Backstage With Ozomatli
Getting to know the guys who make up the LatinoLA's ultimate progressive party band
"Everything they're saying is a lie - everything!"
Published on LatinoLA: January 24, 2000
We're backstage at the Glass House in Pomona. East L.A. Sabor Factory just finished playing and Aztlan Underground are on. The scene reads something like a cross between a Latin-jazz-jam-session and an adult version of Romper Room. People are talking loud, a few horns are going over newly-written notes, and here I am, trying to figure out who's who in Ozomatli when their rapper Chali 2na suddenly shouts out.
As one of a handful of young LatinoLA bands that have broken out nationally in recent months, Ozomatli has acquired a street rep as being a celebratory and richly diverse party band with socially progressive leanings. Yet, as individuals, there is no one that particularly stands out. My assignment was to find out who they are and what they're about.
The first thing that was fairly obvious was that the band was a bit road weary, so I ask the band's founder and bass player, Wil-Dog, what it's like travelling and being in the studio with such a large group.
"It's harder than you know, girl," he says. "It's like being in a marriage with nine other people. You have to be open to change."
Soon, we are joined by percussionist Jiro Yamaguchi, who comes in and takes over some of the questioning. I mention that although I've read all the stats, bios, and histories, I don't get a strong feel for their individual personalities.
"I think that's the whole thing about us," he says. "There was a time when we were about to get signed but because there wasn't one shining individual, they'd get turned off." He looks toward the ceiling to think about it. "But, we've used that to our advantage. We're kind of like a collective. Everybody's different and that's kind of what we thrive off."
"So what does it feel like to be famous," I ask, which makes him laugh. "We're totally oblivious. I mean, yeah, LA people hit us up more than say New York people. You know. We're doing our laundry and people be like, 'HEY! OZO!!' and you're like 'Hey what's up?' You talk to them for a little while, but that's that. We don't really think about it."
I look over at trumpeter and salsero Asdru Sierra, sitting on a nearby couch with a set of headphones on. "Talk to him, he'll talk to you," Wil says when I ask about the "others".
Interrupting Asdru from his private time, it turns out that he has a lot to say. I ask him what he makes of his newfound success and all that comes with it.
"If I just toured for the rest of my life, I would be happy," he says. "I'd rather not be mainstream." He says that while Ozomatli is not on a playlist on any radio station and they're not on MTV, he prefers it that way. "[MTV] changed the face of music. It became superficial. I don't want to be played in-between bubble gum punk and the Backstreet Boys."
While Asdru is turned-off with the business side of music, he understands all too clearly that it is something the band has to face. "It's hard. Sometimes it's like 'I wrote this song, I'm so inspired, yeah cool,'" he says with conviction. "And then it's like 'Oh, Okay. Now we gotta talk about royalties, publishing, rights. You're not making any money. Does the record label like it? Does the rest of the band like it?' Then you get in trouble because you start to question, 'Do I even like it'?"
Wil agrees and adds that the music business is not as glamorous as it may seem. He stays in the conversation long enough to answer what he would ultimately liked to have done with his talents. "I think I would like to know that I changed something. I want to have contributed to a culture of resistance through my art. Oh! And to [have helped] out other bands," he says jumping off the couch, remembering that he's due on stage for a cameo with Aztlan Underground.
Continuing my brief encounters and short-span interview moments, lead singer Raul Pacheco makes a guest appearance, entering the scene via the heavily trafficked wooden staircase. He's shouting that he's found the 'lost' lyrics and holds up a warped piece of paper that has his handwriting haphazardly sprawled against the white background.
"Just point to me when I need to come in," says Asdru. Raul turns to exit. "Wait! How does it go?" Asdru yells out. Raul turns back just long enough to deliver an intoxicating melodic verse, then runs downstairs.
"Are things always like this?" I can't stop myself from asking. Asdru grins and answers, "Pretty much."
Suddenly, as if on cue, the tour manager yells out for everyone. I file out behind the assembling band and walk through toward the capacity crowd. By happenstance, I get pushed against a side wall a few inches from where Ozo starts their huddle.
Drumming. Whistles. Yells.
"Ozomatli! Ozomatli! Ozomatli!"
I watch them snake their way through the crowd up to the stage, where they erupt like compressed lava. And I laugh..
After spending time with them in a chaotic backstage loft, trying to figure out who they were and what they were all about, in just two minutes of witnessing their "collective" on stage - horns blowing, congas popping, baseline kicking - my question was most eloquently answered.