By Daniel Kohn
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It's difficult to imagine a more ethnically diverse band than Ozomatli: the 10-member ensemble includes several Latinos on strings, percussion, drums and horns; an African-American on vocals; a Japanese-born sitar and tabla player; and even a white bassist. Which explains why the LA band has been hailed as the multicultural world-music group of the '90s.
But Ozomatli's many-hued members have at least two things in common: "demonstrations and PlayStations," according to bassist and founder Willy "Wil-Dog" Abers. It's a joke, says Wil-Dog, suggesting that several members of Ozomatli, including himself, are actually "lazy as hell" and—in a perfect world—would like nothing better than to sit around playing video games all day.
But Ozomatli doesn't have much time for games these days. Last month, the group finished a summer tour with Carlos Santana (an Ozomatli fan who first heard about them through Dolores Huerta of United Farm Workers fame), and Santana's latest album, Supernatural, features several songs that were recorded with the band. After Wednesday's gig at the Sun Theatre, they'll launch a two-month tour of U.S. colleges, winding up just in time for a Nov. 1 studio date, when they'll finally sit still long enough to start writing songs for their much-anticipated second album.
Busy or not, demonstrations have much more to do with Ozomatli's music than video games. While art and politics have always been an uneasy mix (especially in pop music), Ozomatli makes no bones about the fact that it's a political band. On Sept. 11, the band headlined Mumia 911, a benefit concert meant to draw attention to the looming execution of convicted cop killer and self-declared political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. His fate has become a cause célèbre among many artists of Ozomatli's generation, including Rage Against the Machine and the Beastie Boys.
Unlike Rage—whose founders, Zack de la Rocha and Tom Morello, met while students at Harvard—Ozomatli's political roots are a bit more personal. On March 13, 1995, about 30 striking employees of a post-LA-riot summer-jobs program, the LA Conservation Corps, took control of the organization's Emergency Response Unit (ERU) headquarters in downtown LA. That action followed a wage dispute over the fact that only Corps management got any vacation or benefits—while ERU staffers were paid by the hour and were kept from working more than 30 hours per week in order to avoid qualifying for full-time employment status.
One of the strikers was Wil-Dog, who grew up in the gang-plagued Pico Union neighborhood. He remembers sneaking backstage with his mother at the Clash's second U.S. show when he was 6 years old. ("The Clash is my favorite group," says Wil-Dog, who posed for Ozomatli's first album with a vinyl copy of London Calling cradled in his arms.)
"We wanted better wages and benefits," Wil-Dog says of the strike. After a monthlong standoff with police, Wil-Dog and the rest of the ERU strikers lost their jobs, but they won the right to remain in the building. Thus was born the Peace & Justice Center.
The only problem: the center had no money. Wil-Dog called as many local musicians as he could find and begged them to perform at a fund-raiser on the center's opening night. "Fifteen people showed up to play," he recalls. Within a few performances, it was obvious that something big had happened: the birth of a truly original and incredibly danceable mixture of hip-hop, reggae, funk, salsa and jazz greater than the sum of its parts.
While politics provided the context for the band's formation and continues to offer Ozomatli various venues to perform in front of new audiences, the band's basic mission is to make people forget their worries—put down their picket signs or Tek-9s, as the case may be—and dance. The idea is even reflected in the name Ozomatli, the Aztec god of dance.
After Ozomatli's first non-rehearsed gig at the Peace & Justice Center, the band spent the next three years performing live before landing a recording contract with Almo Sounds. The hard work that went into that album shows. It opens with the natural sound of Ozomatli's entire ensemble marching onstage in a samba line, banging drums, blowing whistles and chanting "Ya se fue! Ya se fue!" (Time's up! Time's up!), which slowly rises in volume until it reaches a crescendo that folds over into a sparkling guitar riff, signaling the start of "Como Vez." From there, "Cut Chemist Suite" showcases Wil-Dog's Bootsy Collins-inspired basswork and Chali 2na's toasting-style rap delivery. Several songs, like "O Le Le," "Cumbia" and "Chango," feature beautiful work by saxophonist Ulises Bela and trumpeter Asdru Sierra, not to mention adept flamenco-style strumming by guitarist Raul Pacheco. One of the album's most interesting segments begins with an early morning raga played on sitar and tabla by Jiro Yamaguchi, which suddenly transforms into a superfunky, bass-heavy reflection on urban living called "Super Bowl Sundae."
"Three years of work went into that first album," explains Wil-Dog. "We're probably going to get criticized on our second album because that's what usually happens with a sophomore release. We could never write what we did on our first album again." Wil-Dog adds that the band won't even start recording their next disc until January.