OZOMATLI: Live at the Fillmore DVD/CD, August 23
Named for the Aztec god associated with dance and laughter, the fiercely independent 10-man group Ozomatli refers to itself as a collective of black, Chicano, Cuban, Japanese, Jewish and Filipino musicians rather than a band.
Published on LatinoLA: August 5, 2005
The musicians play numerous benefits and remain unashamedly leftist, even in today's polarized climate. Their aim is to erase the barriers between performer and audience by creating noncommercial music that speaks to the spiritual, emotional and political needs of the people.
So they were as surprised as anyone when last year's Arab-influenced "Street Signs" CD took home the Grammy award for best Latin rock/alternative album.
"We don't play to win trophies," says Wil-Dog Abers, the group's bass player. "And while it's great to win recognition from your peers, I don't think there's really a category for what we do."
Anyone who's heard the band would have to agree. Ozomatli's music is as diverse as the background of the band's members. On "Street Signs," they play punk merengue, R&B jarocho (a folkloric rhythm from Veracruz, Mexico), Egyptian-Hindi funk flavored with a bit of rap, as well as rock guitar and Latin jazz with special guest Eddie Palmieri. They also drop in some dub reggae and rhythms from the Gnawas, a North African sect that has been drawing together Arab and black African traditions for centuries.
"All music has something to do with the music prior to it," Abers says. "When you look at African music, there's a definite link from those West African drumbeats that came to the American South and Cuba with the slaves, to the beats in pop and hip-hop culture now. It's just that most people aren't aware of it."
Like many musicians who are pioneering new directions in cross-cultural fusion, the members of Ozomatli say they never consciously decided to break new ground. Their sound arose organically from the diverse musical interests of the band members.
"Everybody (in the band) contributes ideas. We're all into different styles, so when we start arranging, we sort through ideas, looking for the relation between our music and music from other countries," Abers says. "You can do the same thing with art and languages; you discover the similarities as well as the differences.
"If something sounds comfortable and not too corny, we go with it. We start by learning the traditional style as well as we can, then blend in other things. We don't just hear it and think we can play it; we're all students of music. Sometimes people bring in a complete tune, but after we jam on it, it may sound entirely different."
Most of the band members play a variety of instruments, which helps fill out their sound. Sax man Ulises Bella doubles on clarinet, keys, requinto jarocho and melodica; Asdru Sierra plays trumpet, guitar and piano and sings; Justin "El Ni?o" Por?e raps and plays congas and percussion; lead vocalist Raul Pacheco plays guitar and tres, a cross between a guitar and mandolin; Jiro Yamaguchi is trained in North Indian classical music and has a percussion arsenal that includes tabla, bongos and Egyptian doumbek, a clay drum. The lineup is completed by trap drummer Mario Calire, rapper-vocalist Jabu, DJ Spinobi on turntables, trombone player Sheffer Bruton and Abers on bass.
Ozomatli's origins reflect the band members' deep roots in their community. Abers was working in Los Angeles with an organization for at-risk youth. When the city shut it down, he helped organize a sit-in to protest the closing.
"We lost the building, but opened a community center, the Peace and Justice Center, and started a jam band to raise money to support the programs we'd established," Abers says. "We played there for six months every Saturday night."
The buzz they built led to two months at the Viper Room, then a yearlong Thursday-night residency at the Dragonfly, both in L.A. Critical raves and strong word-of-mouth reaction led to a deal with Interscope, but the label couldn't market the expansive menu of Latin rock, Mexican folk music, rap, funk and jazz, with side orders of merengue, samba, reggae and other Caribbean and South American rhythms. "Embrace the Chaos," the band's last major-label effort, was released Sept. 11, 2001.
"At that time, it wasn't very popular to be critical of anything the U.S. was doing. It seemed like the whole country stopped, but we decided to keep performing," Abers says. "Two weeks later we played in New York City. We thought it was important for our voice to be heard. We didn't have that someone-has-to-pay-for-this attitude. A lot of people wondered why anyone could be so angry at the U.S., but history didn't start on 9/11. We wanted to provide a way of mourning what had happened, an alternative to the
let's-go- kill-'em-all reaction. We also played the first post-9/11 anti-war concert for Not in Our Name in L.A."
Last year Ozomatli signed with Concord Records and won its Grammy. The band is touring behind its "Live at the Fillmore" CD/DVD, a set that captures the energy of the band's celebrated live show.
"We win most of our fans with live shows," Abers says. "Since we're between albums, a live CD made sense. And what better place than the Fillmore? It has history, sound quality, and the vibe of the people in San Francisco is always great. We recorded two nights, and what you hear is what we played. The DVD is more representative of an actual set, but not the full two-hour show we usually do."
Work also continues on Ozomatli's next studio effort.
"We're listening to a lot of Motown and old school R&B," Abers says, "but whatever we come up with will still have the Ozo twist to it."
Originally published in the SF Chronicle