By Brad Lopez
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
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Playing house band for the oppressed worldwide is one way that Ozomatli, an eleven-piece, L.A.-based, genre-splicing outfit, wants to party in 1999. By proudly wearing a "politics for the people" philosophy on its sleeve, the multi-cultural group is a pre-millennial answer to the infamous question posed by Los Angeles denizen Rodney King in 1992. Ozomatli aims to demonstrate that it is, in fact, possible for us all to get along -- in musical terms, at least.
From a cultural standpoint, the makeup of Ozomatli resembles the kind of multi-ethnic block party one might hope to one day find in the sunnier neighborhoods of Los Angeles. The band includes Jewish bassist Wil-Dog Abers; Chali 2na, a transplanted black rapper from Chicago; Jiro Yamaguchi, a Japanese percussionist; white turntablist Cut Chemist; and a Latino guitarist and three-man horn section; its diversity of tongues and spicy mix of sounds inevitably have arisen from the players' experiences as Angelenos.
"I think it has a lot to do with the diversity of L.A.," says Wil-Dog, "especially growing up in the area of Hollywood and downtown. You can drive down the street and hear Armenian music, cumbia, hip-hop -- all different types of stuff -- and just the fact that all of us are from different parts of L.A., it shows in the energy of the music."
Much of Ozomatli's music is meant to serve as an antidote to the image of the city perpetuated by those who backed Proposition 187 and other anti-immigration and anti-affirmative-action policies in the last few years. "I think that just the fact that we do sing in Spanish on half of our songs is a protest of that in one way," says Wil-Dog, one of the more left-leaning members of the band.
Yet choosing a multi-lingual lyrical approach is one of Ozomatli's more subtle acts of rebellion. Besides recently playing with Carlos Santana, the bandmembers cite a trip to Cuba to participate in the International Youth Festival as the highlight of their career so far.
"It was a real nice 'fuck you' to say to the U.S. government [for] not allowing us to go, so that was cool," laughs Wil-Dog. The band dodged the pesky travel restrictions resulting from the U.S. trade embargo by taking a flight from Tijuana to Cuba. "It was a beautiful experience. The people there are beautiful. They loved and really took care of us. I mean, they have the best salsa bands in the world, so there was no way we could go over there and compete, but they love hip-hop over there." The clandestine voyage was not without incident. At a fashionable jazz club on the newly tourist-friendly island, the group walked off mid-set in protest of the country's policy of segregating dollar-paying "tourists" from peso-paying customers.
Ozomatli's penchant for infusing the political with its high-energy music is no surprise, since the band's origin can be traced to organized politics. Originally performing under the moniker Somos Marcos (Spanish for "We Are Marcos"), a reference to the Zapatista leader in Chiapas, Mexico, the group came together when several of its future members were working at the Los Angeles Conservation Corps. The Corps was an offshoot of the Rebuild L.A. government programs that sprouted up after the L.A. riots, and after lower-level employees became fed up with some slack labor policies, Wil-Dog helped organize his co-workers.
"[The Corps] was basically a poverty pimp civil-service program, and we were trying to get better wages and benefits and paid vacation just like the upper-level management staff were getting. Basically, the jobs were intern-level positions, and what we wanted to do was start a union at the Corps," explains Wil-Dog. Not impressed, the management fired all of the workers. In March 1995, the organizers took over the building that housed the Corps, which led to a meeting with federal mediators, who eventually upheld the Corps's decision. The fired workers were granted access to the building, however, and they soon founded a community center and began organizing programs in music, skateboarding and breakdancing, among others.
"We got the rights to the building for a year, so we started the Peace and Justice Center to raise money for the building...We threw parties every weekend, and the band got together," recalls Wil-Dog.
The group's parties became legendary with locals and led to a reign at L.A.'s Opium Den and then the Dragonfly, where their live shows began to build a steady following. During this period, the players became noted for their famed samba line: Before shows, they would dance in single-file formation among their fans and conclude concerts by leading the crowd and the festivities out into the street. By this time, the band had changed its name to the more appropriate Ozomatli, the name of the Aztec deity of dance, who appears on the Aztec calendar in the form of a monkey. The band knew it had become popular when kids in the L.A. area began sporting "OZO" tattoos.
The success of Ozomatli's live shows prompted its debut independent recording, an EP titled Ya Llegó!, which sold over 14,000 copies in the L.A. area alone. The group then recorded a full-length self-titled album that contained songs from Ya Llegó! and released it on Almo Sounds, an imprint owned by Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, in June 1998.
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."
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.