Ozomatli singer and guitarist Raul Pacheco describes his band's music like this: "It's just like driving through the streets of the city with your windows rolled down. One neighborhood has hip-hop playing, and you keep driving and another has cumbias playing. It kind of goes on like that for us."
The twelve tracks on Ozomatli's self-titled debut from last year do recall an extended drive through the urban landscape: A Latin salsa groove (with Spanish intonations) slides up and down this block, a frenetic rap (with English verses) powers the lights of that one. A product of Los Angeles's mean streets, brought together in post-riot brotherhood with peacekeeping in mind, the ten-member Ozomatli is a multiracial and multicultural neighborhood in itself. Various members sport African, Cuban, European, Mexican, and Japanese heritage; the music dips into Indian tablas, turntable spins, American funk, and traditional Mexican folk music.
"People have described our music in so many different ways," Pacheco says. "It's urban music, with all the different cultures represented in there. We're just a part of that. There are a lot of black influences and Latino influences. But I've never been one to have a phrase for it."
The crew--hold on, here we go: Pacheco, singer Chali 2na, turntablist Cut Chemist, bassist Wil-Dog, drummer William Marrufo, saxophonists Jose Espinosa and Ulises Bella, trumpeter Asdru Sierra, and percussionists Jiro Yamaguchi and Justin "Neno" Poree--originally formed in the heart of a labor dispute. Wil-Dog, who was protesting poor worker conditions and the firing of a visionary community leader, put out a musicians' call in East L.A. Fifteen people showed up, including Pacheco, who had recently abandoned a political consulting career. "We had nothing to play, so we made some grooves up and we played," he says. "We've kept going ever since then."
Ozomatli--it's an Aztec name for the god of dance-- pared down the group and sharpened its melodic and lyric perceptions. The music strings together a series of butt-shaking beats and backs them all up with a barrio of brains. "The politics and the celebration of life is something that's just us," Pacheco says. "We don't try to be political. We're really not a dogmatic group in that way, but it's something that's definitely a part of us. So, we put into our music and into our message. I'm glad we've never really thought that much about it. It just kind of happened."
Ozomatli, the album, is also the most genuine blast of Latin music you'll hear in this la-vida-loca-livin' era of Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez. This isn't a sexy bunch, but the huge-sounding songs that span the record are a sizzling salsa of dance music filtered through cultural screens of funk, jazz, reggae, cumbia, ska, merengue, hip-hop, etc. "Each and every one of us has different influences and tastes that we really like, everything from Afro-Cuban to Jimi Hendrix to Parliament to John Coltrane," Pacheco notes. "It can and does go on and on. We all have our roles that we play."
Ozomatli recently completed a European tour and will be spending a good part of its summer opening for Santana. It was Carlos Santana, in fact, who gave the band its big break a couple years ago by pegging the band as the openers for a show at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, California (in front of 11,000 people, no less).
Pacheco says that Santana showed some interest in having Ozomatli on the bill, but first he had to "run us by his teenage kid. Apparently, his kid is always like, 'Aw, I don't really like this band. I've got to hear something that resonates with young people.' So, the kid checked us out and was like, 'You've got to get that band.'"
Ozomatli ended up sharing a stage with Santana--before they were signed to a major label, but after the indie EP Ya Llego!--and fulfilling a lifelong dream of most of its members. "As a kid growing up of Mexican descent in East L.A., Carlos Santana was part of the landscape," Pacheco points out. "He's part of the color and our culture. He's very world-oriented, but growing up as a Chicano in working-class East L.A., it's very important to have someone like him."
The debut album's rock-centered numbers touch on the Santana legacy. Most of the time, though, it's a more contemporary spin on traditional Mexican folk music that keeps Ozomatli rooted (Pacheco even plays the bajo sexto, a guitar-like instrument, on the record) and keeps it separated from that other East L.A. band of heroes, Los Lobos. And with politically charged tracks tracing police brutality ("Be careful, here come the cops" goes the Spanish-sung chorus of one tune) as well as racial inequality, in the City of Angels it calls home, Ozomatli may be the most vital Latin outfit making music today. It certainly throws the best party.
"The whole album is reflective of us as people," Pacheco says. "Some of us are involved heavily politically, some of us are not. But there is a general concern we all have for politics. And for us it's also about a celebration of life. That's how we mix it in. We feel that celebrating and dancing and feeling each other is something that people don't do enough. For us it's a real important thing to put across to people. Once that happens, it's important to realize what's actually going on.
"There are all these different kinds of people at our shows in L.A.: There are black people, there are white people, there are rich actors' kids, there are ghetto hip-hop kids, there are Chicano kids, and everything in between. And that's what we always wanted. It's a reflection of who we are."
Because the Latin rhythms and hip-hop breaks fuse so seamlessly, the band's political polemics are easier to swallow. Rage Against the Machine-type rants against the man are subtle for these SoCal homeboys; the music is for the masses, inviting the people to dance. The opening "Como Ves" is a percussion-driven burst of chanting, horn exploding, and life celebrating that--even with no knowledge of the Spanish language--is an ass-moving, smile-inducing fiesta. Even when it wants you to think--"Cumbia de Los Muertes," a dirge to fallen gang victims, for example--Ozomatli can't help but to make you shake your groove thing.
"I think we've had some success because it does sound natural," Pacheco theorizes. "We're not trying to be something that we're not."
Ozomatli recently completed a piano-driven song ("kind of a Rachmaninoff piece," Pacheco explains) during a studio date and is optimistically aiming for a spring 2000 release for its follow-up disc. Some Mardi Gras-type, New Orleans march music is one new direction in which Ozomatli may head. But the rebirth and regrowth of L.A.'s streets is one leftover slice of musical ac-tivism from the debut that the collective will never relinquish. The mad love for its people. It's a part of its being and reason. Its center and surroundings. Its essence. It's Ozo's soul.
"I don't know where we're going with our music," Pacheco muses. "I just know that when we think about it, we're like, You know, let's not think about it. Let's just go wherever we want to go. We are critical of our music. We want it to be good and we want it to flow, and I think as long as we do that, we'll have more fun and it will be more interesting. We don't want barriers. That's kind of our message: Don't worry about the rules."
Ozomatli, opening for Santana. 7:30 p.m., Sunday, June 13, Blossom Music Center, Steels Corners Road, Cuyahoga Falls, $20.25/$31.25, Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.