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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.
These rich identities carry into their songs -- sonic salads and highly danceable mutt music from the underdogs of the global economy. The flamenco-flavored "Eva" lays a hip-hop beat under a furious jarocho strum and features Bella and trumpeter Asdru Sierra in alternating bebop and Latin horn melodies. "La Misma Canción" fuels a wiseacre ranchero with amphetamine ska. "Cumbia de los Muertos," Wil-Dog's proclaimed favorite, combines the Colombian two-step cumbia with a dub reggae riff. The Spanish lyrics evoke the Day of the Dead mythos: "Here there is no sadness ... in this dance of the loved ones of the past." A verse later the MC turns the mystical spirits into a politicized body count: "Soon as we're rid of society's small terrors/The sooner these teenagers don't have to be pallbearers."
Politics also infuses the band's work, from the album and perennial concert-opener "Como Ves" (which declares, "History is not what you think") to "Chango," an anti-police-brutality riff with revolutionary sentiments: "We who gave [the police] authority can also take it away." Ozomatli played for 35,000 at a United Farm Workers rally, before immigrant strawberry pickers, Chicano youth, and middle-age unionists alike; its sets include "Aqui No Sera," a protest song about the U.S.-backed bombing of El Salvador. Still the group's lyrics celebrate unity more often than they implicate specific oppressors. Although born into struggle and unflinching in their public support of causes like the Zapatista rebels in Mexico, members of the band balk at advocacy in their lyrics.
For now Wil-Dog is frank about these limits: "There's not just one dogma that we can stick by. We're not just about one thing." Nonetheless he believes firmly that Ozomatli can inspire a movement of the questioning spirit that led to the emergency rescue unit work stoppage. The band fosters a cultural resistance against police surveillance and youth harassment. Ozo has signed to the Mumia 911 event, a national day of protest to stop the execution of radical journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose trial is widely considered tainted. Wil-Dog has tried to organize groups beyond the usual-suspects list of Rage Against the Machine and friends; he's already signed Isaac Hayes and mainstream ska goofballs Reel Big Fish, and is waiting for the opportunity to recruit Santana when the two groups share a stage later this summer.
To a great extent Ozomatli's ethnosonic diversity is its strongest political asset. The United States perpetually stands between race-riot and coalition politics, and the funk smoothies of mixmastered cultures keep tension at bay much better than flag waving or genre purity. The fact that eleven cats from so many different barrios can get together and produce an ecstatic rump-shaking triumph that crosses continents and generations testifies loudly to Rodney King's utopia. Yes, we can all get along. In fact the many can do it better than the few.
Ozomatli performs at 10:00 p.m. Wednesday, June 23, at the Cameo Theatre, 1445 Washington Ave, Miami Beach. Also appearing are Argentina's Bersuit, Mexico's Control Machete, and Puerto Rico's El Manjar de los Dioses. Tickets are $15. Call 305-532-0922 for more information.