I have a brother-in-law in the military who got shot with an AK-47 in North Korea," says Asdru Sierra. "And we're not even at war with North Korea...not really."
Sierra doesn't want to talk about himself today. The vocalist and trumpet player for Latin-jazz/hip-hop ensemble Ozomatli doesn't want to talk much about his band either, even as it garners great press for its latest Concord Records release, Street Signs. Tonight, like many nights, Sierra has politics on his mind.
"I hate saying the word 'politics,'" offers the soft-spoken, intense musician. "It's such a dirty word." Nonetheless, Ozomatli has always been known for its commitment to progressive politics and to social justice. Its previous record, Embrace the Chaos, was released along with a number of other ill-fated works on September 11, 2001. Rather than canceling its scheduled tour, as many bands did at the time, this multi-ethnic band of brothers hit the road as planned, spreading a message of hope and unity. And then they got down to writing and recording.
"We started doing this album when things in the Middle East went crazy," Sierra recalls. "And I thought, 'Fuck politics.' I feared for my kids."
For this immigrant son, whose family came from Mexico, the political is always tied to the personal, and the personal almost always becomes political: "In a war, the Latino kids are always among the first to get killed," Sierra points out. "And all because one guy thinks he has a bigger dick."
With this in mind, Ozomatli's ten credited members -- Sierra, trombonist Sheffer Bruton, saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Ulises Bella, bassist Willy "Wil-Dog" Abers, drummer Mario Calire, percussionist Jiro Yamaguchi, percussionist/rapper Justin "El Niño" Porée, guitarist Raul Pacheco, DJ Rene "Spinobi" Dominguez and MC Jabu -- came together to record Street Signs. Numerous guests, including Los Lobos guitarist David Hildalgo and legendary Latin-jazz and salsa pianist Eddie Palmieri, add character and drama to the crew's sound. While that's a large crowd to bring together in the studio, this is one ensemble whose strength is in its diversity.
In an attempt to bring an increasingly divided people together through its music, Ozomatli, which shares its name with the Aztec god of dance, incorporates a number of Middle Eastern influences into the songs on Street Signs, adding new dialects to its musical patois. The album's genre-blending opener, "Believe," is an apt introduction to Ozo's booty-shaking dissertation on human unity. Tabla work by Yamaguchi -- trained in Northern Indian classical music -- is joined by the gypsy strings of Les Yeux Noir and an Arabic melody provided by the Forte Music City of Prague Orchestra. The strings then abruptly drop out, making room for Sierra to break it down, Qawwali-style, with the opening line: Cada día yo veo la destrucción Cada día yo veo la maldición (Every day I see destruction/Every day I see damnation). A sample from the Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Party track, "Data Teira Durbar," adds to the tune's infectious groove. Around the three-minute mark, Jabu busts rhymes that underscore the song's theme of hope for and belief in humanity, while Moroccan-born Gnawa singer Hassan Hakmoun improvises a haunting vocal melody. While this might seem like a worldbeat train wreck on paper, the result is a powerful statement that moves the body and the mind.
Combining music from the four corners of the earth can be a tricky business. It would be easy for an American band like Ozomatli to come off as gimmicky or exploitative, but the group's members are serious musicologists who are sensitive to their roles in bringing cultures together through song. "Music is the key to every culture," Sierra notes. "We don't want to insult the music by just adding some lick."
The gumbo sound of Ozomatli emerges from the eclectic tastes of its members. Abers cites Peter Tosh, the Clash and Stetsasonic among his influences; Bruton name-checks Mozart, Dead Kennedys and John Coltrane; and Porée mentions Public Enemy and Bjrk. To Sierra, the singing of Qawwali master Khan and flamenco vocalist El Camarón de la Isla are more alike than they are different.
These dissimilar sounds first came together in humble surroundings. In the tradition of many jazz greats who threw "rent parties" to prevent friends from being evicted, Ozomatli got its start playing gigs to raise money to pay the local community center's utility bill. To appeal to the ethnically diverse crowds drawn to these shows, the act felt compelled to explore a wide range of styles early on, from salsa to rap to rock. News of the energetic shows and unique, joyful noise spread throughout Los Angeles, and soon the band was packing some of the city's hottest venues.
But that diverse fusion of sounds hasn't always worked in Ozomatli's favor. When the group first brought its eponymous debut to L.A. radio stations, the mainstream stations loved the rap elements but wanted the Spanish sections edited out; the Spanish-language stations were put off by the rap. But finally, and ironically, L.A. radio powerhouse KROQ picked "Como Ves," the Spanish-only opening track. Sierra attributes this fortunate turn of events to the "head-nod factor," the smokin' grooves that make it damned near impossible to sit still when Ozo is kickin' out the jams.
In spite of the undeniable danceability of its music, the collective still gets little love from radio. Even so, mainstream exposure is coming from some unexpected places. Ozomatli has appeared in the film Never Been Kissed, in an episode of HBO's Sex and the City and on the popular PBS drama American Family.
While filming the American Family episode, Ozo's members traveled south to where California's glamour meets Tijuana's grime. There, they gave all the water they had to the desperate Mexican people trying to cross the border to collect on America's promise. "We try to put that desperation into the music," explains Sierra.
In fact, Street Signs' "(Who Discovered) America?" is about that desperation, that promise, and the way America often betrays its immigrants. Sierra is optimistic, however, that through his musical success he can show his children -- a five-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter -- that they can do anything they want. Expectedly, this hope extends from the personal to the political. "It would be great," he proclaims, "if we can reach just a few people who voted for Bush."
Though Sierra may not get his wish, Ozomatli's lyrics are definitely intended to provoke thought and emotion. But even without words, its combination of irresistible grooves and a conscientious melding of sounds from across the globe makes an undeniable and potent political statement. Sierra may not have much to say about his group, but the music speaks for itself.
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