One Nation Under a Groove

In California a crowd of 10,000 shakes the Santa Monica Pier for the last free concert of the summer. High school kids, industry types, the homeless, cholos, black, white, and brown all make elbow war for room to dance. Ozomatli pounds its sound out on to the beach while the fans scream and shout. The crowd sweats quite a bit, too: I've managed to work my way to a terrific sightline but a terrible odor, as the man next to me apparently decided some years ago not to shower until he's seen Ozomatli. Some four guitars, six horns, what looks like nine hundred percussion instruments, at least eight cousins, and somebody's mother all dot the stage, running around, keeping the audience at a fevered pitch with this merengue-ska-hip-hop hybrid, barrio-born and muy picante. At the concert's end, the band members jump into the crowd, instruments and all, weaving a giant samba line through the audience. They come right at me, and I'm shoved into the smelly guy, but it's a small price to pay. The crowd finally dissipates, still buzzing; we just got run over by the future.

The origin of Ozomatli is simple. Will Abers, a.k.a. Wil-Dog, was working for an L.A. nonprofit agency that provided work for inner-city youth. The jobs were dead-end and minimum-wage, and when Wil-Dog's subgroup (the emergency response unit) tried to instill its project with creativity and free thought, the kids began to question their working conditions. That dissent turned into a sit-down strike for worker control.

At a strikers' rally, Wil-Dog met political consultant Raul Pacheco, who was thrilled to experience the raw energy of direct action after the hackwork he had been doing in the halls of the state capitol in Sacramento. The protesters were summarily fired, but negotiated a rare sendoff from their employer: They got to keep the building. So guitarist Pacheco and bassist Abers got together with a jazz klatsch of horn players from a nearby community college, threw in a tabla drummer and an MC for good measure, and Ozomatli was born. The group broke out its first jam at a fundraiser dedication for the newly acquired Peace and Justice Center.

It can also be posited that the origin of Ozomatli is world-historical, tracing to the '50s and '60s, when Chicanismo erupted into rock and roll and politics. From Ritchie Valens to the United Farm Workers to the Chicano Moratorium of 1968 (a day of anti-Vietnam War protest where Pacheco toddled as the police rioted), Mexican Americans challenged and influenced mainstream America. Meanwhile U.S. foreign policy went imperial on Central America, bombing away the '80s with thug armies and death squads in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Refugees from these war-torn nations poured into Los Angeles at the same time as the white-sheet atrocities of the LAPD reached an apocalyptic climax in the Rodney King beating and the riots that ensued.

This all confused the hell out of the older generations of L.A. immigrants, fighting for scraps of power in a racially divided city and contending with a new flood of pan-Latin immigrants who had little connection to the pillars of Chicano identity. A new force was needed to turn division into diverse unity and spare no fingers pointing out the real villains. Symbolically then, Ozomatli unites the sons of immigrants old and new in a fusion of ritmos latinos, ska, hip-hop soul, and that tabla drummer.

The band members have left their native L.A. for a nationwide tour, seemingly billed under a different genre in every city; here in Miami, they appear at the MIDEM Americas conference as a rock en espanol act, a nascent format that can sound like Bryan Adams in translation as often as not. Their album hides in salsa sections, they get nominated in World Music categories, and they play shows with everyone from obscure L.A. punk rockers to Santana.

Wil-Dog was surprised but happy to be playing the rock en espanol slot. "One magazine called us R&B. They can pigeon us into whatever hole they want to," says Pacheco, who proudly notes that an audience in Cuba, where people have little patience for amateur salseros, danced to their souped-up mix without flinching.

Refusing to be categorized has probably cost Ozomatli exposure. Its eponymous debut album sells briskly (it recently crossed the 100,000 mark) but Ozomatli gets very little radio play, and relies on word-of-mouth to draw crowds. Consequently the musicians are happy to sneak into any genre that will have them: The eleven members of the band made an explicit commitment to "play whatever kind of scene," according to Pacheco. They layer musical forms from all over, but Wil-Dog makes a distinction between them and much-admired world-beat eclectics such as Peter Gabriel. "We grew up with all this stuff," he says wryly.

The musicians' backgrounds reveal that crazy-quilt diversity and omnivorous musicianship. Pacheco was raised listening to Mexican boleros alongside Jimi Hendrix, and plays guitarlike instruments such as the bajo sexto and the Cuban tres. Saxophonist Ulises Bella has Argentine parentage and classical-piano schooling, with experience in ska bands and jazz combos. Japanese percussionist Jiro Yamaguchi knows Indian classical music. Until recently rapper Chali 2na rhymed and turntable virtuoso Cut Chemist rounded out the rhythm section; they now devote their time to L.A. hip-hop act Jurassic 5, though Chali 2na may return to the group. On tour Kid W.I.K. spins and Kinetic raps.

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