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Last March 18, the L.A. multicultural funk band Ozomatli ended its show at Austin, Texas's Exodus club during the annual South By Southwest (SXSW) festival by leading the audience in a traditional samba line around the club, a customary conclusion to its rousing and kinetic performances. But that night, as its ten members, with percussion and wind instruments in hand, danced out of the nightclub with a chain of fans following them, Austin police officers emerged to try and force everyone back inside.
In the ensuing confusion, some witnesses reported that police were using pepper spray to disperse the crowd in the street. Percussionist Jiro Yamaguchi, who was holding his tom-tom drum up in the air, accidentally backed into one of the cops, resulting in an arrest for "assault" on a police officer. In the end, Yamaguchi, bassist Willy "Wil-Dog" Abers, and manager Amy Sue Blackman-Romero were all taken into custody and forced to spend more than twelve hours in the Travis County Jail before being released on their own recognizance. All three eventually pleaded no contest to their various offenses and received three to six months' probation.
The incident, which took place during one of the biggest music industry conferences of the year, set off a brief media frenzy that threatened to overshadow the band's own concerns about America's ongoing war on terror, but nevertheless spoke volumes about the increased police and military presence in this country. "We just hope to get that past us already," says background singer and tenor saxophonist Ulises Bella on the phone from Australia. "It had nothing to do with politics at that moment. It had everything to do with police overreacting, which is nothing new all around the world. If you really break it down to what was happening, we were [just] playing drums in the street."
It's Friday afternoon in Los Angeles, but for Ozomatli it's Saturday morning in Australia, where they are planning to drive from Melbourne to Sydney for a concert that night. The group's sixth visit to the land down under is part of a schedule that includes festival and club appearances, eventually leading to its third visit to Japan. "I don't think being a multilingual band is a handicap in this part of the world," says Bella of Ozomatli's diverse cultural makeup, spanning everything from Chicano soul and salsa to black hip-hop and jazz. "I think a lot of different countries are used to people speaking in a lot of different languages. It's more about the show and the music."
Ozomatli's highly energetic show and cosmopolitan music has garnered the group street cred in Los Angeles and a huge cult fan base outside the city over the past nine years. That strong connection with its audience led to its recent third album, Street Signs, earning as much acclaim as its previous Embrace the Chaos, which was released on 9/11 and won a 2002 Grammy for best Latin alternative album.
Street Signs' melting pot offers the usual Latin-flavored hip-hop with English and Spanish lyrics. But it's also fueled by strings from the French-Jewish Gypsy violinists of Les Yeux Noirs and the Prague Symphony, plus famous guests such as Latin jazz pianist Eddie Palmieri, Los Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo, and homecoming performances from Jurassic 5's (and former Ozomatli members) MC Chali 2na and DJ Cut Chemist.
Unexpectedly, there is also a Middle Eastern vibe floating through the album. Bella explains that many band members have been into North African, Arabic, and Middle Eastern music for a while, adding that taking inspiration from these exotic sounds served a political as well as musical purpose.
"With so much focus on the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan, we felt that it was really important to represent that sound," explains Bella, "especially because post-9/11 there was a dehumanization of that culture, just like in any war situation the powers that be will try to dehumanize the enemy, to make it easier for people not to feel for them.
"We thought that culturally and artistically we should give our support ... nuestro apoyo. In every culture there is something of beauty, and to just simplify it and say, öEverybody who wears a turban, or is of Arabic descent, is a terrorist,' is ridiculous."