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Up Against the Wall: Ozomatli is unafraid to challenge the powers that be.

Beats for Peace

Is Ozomatli the most dangerous band in America or just a bunch of beat-crazy dreamers?

By Jeff Chang

WHEN Ozomatli led its audience out into the streets of Austin, Texas, this past March during that city's South by Southwest Music Festival, it had no idea what it was in for. The band usually closes its deliriously dance-inducing sets by starting a samba-style parade line. Austin cops didn't like the idea and attempted to stop the band in its tracks. The incident was reminiscent of another from the 2000 election season in Los Angeles at the Democratic Convention, when police ended Ozomatli's outdoor show with Rage Against the Machine by firing teargas and beating dozens of fans.

After confusion and chaos, two of the members—bandleader Wil-Dog Abers, percussionist Jiro Yamaguchi and manager Amy Blackman-Romero were arrested and jailed. They discovered that they had violated Austin's noise ordinance, an archaic law entirely at odds with the spirit of the city's famed annual music festival. While attempting to find out why they were being stopped, Abers and Blackman-Romero were charged with interfering with an arrest and failure to comply. Yamaguchi had tried to lift his big drum above the fray and accidentally hit a cop with it. He now faced up to 10 years in prison for allegedly assaulting an officer.

In early July, the Ozo 3 pleaded no contest to reduced charges that will be expunged from their records if they commit no further offenses in Austin during the next six months. The band issued a statement that read: "This was a harrowing experience and a frightening thing to have hanging over our heads. We are also still shocked and outraged that it ever escalated to the point that it did, and that we were jailed and criminalized in the first place. We are musicians, and we were just playing music when this whole thing spiraled out of control."

The irony of the Austin incident is that the L.A.-based Ozomatli has never been afraid to confront the powers that be. The band got started after Abers, fellow Ozomatli founder Anton Morales (who is no longer with the group) and fellow Conservation Corps youths tried to organize a labor union and were squelched. Although Abers, Morales and the organizers were fired, they reached a compromise through which they were given a downtown space to set up a community center. Through the weekly jam parties to raise funds for what they came to call the Peace and Justice Center, the band came together.

In the mid-'90s swirl of Los Angeles musical movements, particularly hip-hop and rock en español, the center jams attracted wildly divergent players. Abers, a huge fan of the Clash, was playing bass for then-unsigned Macy Gray. Lead singer Asdrubal Sierra and percussionist Justin "Nino" Poree came from salsa and Afro-Cuban roots. Turntablist Cut Chemist and rapper Chali 2Na were part of L.A.'s True School vanguard. Yamaguchi was studying tabla and world percussion at CalArts. He says, "When we got together it was like, 'We got turntables, and we got tablas—fuck it, let's figure something we can do.'"

Almost a decade later, that community center band regularly sees its albums go Top 5 on Billboard's Latin charts. In 2001, the band scored a Grammy for Best Latin Rock/Alternative Album for its sophomore effort, Embrace the Chaos. Ozomatli has been embraced by its own musical heroes—artists like Carlos Santana, Los Lobos and Eddie Palmieri.

It's easy to hear what those Latin giants like about Ozomatli. In the tradition of Latin artists from Willie Colon to Selena, the band's impulse has been to connect the dots between divergent genres in often surprising ways, while always grounding the music in a groove that moves.

Just months after beginning to jam, the band was playing underground hip-hop ("Cut Chemist Suite"), Central American revolutionary-influenced ballads ("Aqui No Sera") and straight-up weee-hah backyard norteño ("La Misma Cancion"). "At least one of us would know the style, and through that, we would kind of teach each other," says Abers. "There was no rule, other than the people that knew the music would make a judgment call. If people got excited about it, that was the most important thing."

A 1996 trip to Cuba sealed Ozomatli's musical direction, or more precisely, directions. Fascinated by how Afro-Cuban music seemed to absorb everything yet retain its essence all at once, the band members gained a confidence about their whirlpool approach. Yamaguchi summarizes Ozomatli's approach by way of analogy: "The rhythms of music from around the world are actually very similar. I guess some of the instrumentation is different, but a lot of rhythms that are used are not that different as people might expect. It's not hard to get that feel."

On Street Signs, their fifth and best release yet, the band rises to astonishing new heights of musicality and groove, expanding its sonic depth with the strings of the Prague Orchestra and the dancehall riddimics of Blaxx and Vendetta. In a beautiful two-song suite, Eddie Palmieri joins the band for "Dona Isabelle" and "Nadie Te Tire." Chali 2na returns for a star turn on "Who's to Blame?"

In its most compelling turn, Ozomatli incorporates Arab sounds, including the Moroccan sintir of master player Hassan Hakmoun. Yamaguchi says, "Because of the political events that have happened in the world and who we are as a band and what we're trying to say, doing that was a great way to step into another culture and understand it through music."

Lyrically, the band extends the themes of its recent Coming Up EP, whose standout cut is called "Let Me Dream." It is moving from explicit life-during-wartime protest deeper into personal visions of peace. On "Cuando Mi Canto," Ozomatli admits that all its wants to do is to inspire people with its music. "This album is definitely about looking to the future and what is possible and talking about it amongst all of us and trying to create that better world within our own little Ozomatli world," says Abers.

Cops in Boston and New York City can rest easy this year. With a world tour awaiting it, Ozomatli won't have time to join this year's protest season. Instead, the band hopes to make more connections. "When we were in Istanbul, we couldn't speak the language, and a lot of the musicians we met couldn't speak English, yet there was communication going on. I think that was because of music," Yamaguchi says. "It's a cliché but it's true. Music is just a basic human expression."

Ozomatli plays Saturday (Aug. 7) at the Redwood Amphitheater at Paramount's Great America in Santa Clara. Plastilina Mosh and Kinky also perform. Tickets are $18.50-$43.50 (Ticketmaster).

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From the August 4-10, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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