July 21, 2005
When Ozomatli played in Aspen last winter, it was at a come-one, come-all free dance party in Wagner Park, a centerpiece of the youth-oriented X Games celebration. The crowd of mostly teens and 20-somethings seemed an ideal fit for Ozomatli, and not just because of the rap-funk sounds played by the 10-piece Los Angeles band.Since its founding in 1996, Ozomatli has taken a politically involved, progressive, even revolutionary stance. That message played well at the X Games, which takes pains to present itself as aligned with the counter-culture.It’s a different sort of gig this time through town. Ozomatli is the featured act at JASummerNight Swing event, Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ big summer benefit. The event, set for Saturday, July 23, at Aspen Highlands, boasts a gourmet dinner, a silent auction billed as “extravagant,” open bars and more. The ticket price of $125 virtually assures that Ozomatli will be playing to an audience several steps removed from the X Games mob.But playing its politically charged urban music for a well-heeled crowd doesn’t present any philosophical problems, according to Jiro Yamaguchi, a founding percussionist of Ozomatli. For one thing, the Aspen gig furthers a cause close to their hearts; JASummerNight Swing raises funds for Jazz Aspen’s various music education programs. For another, the band decided early on that it would make compromises on the sociopolitical front in order to be a viable musical venture. So engaging in such compliant actions as signing with mainstream record labels, and even taking corporate gigs would be necessary.
“The day we signed a record deal, if you want to look at it from a punk philosophy, we sold out,” said Yamaguchi. “We do it all. We do everything from backyards to stadiums and these corporate gigs. [The band has also made a previous Jazz Aspen appearance, at the 2001 Labor Day Festival.] Our livelihood is off our live shows. This is our job. We’ve got to get 10 guys from point A to point B. We’ll play for anybody. So in terms of selling out – we already did it.”Actually, Ozomatli won’t play for just any paycheck. Yamaguchi says they have turned down a cigarette commercial and a movie that “depicted native people in a certain light.”Ozomatli was born out of conflict. In 1995, Will-Dog Abers and Anton Morales were two socially conscious sorts, working at the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, a city-sponsored organization that did good deeds like giving kids jobs and painting over graffiti. Abers and Morales, both musicians, also taught earthquake preparedness courses in high schools, using theater and music techniques. But the politicians who controlled the Corps weren’t quite progressive enough, and the two organized a strike to earn better wages and benefits for the employees. After a sit-in where they took over the Corps’ downtown L.A. building, Abers and Morales struck a settlement, which included being given space in the building to establish a community center of their own.The two founded the Peace and Justice Center. And to raise funds for the center’s programs, they called on their musician friends to play fund-raising concerts of their own. Morales gave the band that ultimately formed the name Ozomatli, the Aztec word for monkey, and a symbol for dance and passion. The band’s early concert schedule was virtually all benefits for left-leaning causes.From the outset, Ozomatli showed plenty of passion, had plenty of plenty of people dancing – and also demonstrated a knack for provocation. In 2000, Ozomatli played a protest rally across the street from the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. One and a half songs into their set, the police cut the band’s power, even though they had obtained a permit. The scene ended with the police shooting the crowd with rubber bullets – as Bill Clinton, across the street, talked about the greatness of America.
Such confrontations didn’t cause Ozomatli to shy away from its ideals. Their first album after that incident – released on Sept. 11, 2001 – was titled “Embrace the Chaos.” The album featured songs like “Guerrillero,” whose Spanish lyrics translate to “I’m a guerilla/Always fighting against something,” and “Do Cosas Ciertas”: “There are only two things certain: death and change.” Last March, the band was hassled by the police again, this time in Austin, Tex., during a samba parade. Yamaguchi and Abers were arrested for violating Austin’s noise laws – ironically, it was during South By Southwest, the country’s premiere rock music showcase. And still they embrace the chaos: on their most recent CD, 2003’s “Street Signs,” an interlude between songs claims “It is time for a revolution”; elsewhere, Ozomatli asks the loaded musical question, “(Who Discovered) America?”Apart from being a piece of the music business mainstream, Ozomatli has been restrained from being too political by the somewhat divergent opinions of its 10 members.”Not everybody has the same views,” said Yamaguchi. “There are different backgrounds. In terms of making decisions, whether we’re going to do something or not, social activism, it’s a matter of if everybody wants to do it, if everybody is comfortable with it.”On certain matters, as in denouncing America’s recent wars, there has been unanimous agreement. “Things like the war in Iraq and Afghanistan – that was something we were all agreed on, that we were opposed to it,” said Yamaguchi. “That’s a stance we can take.”
Another hallmark of Ozomatli, of equal prominence with their anti-authoritarian lyrics, is their inclusiveness. From the outset, they have made much of their multi-culturalism: Yamaguchi, a New York native who has lived in Los Angeles since 1989, is of Japanese descent, and spent much of his childhood in Japan. While the predominant influence, both culturally and musically, is Hispanic, the membership has included African-Americans rappers and DJs. An article in last month’s Jewish Journal focused on bassist Abers’ Jewishness, as well as his leftist upbringing. (His father was a founder of the U.S.’s Revolutionary Communist party.) The band’s songs are split roughly in half between English and Spanish; the sound combines Tex-Mex rock, urban funk and rap, Cuban son and New York salsa.”From the beginning, at the Peace and Justice Center, that’s where the roots, the outlook and philosophy formed. And it was about inclusion,” said Yamaguchi. “There was a diverse group of people who brought different musical things to the table. It was about, how can we make this work?””Street Signs,” which earned the Grammy Award for best Latin rock album, was a fine example of Ozomatli’s tendencies. Their first post-9/11 album. “Street Signs” incorporated Arabic and north African influences. Guests ranged from the Paris-based Jewish Gypsy string combo Les Yeux Noir to Moroccan-born singer Hassan Hakmoun; the album included samples of “Egyptian Rhythm” and of Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh-Ali Khan.”We had been experimenting with those sounds on the last record,” said Yamaguchi, “but those songs didn’t make the cut. With the world events, it was important to fit them in there.”It’s kind of like food. All cultures have good food. And that’s a key to getting into another point of view. Music is parallel to that. Everybody plays one form of music or another, and it’s a celebration. It’s a positive way to see people.”
Not everybody has celebrated Ozomatli’s music and politics. Yamaguchi said they do get the occasional negative response. But despite appearances at massive festivals like Bonnaroo, and a fairly high-profile string of dates with Los Lonely Boys, the band is just under the radar level where their songs and words would earn wide attention.”We’re not big enough; we’re not in the right avenues,” said Yamaguchi. “The Dixie Chicks say one thing and everyone hears about it. We’re making statements all the time, denouncing Bush, whatever, disagreeing with policies. And the people we deal with, they’re not completely opposed. Our audience is not the Dixie Chicks’ audience. Middle America is our biggest challenge.”Less of a challenge has been getting listeners to hear Ozomatli’s spirit of warmth and invitation. Their activism is important, but they decided to be musicians first and revolutionaries second. Ozomatli is about conquering audiences, not dividing them.”The best shows are when people bond and have a good time,” said Yamaguchi, sounding not much like an instigator. “That’s the recipe for a good show.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org