township music. The three-time Grammy-winning group, which helped introduce Venezuelan conducting sensation Gustavo Dudamel at the Hollywood Bowl last fall, has been serving as official State Department Cultural Ambassadors in Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East.

And most of the band’s seven members grew up with some classical training. “Almost all of us are products of the magnet schools, the performing arts programs, here in LA,’’ said bassist Willy “Wil-Dog’’ Abers, a founding member of Ozomatli and the band’s resident dancing fool.

Lead singer Raul Pacheco sang in choir. Trumpeter Asdru Sierra and saxophonist Ulises Bella played in youth orchestras. The band has plenty of pop training, too: The father of percussionist Justin “El Nino’’ Poree, guitarist Greg Poree, has been musical director for several R&B groups and a veteran of recording sessions for Motown and other labels.

For the 15-year-old band’s new studio album, “Fire Away,’’ its fifth, it worked with producer Tony Berg, whose career ranges from playing for “The Muppet Show’’ to collaborations with the Replacements, Peter Gabriel, and John Lydon. Engineer Shawn Everett, said Abers, brought an aptitude for Pro Tools, the industry’s digital recording standard, that is off the charts. “I’ve never seen anybody play Pro Tools like an instrument like this guy,’’ he said. “It’s incredible what he does.’’

The results may be Ozomatli’s most exciting release since its 1998 debut, when the band still featured rapper Chali 2na and DJ Cut Chemist (who both soon left to form the hip-hop group Jurassic 5). Opening with “Are You Ready?,’’ a high-energy song backed by a field recording the band made of a “gumboot’’ dance troupe in South Africa, the album rubs East LA rockers and ballads up against a Pogues cover (“Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah’’) and a first single, “It’s Only Paper,’’ with a guest vocal by Jack Johnson.

“Jack just happened to be in the room next door, editing some surf video, I think,’’ Abers said. When the laid-back singer-songwriter stopped by, the band explained they were pressing to come up with vocals for a new song. Johnson casually offered to record some unused lyrics he’d written. “When Jack Johnson wants to get on the mike, are you gonna say no?’’ Abers said with a laugh.

A consummate live band that thrives on interaction and controlled chaos, Ozomatli appreciated its collaborators’ help in capturing the spontaneity of their stage show in the studio. “Recording is always a struggle for us,’’ said Abers. “It’s like working in a doctor’s office and trying to roll in the dirt.’’

Lockhart acknowledged that the band, chosen with particular input from the Pops’ assistant director of programming, Margo Saulnier — “our resident funky chick,’’ he calls her — will be “on the funky extreme of what we do at the Pops. But that’s what it’s all about: pioneering and not being afraid to try new combinations.’’

The conductor, who once spent a summer as a conducting fellow at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute, noted that the Boston Pops may be the only “gringo orchestra’’ nominated for a Latin Grammy. Still, he understands that the Ozomatli collaboration might look a little wild.

“People look at these [guest appearances] and think, That’s a radical idea. What is Lockhart thinking? But the tradition of the Pops, for the last 80 years now, has been making collaborations work that on the outside look incongruous.’’

The late Arthur Fiedler, of course, adapted the “radical’’ pop music of his day, including Elvis and the Beatles, for the Pops. “If he heard Ozomatli without the benefit of hearing the last 30 years of popular music, he’d probably be doing flips in his grave,’’ Lockhart said. “But I think he would understand what this is born out of.’’

OZOMATLI With the Boston Pops, tonight at 8 at Symphony Hall. Tickets $20 to $89 at 888-266-1200 or www.bso.org.