Ozomatli: Music for the Revolution

Ozo on Stage

You're at your first Ozomatli show, and you don't know what to expect. The place gets darker, and a spotlight splashes onto the stage. It rests there for about five minutes, and still no band. The first tinge of impatience bites at your psyche. Finally, you hear a trumpet call, followed by the big sound of the bass drum. Your eyes scan the stage. You hope to catch a glimpse of where the music is coming from. Then you realize it's coming from the audience. You turn around to see eight guys coming toward you, armed with cowbells, drums, horns, and a whistle. Suddenly, your whole body is smiling, and you join the line of fans following the band as it snakes its way onto the stage.
Putting on a great show is why Ozomatli is famous, but conscious lyrics are what make them important. A band born out of political protest, they continue to represent the underrepresented with powerful words and a "latinoangeles" sound.
Ozomatli's music is whatever you want it to be. For some, it's guerilla music, joyfully battling the hand of oppression. For others, it is a fierce samba line, and one of the greatest musical collaborations to come along in years.
Ozomatli's music is like mom's old salsa albums mixed with today's conscious hip-hop. "Funk-salsa-hip-hop" is one common phrase used to describe it, but many tend to agree that it transcends traditional genres.
Wil-Dog Abers, founder of the group, wouldn't have it any other way. "It's not like we're doing anything that hasn't ever been done." says the modest bass player. "Who we are and how we mix it is what's new."
Putting on a great show is why Ozomatli is famous, but conscious lyrics are what make them important.

Ozomatli embraces the chaos of the machine without raging against it. Instead, they rally the people through subtle statements straight from the heart. And they offer a politically-charged live show that doesn't include moshing or hostility. Their lyrics are food for the conscience, wake-up calls for the children of these tumultuous times.
When they played at the Fillmore in San Francisco in November, Wil-Dog dedicated song after song to Afghan refugees. "Ozomatli believes all lives are sacred," he softly told the audience, "not just those in this country."
All the members of Ozomatli are extremely talented. Most play two or three instruments. Wil-Dog, who used to play in Macy Gray's band, plays electric bass, upright bass, and guitar. Raul Pacheco plays electric, classical, tres and Iarana guitar. Ulises Bella is the band's most multi-talented addition, on tenor and baritone sax, piano, requinto harucho, guitar, bass, and (whew!) clarinet. Other members include Asdru Sierra, the lead vocalist who plays trumpet and writes songs; Jiro Yamaguchi percussionist; Justin Poree, percussionist and moonlighting M.C.; and Andy Mendoza on the drums. Rapper Chali 2na and D.J. Cut Chemist of the Jurassic 5 also play with the band.
Their newest album, "Embrace the Chaos" features M.C.'s Common, Medusa, and De La Soul. Steve Berlin of Chicano band Los Lobos, produced four tracks on the album, which were all recorded live and executed in one week, a feat the band is proud of.

Guerilleros de la Musica

Six years ago, Wil-Dog and his co-workers went on strike to get a former L.A. Emergency Response Unit headquarters turned into a community center. Then an employee with the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, he and his co-workers protested poor working conditions and the firing of a community leader. They staged a sit-in on March 12, 1995, and friends were called in to form a protest band. The protest was successful, and from it Ozomatli emerged. The building is now The Peace and Justice Center.pills
The band, named after the Aztec god of dance, began playing for free in fundraisers for everything from the Zapatistas to the Battered Women's Society. They continue to see their music as part of a larger movement for social justice. Their official website is filled with links to progressive organizations like Refuse and Resist!, Friends of Mumia Abu Jamal, Women in Prison and United Farm Workers.
Ozomatli was thrown into the limelight on Aug 8, 2000, when the band played an impromptu concert in protest of the Democratic Convention. The band is part of the Artist's Network, the organization that held the protest in front of the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. Over 10,000 people attended the concert, which also included Rage Against The Machine and Al Borde.
Band member Raul Pacheco says he couldn't believe how controlled the protest was. "We had to make a record of every piece of equipment we had. Getting into the area was crazy, I've never seen so many police."
"They said we had until 9:00, but at 8:00 they shut it down," he continued. "For the families with kids, all the barricades made it hard to get out fast, and the riot police starting shooting into the crowd. It's ironic that when Clinton was giving his speech about the successes of the Democratic Party, the police were chasing us all around downtown L.A."
The title song on "Embrace the Chaos" opens up with soundbites from the turbulent end of the Convention protest. The song, in which Rapper Common Sense collaborates with the band, is also the most introspective and timely track on the album. A soldier in the conscious hip-hop movement, Common is notorious for telling it like it is, and this song is no exception; "I say revolution, but ego come/ Yes he came/ In a way/ That may seem strange/ Only through chaos will we ever see change."
The group feels it is essential that activists and organizers work together right now, whether they are focusing on race issues, workers rights, women's rights, or just basic human rights. They continue to be the voice for the barrio, but more importantly, a voice for the revolution.

When asked if the band is worried about the possible limitations on freedom of speech due to the state of the nation and the recent anti-terrorism bill, Wil-Dog says that he does find it frightening, but stresses that the band has an obligation to represent their audience.
"If you have knowledge of something and you feel that it's right," he adds, "you have a responsibility to tell others about it.
"There's one thing we in Ozomatli all agree on, and it's that the killing of innocent lives is wrong, and that is why we are encouraging people to attend anti-war demonstrations."
Jiro Yamaguchi, percussionist for the band, says what worries him is that legislation like the anti-terrorism bill moves through the system so easily. He is concerned that young people are not all aware of how they will be impacted by the shifts in privacy rules. "Unless you're really reading the paper, you probably won't know that these things are happening," says Jiro, "and people are left with little or no recourse."
The group feels it is essential that activists and organizers work together right now, whether they are focusing on race issues, workers rights, women's rights, or just basic human rights. They continue to be the voice for the barrio, but more importantly, a voice for the revolution.
So does Ozomatli think the revolution is here? "It is if you lead it," says Ulises.
"There are a lot of different causes out there," says Raul, an articulate speaker even with a mouthful of chips, "and in order to move forward we all need to find points of connection." The important thing, Ozomatli seems to stress is that social justice work doesn't have to be all work and no play. Through their music, like their name implies, they want people to not only stand up and start their own revolutions, but to dance while they're doing it.

Julie Acosta is student at San Francisco State and a contributor to WireTap.

Check out these other stories from the Wiretap Archives:
The Hip-Hop Generation Can Call for Peace by Jeff Chang, WireTap.

Screaming Our Thoughts: Latinos and Punk Rock by Jose Palafox, Colorlines.

Capoeira and Break-Dancing: At the Roots of Resistance by Julie Delgado, WireTap.

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