Ozomatli - Biography
By J Poet
Ozomatli is fiercely independent. The ten-man group refers to themselves as a collective of Black-Chicano-Cuban-Japanese-Jewish-Filipino musicians, rather than a band. Their aim is to erase the barriers between performer and audience by creating non-commercial music that speaks to the spiritual, emotional and political needs of the people. In 2004, their Arab influenced Street Signs CD on Concord took home the Best Latin Rock/Alternative Album Grammy. On the album they played punk merengue, R&B jarocha (a folkloric rhythm from Vera Cruz, Mexico,) Egyptian-Hindi funk flavored with a bit of rap as well as rock guitar, Latin jazz with special guest Eddie Palmieri, dub reggae and rhythms borrowed from the Gnawas, a North African sect that has been drawing together Arab and Black African traditions for centuries.
Like many bands pioneering new directions in cross-cultural fusion, Ozomatli never made a conscious choice to break new ground. “Everybody [in the band] contributes ideas,” said Wil-Dog Abners in 2005. “We’re all into different styles, so when we start arranging, we sort through ideas looking for the relation between our music and music from other countries. We start by learning the traditional style, as well as we can, and then blend in other things. We’re all students of music.”
Ozomatli’s origins reflect the band’s deep roots in their chosen community. Abners was working in LA with an organization for at risk youth. When the city shut it down, he helped organize a sit in to protest the closing. “We lost the building, but opened a community center – The Peace and Justice Center – and started a jam band to raise money to support the programs we’d established. We played there for six months every Saturday night.” The buzz Ozomatli built with those gigs led to two months at The Viper Room, then a yearlong Thursday night residency at The Dragon Fly. Critical raves and strong word of mouth reaction led to a deal with Interscope, who released Ozomatli in 1998. Embrace The Chaos, the band’s second (and last) major label effort, was released on September 11, 2001. “At that time it wasn’t very popular to be critical of anything the US was doing, but we didn’t have that someone-has-to-pay-for-this attitude. We wanted to provide a way of mourning what had happened, an alternative to the lets-go-kill-em-all reaction. We also played the first post 9/11 anti war concert for Not In Our Name in LA.”
In 2004 Ozomatli signed with Concord Records an eclectic label supportive of their indefinable style. Street Signs (1004, Concord) featured the classical string section of the City of Prague Orchestra standing in for an Egyptian string orchestra as well as Eddie Palmieri. They followed that with Live at The Fillmore (2005, Concord) a CD/DVD a set that captures the energy of the band’s celebrated live show. In 2007 they dropped Don’t Mess With the Dragon (Concord) a collection with shorter, pop oriented tunes, although the arrangements still included elements of Latin, hip hip, rock, reggaeton, funk, soul, Motown, Gospel, merengue, ska, 80s dance rhythms and Arab music.
(FYI, Ozomatli is the Aztec God associated with dance and laughter.)