Political Party Animals

Ozomatli hopes its cross-cultural music spurs a revolution -- and makes you want to dance.

The disc starts off with "Como Ves," an upbeat song that "talks about the way history has been written; [it] may not be exactly the way history went," says Wil-Dog. "And also, who writes history is people with power." The track "Cut Chemist Suite" best highlights the band's house-party vibes and showcases the skills of MC Chali 2na and DJ Cut Chemist (who both also play in L.A.'s noted underground hip-hop act Jurassic 5) amid a backdrop of Latin-tinged Tower of Power-style horns. Typical of the way Ozomatli manipulates musical forms is the addition of a ska-dub break to cumbia in the cut "Cumbia de los Muertos," a song that deals with the cycle of youth violence.

"We really respect all music. We really respect the people that are playing it and where it comes from, and I think, for us, that's one of the most important things when we're taking a style of music and maybe changing it to fit the way that we hear it. I think first we look at the roots of the music -- how it sounds, where it comes from, what's the climate, what is the reason for the music being there. Like, if it's Afro-Cuban, why was Afro-Cuban music in Cuba? It was because of the slave trade. You had all these Africans in one place, and the drum was banned there, and they managed to keep it going," explains Wil-Dog.

Along with this studious approach to craft, the band manages to balance political sentiments with a get-down, turn-it-loose approach. This parallelism is evident on the song "Chango," which Wil-Dog says "is just about this dancing monkey -- the ugly monkey that dances really well."

Rainbow warriors: The nine-man Ozomatli crew.
Rainbow warriors: The nine-man Ozomatli crew.

Adds Wil-Dog, "I think if you asked everybody in the band, you'd get half and half. You'd probably get half of us saying we're there for the party and half of us saying we're there for politics and partying. I think it balances out in the end."

Though the band's two-headed monster approach has yielded explosive results in live settings, Ozomatli has had difficulty getting its music heard on tightly formatted radio and video stations. Despite this, its debut disc managed to break the top ten on Billboard's Latin chart, and the group also managed to get L.A.'s KROQ, long considered the arbiter of what gets played on so-called alternative stations nationwide, to play tracks from it. Recently, MTV and BET decided to air the video for "Cut Chemist Suite."

Yet the classification problem caused by Ozomatli's musical diversity has had its benefits. The group is among a handful of acts that can get away with playing the Warped Tour and opening for Santana, Willie Colon, the Dave Matthews Band, Lenny Kravitz and the Offspring. Which is not to suggest that the band has won over all audiences. Not everyone seems ready to digest Ozomatli's political messages, least of all a crowd the band recently encountered when opening up for the Offspring in Philadelphia, once the home of death-row inmate Mumia Abu Jamal.

"We almost started a riot," recalls Wil-Dog. "We dedicated the set to getting Mumia a fair trial, and I swear, there was like 4,000 kids booing us. It was hardcore."

"Hardcore" is perhaps an apt word to describe the level of Ozomatli's activism. It's likely that no L.A. band this side of Rage Against the Machine has played more benefits. The group has played benefits supporting the Zapatistas, the Battered Women's Association, the United Farm Workers and Jamal.

"What I would like to see is us getting into starting a cultural resistance, and I definitely think that art plays a huge part in that," says Wil-Dog. "Art played a huge part in the Sixties -- not that we could ever create that, but it could be the same energy, newer people." To get this started, the band, along with community and youth volunteers, organized an anti-police-brutality march that for the past two years has taken place on October 22. Wil-Dog describes one of the highlights of the event so far: "Just a week before the march, we would go down to Watts, South Central, and get together with a bunch of youth and teach them the samba. When the march came along, us and thirty youth have all these drums and do the samba and the march. The youth are just amazing."

Combine this live drumming with a boombox playing old-school classics from the band's faves, including War and Mandrill, and you've got an Ozomatli-style street-parade revolution that could raise Che from the grave. The band might even get ol' Fidel dancing.

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