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.